(House of Commons of the United Kingdom)
Representative democracy ( indirect democracy, representative republic, representative government or psephocracy), is a political system in which a restricted assembly is recognized as having the right to represent a people, a nation or a community. The will of citizens is expressed through representatives who embody the general will, vote the law and, in a parliamentary system, control the government.
In contemporary democratic regimes, representatives are elected. In such a system, it is the latter, through the voting of voters, that holds power and represents the people or the nation as a whole.
End of absolutism
Representative democracy (also called representative government) is presented as an alternative to despotism by the Enlightenment philosophers.
Opposition to direct democracy
According to political scientist Bernard Manin, “contemporary democracies come from a form of government that its founders opposed to democracy”. He illustrates his point by the considerations of James Madison during the American Revolution and Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès during the French Revolution, which “thus underlined in very similar terms the contrast between representative or republican government and democracy. This proximity is all the more striking because there were multiple and profound differences between the principal architect of the United States Constitution and the author of What is the Third Estate?: their training, the political context in which they spoke and acted, their constitutional conceptions themselves”.
Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, at the time of the first French constitution of which he was co-editor, expresses it clearly:
“France must not be a democracy, but a representative regime. The choice between these two methods of making the law is not doubtful among us. In the first place, the very great plurality of our fellow-citizens has neither sufficient education nor enough leisure to want to deal directly with the laws which must govern France; they must therefore confine themselves to calling themselves representatives. […] The citizens who call themselves representatives renounce and must renounce to make themselves the law; they have no particular will to impose. If they dictated wishes, France would no longer be this representative State; it would be a democratic state. The people, I repeat, in a country that is not a democracy (and France can not be), the people can not speak, can only act through its representatives.”
For some authors, it would be more suited to modern men than, for example, the Athenian democracy. Thus for Benjamin Constant the representative system (we did not yet say “representative democracy”) allows the greatest number to be released from the daily management of public affairs:
“Poor people do their own thing: rich men take stewards. This is the story of ancient nations and modern nations. The representative system is a power given to a certain number of men by the masses of the people, who want their interests to be defended, and who, nevertheless, do not have the time to defend them themselves. “
It is much more widespread than direct democracy: about half of the world’s inhabitants live under a regime of representative democracy.
In a representative democracy, it is the body of elected representatives as a whole that exercises sovereignty. The elected representatives therefore have legitimacy only within the assembly they constitute. This characteristic explains the importance of the debate within the assembly, of the discussion supposed to give rise to the best solution. It justifies the place of the opposition.
It also implies that each elected representative represents all the citizens: the Nation and not only its electors.
The Nation and the Citizen
Although it is no longer systematically linked to the notion of community of culture, the representative system has historically appeared within the framework of national sovereignty. The Nation must therefore be understood here as a collective, the body of citizens, whose sole function is the exercise of sovereignty. This nation being an abstraction, its will can only be expressed by individuals who will speak in his name. This is one of the roles of elected representatives.
The citizen is an idealized form of the individual who is characterized by his abnegation, his absence of class prejudices. Deprived of selfishness, he is able to make a political choice based on the general interest, ignoring the personal advantages he could derive from it.
This traditional approach to national sovereignty results from the difficulty of perceiving the masses as autonomous beings, capable of taking their own destiny into their own hands.
Inability of people to govern themselves
Montesquieu: “As most citizens, who have enough sufficiency to elect, do not have enough to be elected; in the same way the people, who have enough capacity to be accountable for the management of others, are not able to manage by themselves”.
John Adams: “The idea that the people are the best guardian of their freedom is not true. He is the worst possible, he is not a keeper at all. He can not act, judge, think, or will.”
Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès was an opponent of the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who spoke for direct democracy. Opposed to democracy in the literal sense of the term, Sieyes was also against universal suffrage, preferring the suffrage censitaire. This system of plutocratic inspiration was introduced in the French Constitution and prevailed until 1848.