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Features, limits and criticism of the representative democracy



In a representative system, voting is a mode of designation and not a transfer of responsibility. Elected officials derive their legitimacy from the delegation of sovereignty to their electors since the latter then no longer have any means of controlling the subsequent action of their representatives. The true alienated sovereignty therefore falls to the elected representatives (mainly parliamentarians) who take charge of the debate and decision-making without referring to their constituents, from whom they are totally independent apart from the fact of electing.

Voting is therefore not a right, but a function. It is not a manifestation of individual will, but a function retained in the name of the nation.

Historically, the first representatives were elected by property-based suffrage. An individual could only be elected on the basis of the tax he paid, and therefore of his financial capacity. Universal suffrage subsequently developed.

Representative mandate

Moreover, on a representative mandate, that is to say that the deputy, once elected, is independent of his electors, he is irrevocable, and is not bound to follow their will. Nevertheless, the duration of the mandate being always limited, the elected representative may think that he must act globally in the direction of the interests of his electors, in the hope of being re-elected.

John Dewey: the dominance of “concern for the public welfare”

In The Public and its Problems (1927), John Dewey estimates that

“Those who get involved in government are still human beings. They retain their share of ordinary traits of human nature. They still have private interests to serve, and interests which of special groups, those of the family, clique or class to which they belong. Rarely can a person sink himself in his political function; the best which most men attain to is domination by the public weal of their other desires. What is meant by “representative” government is that the public is definitely organized with the intent to secure this dominance. The dual capacity of every officer of the public leads to conflict in individuals between their genuinely political aims and acts and those which they possess in their non-political roles. When the public adopts special measures to see to it that the conflict is minimized and that the representatives function overrides the private one, political institutions are termed representatives.”



One of the challenges of representative democracy is whether elected officials effectively “represent” their voters not only in the political sense but also in the sociological sense (as we speak of the statistical representativeness of a sample in a poll), namely in their diversity, whether in terms of income, social class or level of education.

Election mode

In representative democracy, the voting method has a significant influence on the final choice of elected officials.

The method most commonly used for the old chamber is constituency voting, with majority voting. Montesquieu defended it thus in his work On the Spirit of Laws:

“One knows the needs of one’s city much better than those of other cities; and one judges better of the capacity of one’s neighbors than of that of one’s other compatriots. The members of the legislative body, therefore, must not be generally drawn from the body of the nation; but it is appropriate that, in each principal place, the inhabitants choose a representative.”

This system poses problems of representativeness due to the demographic weight of the constituencies and the possibilities of manipulating the electoral boundaries. Majority voting also tends to polarize the political landscape and crush minority opinions. Nevertheless, it establishes clear majorities which will not have the excuse at the end of their term of having been forced to compose.

One may be tempted to respond to these difficulties by modifying the electoral system by using, for example, a list system such as the full multi-member proportional system that is found in the general elections of countries such as Spain or Israel during the inclusion of the entire country forms a single electoral constituency. This raises other problems, such as the weight of the parties, who is responsible for the constitution of the lists, the stability of the governments and the need to form coalitions. Proportional list examinations have the disadvantage of eliminating the direct link between voter and elected official and therefore blurring the feeling of being effectively represented, since according to the calculation methods, it is not always possible to know which precise candidate his ballot got him elected.

The philosopher and politician Alain (Émile-Auguste Chartier) shows himself, in his Propos sur les capacities, to be very critical of the proportional system in the face of the system by constituency (which he calls “district ballot”), because he explains that with the second the elected owes everything to his electors and little to his party, whereas with the former he owes everything instead in the list given to him by his party and will therefore be tempted to follow the latter rather than the elector. The single transferable vote avoids this drawback, but at the cost of a very costly count.

Conflicts of interest

The interests of elected representatives do not necessarily coincide with those of their constituents. For example, it is often the representatives themselves who determine their own salaries, or their special pension schemes.

The concentration of political power in the hands of a minority tends to foster corruption. The representative, finding himself alone in his term of office, is often torn between his individual interest and the collective interest of the electorate. It can also be influenced by lobbies.


