The Difference Between Direct and Representative Democracy

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch”
  – Ben Franklin

“Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
  – John Adams

Earlier, I had written about the flaws inherent to democracy and why we need to overhaul our political system. Provocatively, I had quoted the founding fathers themselves, expressing their vehement opposition to democracy. Most were puzzled by this, but a few astute readers pointed out their reasoning. The founding fathers never meant for America to be a democracy. Or more accurately, they never intended for America to be a direct democracy. They never intended for the general population to be actively involved in public policy & governance. America was intended to be a constitutional republic, a representative democracy. One where its citizens’ main role was to help elect capable & wise representatives, who can then govern & craft public policy based on their own best judgements. One where governance belonged to the realm of distinguished statesmen, and not the common man.

And therein lies the problem. A truly representative democracy will significantly improve all the problems we had discussed in my earlier post. It also aligns nicely with what we know about human nature & abilities. We may not be very knowledgeable at evaluating economic policies & healthcare systems, but we can point to someone else whom we trust to answer these questions wisely. We may not be very good at judging someone who is 5 degrees removed from us. But we are remarkably good at judging people whom we know personally. A representative democracy where people place their trust in representatives or delegates whom they know personally, would be a much more robust system than a direct democracy.

One could make the argument that this is how our political system today still functions, but we know that that isn’t really true. Our political system might be a representative democracy in form, but it’s really a direct democracy in practice. The people whom we’re supposed to elect are so far removed from us, that we have no way of judging their capabilities and character. We have no way of placing our trust in complete strangers.

The resulting vacuum is instead filled with ideology. We each subscribe to particular ideologies, form opinions on what the best public policy should be, and cast our votes for a representative who promises to carry out our preferred ideology. A few of us may possess the knowledge & wisdom to make such decisions effectively, but in truth, most of us don’t. Our electoral system of crafting public policy is more analogous to designing a BMW by popular vote. Instead of a representative democracy, we’re actually living in a direct democracy with elected representatives who are glorified puppets.

It’s time we returned to our roots, and built a political system that is actually representative in nature. One where the common man can cast his vote for delegates whom he knows personally & trusts. One where publicly supported delegates are then involved in matters of public policy & governance, and can themselves defer to the knowledge & wisdom of others whom they trust. One where public policy is crafted by those who are willing to invest their time & effort into studying it carefully.

As we look around the world today, the founding fathers’ suspicions have been proven right. Direct democracies in the developing world have barely fared better than the monarchies & oligarchies of centuries past. It’s time we rethink our notions of democracy, and moved towards a more representative version of it.

Related Links:
The flaws inherent to direct democracy

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