Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of representative vs direct democracy

Published: 2021-07-10 18:45:05
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Essay Title – Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of representative vs direct democracy Democracy is a word known to most persons today, in the Western world atleast, and almost always has positive connotations associated with it. Indeed from far left to far right, democracy has been proclaimed and embraced by political parties, indeed for a party to profess democracy is seen as necessary to its claim of legitimacy.
The word democracy derives from the Greek prefix ‘Demos’ which could be seen as ‘people’, or in ancient Greece was associated with ‘the poor’ and the suffix ‘Kratos’, which could be seen as ‘power’ or ‘rule'(Heywood, 2004; 221). The nuance in translation has particular significance, and is not due to ambiguity in translation. It is the purpose of this essay to first set out an account of what we mean by legitimacy, for our discussion of democracy as the most important form of legitimacy hinges upon such an account.
We shall then take representative and direct democracy in turn, discussing their strengths and weaknesses. And conclude with this authors opinion on the equal credibility of both forms, depending on the context within which they are put to practical use. Foundational to the existence of any democratic government is the concept of legitimacy, that is; right over might; legitimacy over power, and – out of which grows – duty over obedience. In the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau ‘ The strongest is never been strong enough unless he turns might into right and obedience into duty'(Palgrave.com, Chapter 4: Democracy and Legitimacy). Should a government fail to evolve so, its rule is no more than despotic subjugation, and its demise is most likely only a matter of time as the subjugated will inevitably revolt and take back power. Rousseau has been seen as a highly influential figure in, if not indeed the father of, modern liberal political thought, with the school having its foundations in enlightenment thinking(Garrard in Kurian et al, 2011: 508). This is an important starting point when considering the strengths and weaknesses of either form of democracy.
The first form of democracy, that of direct or pure democracy, has its roots in the classical idea forged it ancient Athens. The men of Athens were expected to have continuous and direct participation in the decision making and running of their city, and any public offices held were allotted by way of rota or the casting of lots(Scrunton, 1982). Although in practice the electorate was discriminatory and therefore not truly representative of all citizens, those who did participate were not politicians.
The vocations of participants would be quite diverse, and therefore we encounter the first important point relating to direct democracy, education. If the decisions of the community are dependent on every individuals understanding of the decision being made, then education is key. To take the modern day example of the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence, this can be seen as a form of direct participation, the decision being made is a profound one and a decision either way will have significant and long term implications for each Scottish citizen.
Therefore in the interest of the greater good of the community, we have each of us a duty to educate ourselves on these implications. In this way we can see the idea of legitimacy being championed, after all as we all become less aware of our own opinions, usually ill informed, and educate ourselves on the matter, the social institution known as the state, within which Rousseau saw corruption lying, would begin to take on a literal life of its own and individual interests within this sphere would dissipate allowing for the purity of the states greater good(Wokler, 2001: 44-70).
The idea of the state taking on a life of its own is important, the general will is not to be seen as the sum total of individual wills, but the will of the state alone. As obedience becomes duty, the decision made in the best interest of the state could in theory, be contrary to any one individuals best interest. It goes without saying that education then is a great benefit of direct democracy, on an individual level an educated populace leads to greater awareness of oneself, other citizens and the state within which one lives.
This in turn reduces crime and social issues(such as poor parenting, domestic abuse etc) and would then in theory reduce the need for public spending on public sector spending. The level of education required however, especially in light of the complexities of modern living, would require a significant amount of an individuals time, this would affect the number of hours a citizen could contribute to their employment, and break the continuity of that work.
This would then affect the productivity of the state, the domestic economy would shrink and given the importance of the economy in the modern world this would have dire consequences, most likely resulting in economic collapse. Direct democracy also makes the assumption that intellectual education is sufficient for a person to make an ‘informed’ decision, to the neglect of practical education. One would rather have the chef cook ones meal than a person who has merely studied the subject of cooking.
For a population base to undergo such a level of practical and intellectual education in secular society is impossible. A second point to note about direct democracy is the sense it gives the individual of having control of his own destiny, taking Scottish independence again, if the decision was made for us by the Hollyrood parliament whether the results of independence were successful or otherwise, we would feel that we were in effect subjugated and in such cases one always tends to focus on the negative.
If however we are involved in the decision, for better or worse as individuals we would feel we had a part to play in that outcome, and in turn our own destiny. There are other issues to take into account however, unless an electorate are all equally enthused over participation, something which is ultimately an intangible variant in the equation, then referendums can lead to inconsistent and unrepresentative decision making.
Westminster almost unanimously opposes Scottish independence, and as the referendum looms Torres and Whigs will most likely unite in opposing the SNP propaganda campaign with their own opposing it. History has shown favor to the campaigners with the most resources at hand, and as propaganda becomes more insidious in method, one must question just how in control are citizens over their own personal vote. Coming on finally to representative democracy.
This is the form most recognized today when we think of ‘liberal democracy’. In this form people elect an enlightened group of people, usually politicians, within whom they vest a measure of their natural freedom and liberty, to act on their behalf to make decisions pertaining to the running of the country. The most common form this takes in contemporary society is that of parliaments and presidencies. For the purposes of this essay we shall focus on parliaments.
Within this form of representative democracy political parties with varying ideologies all compete for public vote in elections, which arguably is the only real way in which legitimacy is manifest. Their are a plethora of ways parliaments can be arranged, but of importance in the first instance is how manageable this makes public participation. In direct participation the whole electorate must turn out to vote, this is logistically unrealistic, if not impossible in secular society, and would slow the political system down tremendously.
In Representative democracy, a politician takes the place of the whole chunk of society which he represents and can focus 100% of their time on fulfilling this role. This relieves the citizen of the enormous burden that political participation would involve, and in turn allows for greater productivity, benefits the economy and gives the citizen the feeling of freedom from the state and this could then be seen as a counterpoint in the argument of what system provides the greater feeling of freedom and control of destiny.
The downside of this form of democracy is its susceptibility to corruption and the infiltration of politicians with a self seeking intent. As people feel less of an affinity with the political process, they loose interest and as the decisions a government make are tremendously diverse and complex, it makes it easy for politicians to hide their true intentions and in effect subjugate the populace, at which point it is no longer democratic and legitimacy is lost. The apathy felt by most Westerners over politicians and their rhetoric speaks volumes.
There is an element of ‘ignorance is bliss’ to this however, and we enjoy the subjugation under the illusion of freedom, so long as we are allowed to fill our time as we see fit. In conclusion this essay wishes to attest a prejudice neither way toward direct or representative democracy. They are both sound in reasoning, and have both been proven historically to be equally successful and fallible, and both continue to be used all around us in social institutions.
Take for example the Christian church, Baptist are congregational and operate under the direct form of democracy, Presbyterians have a hierarchy and operate under the representative system. The question of which system to use within a communal context depends entirely upon the size and complexity of the constituency, and the number of persons within it. Direct has worked well within smaller rural settings, and representative the only logistically feasible in large metropolitan areas.

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