The change from one ruling party to another, or to a lesser extent from one representative to another, can cause a substantial governmental breakdown and a change in laws and therefore in the daily life of citizens.

Political parties

Political parties can be considered a “necessary evil” of representative democracy, as it is often impossible for a candidate to win elections without running on behalf of a political party. The consequence of this is that, subsequently, a political representative risks having to act against his convictions in order to be in conformity with the guideline of his own party. Occasionally, this will be a minor compromise. But it can happen that a major change of direction is demanded of a representative by his party, so that he has no other alternative than to resign from his position or to leave the party.

Conversely, the representative mandate allows “political nomadism”: after the elections, an elected representative can resign from his party, or even join the opposing camp, without his mandate being called into question.

Political parties therefore have a unique position: candidates must represent the opinions of the party that nominates them to the voters.

Operation costs

A lot of resources are spent on elections. In addition, the need to raise campaign contributions is likely to damage the neutrality of representatives: they may feel indebted to the main contributors and want to reward them by facilitating certain procedures, for example obtaining public procurement.


Ecological thinkers have been led to question the inadequacy of representative democracy to ecological issues, because of its incessant elections, its short-termism, and its narrowing to narrowly national objectives. Dominique Bourg and Kerry Whiteside, in Towards an Ecological Transition (2010), propose reforming the current democratic system by supplementing representative democracy with institutions where experts and NGOs play the leading role, not elected officials.


Étienne de La Boétie (1530-1563), in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, describes elected officials as tyrants. According to him, they surpass in vices and cruelties the other two types of tyrants, namely those who obtain power hereditarily and those who obtain it by force of arms. He adds that tyrants are elected because of their prestige, their greatness or any other quality that has allowed them to seduce the people.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), in The Social Contract, drew up in the chapter “Deputies” a strong criticism of the parliamentary system, then in force in Great Britain. He considers that by giving themselves representatives, that is to say by delegating their legislative power for the duration of a mandate, the people abdicate their sovereignty and renounce their freedom. For if it is possible that the people will want what those who represent them want at the moment when they delegate their power to them, nothing assures them that they will want it all the time of the mandate: “The sovereign may well say “I actually want what such a man wants, or at least what he says he wants”; but he cannot say, “What this man wants tomorrow, I will want again.” “. For Rousseau, the people, instead of paying people to make the laws, should therefore agree to pay if necessary to make them themselves.

Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), Franco-Swiss politician, of liberal conviction and favorable to the representative regime, however saw its limits:

“Among the moderns, on the contrary, the individual, independent in private life, is, even in the freest States, sovereign only in appearance. Its sovereignty is restricted, almost always suspended; and if at fixed but rare periods, during which he is still surrounded by precautions and obstacles, he exercises this sovereignty, it is only ever to abdicate it.” (De la liberté des Anciens comparée à celle des Modernes, speech delivered in 1819, in De la liberté chez les Modernes, p. 494-496.)

“The danger of modern freedom is that, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we too easily renounce our right to share in political power. Those in authority do not fail to urge us to do so. They are so willing to spare us all pains except to obey and pay! […] No, gentlemen, let’s not let it happen. However touching such a tender interest may be, let us beg the authority to remain within its limits.” (op. cit., p. 512-513.)

Dominique Bourg and Kerry Whiteside believe that representative democracy is powerless in the face of the scale of environmental challenges. According to them, the principles on which it is based are intrinsically incompatible with the survival of the planet. They propose an institutional overhaul by injecting a good dose of participatory and deliberative democracy. The inertia of governments in the face of the ecological emergency is attributable to our collective decision-making system. “Protecting the biosphere therefore requires rethinking democracy itself”.

The Ivorian sociologist Alfred Babo questions the advisability of organizing presidential elections in Africa, given their high cost, the violence they generate, and their weak democratic impact. However, he does not call into question either democracy or its representative character, but he proposes to organize the appointment of the President of the Republic differently.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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