Representative democracy

Nadia Urbaniti, a professor in the political science department here, just published a book, Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy, with the following thesis:

It is usually held that representative government is not strictly democratic, since it does not allow the people themselves to directly make decisions. But here, taking as her guide Thomas Paine’s subversive view that “Athens, by representation, would have surpassed her own democracy,” Nadia Urbinati challenges this accepted wisdom, arguing that political representation deserves to be regarded as a fully legitimate mode of democratic decision-making-and not just a pragmatic second choice when direct democracy is not possible.

I haven’t read the book yet, but, based on this abstract, I like what I see so far. My impression from the work in social and cognitive psychology on information aggregation is that representative democracy will work better than dictatorship or pure democracy. (See also the discussion here of democracy and its alternatives.)

3 thoughts on “Representative democracy

  1. A few years ago I clarified my ideas on democracy while writing a book called The Modernization Imperative –

    I think modern democracy is essentially a form of selection between systems of government – I say essentially, because not ever election offers (or needs to offer) a choice of systems. Sometimes elections are merely about exchanging office holders, sometimes they are about simgle issues – this being done by some kind of majority vote.

    Of course, it may not be necessary to exchange office-holders – the office holders may chenge their program, cooperate with a different program which is more electable – but the inertia and corruptibility of human nature usually means the personnel need to be changed sometimes.

    But I think that in modern societies parties are more important than people, in the sense that a keye election will involve two (or more) parties putting forward alternative _programs_ – the program being a systemic approach to government. You vote for the system, rather than the specific policies. The system includes political priorities, and methods for dealing with them. It is correct to vote for the party rather than the person, constrained by the fact that voting for the wrong person (eg a dishonest or corruptible person) will prevent the program being implemented.

    Of course, most of political life continues without being influenced by elections – but elections are a (peaceful) method for making fundamental changes.

    Also, because all systems are imperfect, the system currently in power may sometimes need to be changed as problems accumulate. So voters can, and should, be prepared to change between parties according to circumstances as they unroll.

    Also, opposition parties should – by this argument – primarily define themselves in contrast to ruling parties to built up a systematic alternative to put to public vote. This will mean that party 'ideology' will change over time, and may even reverse in two party systems – which has happened.

    This is getting too long! My point is that I feel the nature of democracy is mis-represented by the conventional way of discussing it: eg as how representaive it is. This leads to a disillusionment or cynicism with actual democracy – or to a very abstract form of utopianism which can be damaging. We need to explain actual behaviours – why people vote for parties not people, why parties try to develop systematic policies that are consistent (not shamelessly populist), why – by our actions – we act on the basis that democratic process is more important than who wins, and so on.

    In fact real democracy works very well, it is – in the long term – the most functional system of government yet discovered and democracies (once established for a few decades) are the most robust states. I regard democracy, along with science and market economics, as one of the greatest social system discoveries/ practices of humankind!

  2. "democracy" has become a meaningless term — its true meaning as a system of direct majority rule has been lost.

    "Democracy" is no guarantee of liberty or equality.

    Simple, direct majority democracy is 51 people telling the other 49 what is punishable or permissible.

    "Representative Democracy" is 3 people telling the other 97 what is punishable/permissible.

    "democracy" would be wonderful, if the people were informed and alert, and their representatives upstanding men of good character.

    The fatal flaw is human nature… if there is an opportunity for corruption, corruption will manifest itself.

    Government provides the perfect opportunity & mechanism for corruption… control of the many by the self-serving few.

    The word "democracy" is not mentioned anywhere in the U.S. Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution. That absence is very intentional.

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