Is Representative Democracy in crisis?

Mohadesa Najumi
Mohadesa is a Politics and History Undergraduate originally from Kabul, Afghanistan. Based in London.

Democracy is a form of government in which the people either directly or indirectly take part in governing, however the term is also utilized as a measurement of how much influence a people have over their government. In essence, supreme power is vested in the people as the word ‘democracy’ itself originates from the Greek words “demos” meaning “the people” and “kraiten” meaning “to rule”- literally “rule by the people”. Many governments have adopted democracy in varying forms and degrees and democratic governments can be divided into different types, based on a number of distinctions; one such distinction is that between direct democracy and representative democracy.

While direct democracy is normatively appealing, representative democracy has practical advantages and as result is a far more common institution. Certainly another distinction includes participatory democracy, a process of collective decision making; however this combines elements from both direct and representative democracy. There is considerable disagreement on the viability of representative democracy, how representation can be achieved in practice; how politicians should be elected; the question of accountability; what elections results actually mean and lastly considering the current political climate, very apt arguments on levels of trust and voter turnout. These are the disagreements that continue to fuel the debate on the breakdown or rather the demise of representative democracy, its nature evolves with time and circumstance yet its future is one that matters and has been the subject of pressing scholarly concern and public importance.

Nadia Urbinati points out that historically, democracy is derived from a Greek word with no Latin equivalent while representation is a Latin word with no Greek equivalent, this signifies how the fusion of the two terms is a historical phenomenon and may not last forever if left unimproved and unprotected. The question of a crisis is not one that can be left safely to conjecture, one must examine the unfinished, two-century old relationship between democracy and representation and draw inference on its future, is as Francis Fukuyama argues, the expressions of dissatisfaction with representative democracy normal or is there a terminal decline as Sheldon Wolin argues, that could possibly warrant are conception of democracy as a whole?

First and foremost, representative democracy is limited in that popular participation in government is infrequent and restricted to the act of voting every few years. It is indirect in the sense that the public do not exercise power themselves; they merely select those who will rule on their behalf, decisions are thus not taken directly by citizen assemblies but by a smaller group of representatives. This may be because the number of citizens is too large or because they are too scattered to participate individually in decision-making, or perhaps they lack the specialist knowledge or inclination. This is democratic insofar as representation includes a reliable and effective link between the government and the governed; this is sometimes expressed in the notion of an electoral mandate.

However many of the criticisms of representative democracy involve problems with ensuring representatives are accountable and truly represent the will of the people, writer Noam Chomsky adds substance to this view by arguing “In a representative democracy, as in say the US or Great Britain, there is a monopoly of power centralized in the state” and this makes it more difficult to hold governments to account. The most appropriate example of a lack of accountability within a representative democracy is the 2009 public disclosure of the misuse of allowances and expenses MP’s in the UK were permitted to claim, this aroused widespread confounded anger among the electorate and symbolized a loss of confidence in parliamentarians thereafter.

Within representative democracy it its ostensible that the citizens are relieved of the burden of decision making as they elect representatives to bear the ‘burden’ of governance. However this practice of paternalism has not prevailed in a number of democratic governments, particularly in the year 2011. The established and representative democracies of the US and U.K have seen citizens take to the streets, in a clamor, arguing for better and more effective representation. Against our expectations they are often very effective in the way they have co-ordinate action, in the United States thousands of citizens permeated the prestigious Wall Street in September 2011 engaging in a mass protest titled “Occupy Wall Street”. They argued that ninety-nine per cent of the American population is being left un-represented as the wealthy one per cent continues to dominate the government and wield a firm hand over the economy; by and large this refers to billionaires and corporations. An example of one of the protestors concerns is that based on the national average there should not be more than five or six millionaires among the 535 members of Congress however nearly half of Congress (47%) currently possess that title. One protestor laments: “The United States has always claimed it is a representative democracy but looking at the personal wealth levels prevailing in the U.S. Congress, that is far from true”.

Greece has also witnessed a number of notably violent protests in the first months of 2012 as the government introduces a range of austerity measures that have had negative implications its citizens. These protests and mass marches signify deeper sentiments aimed towards the system of representative democracy and that ultimately, it does not suffice in representing the populace accordingly. It is no longer a viable means of representation and rather representing one self through the medium of protest is more appropriate, perhaps the only option left is to take to the streets and demand enhanced representation. Citizens are not only registering their disagreement with those who govern them, but also their disillusionment with the entire democratic system.

Communitarians, Habermasians, feminists and postmodernists all astutely highlight the nature of consent required if an authority is to claim legitimacy, a participation crisis in the U.K and U.S has not only been the prelude for the crisis of representative democracy but a critical sign in highlighting the issue of legitimacy. If representative democracy is a system that relies upon citizens electing government officials who subsequently make decisions on their behalf, elections are thus integral in the process of ensuring officials are democratically elected. However a scant voter turnout signifies a crisis of legitimacy and a catastrophe in the appropriate representation for the people.

The U.K has experienced the lowest level of voter turnout in local government elections in the whole of the European Union. Over the last 20 years turnout in local elections has averaged around forty per cent, not only does this put the country at the bottom of the European Union league table for turnout in subnational elections, but it means that the U.K is the only country in the EU where sub-national elections regularly engage the active interest of less than half its citizens. In the United States, dismal voter turnouts appear as ubiquitous as the scant British turnout with an average of thirty-seven per cent voter turnout from the years 2002, 2006 up until 2010 and in 2012 only one in four eligible voters elected a Member of the House of Representatives. Political writer Ricardo Blaug goes insofar as to accuse citizens of becoming “merely spectators in an elitist game”. However it is evidential that cynicism with party politics has augmented whilst interest with pressure groups and protest movements has bolstered.

On the other hand, scant voter turnout does not illuminate a crisis of representative democracy but rather   highlights the advantage of it, elitist views express that low voter turnout not only safely ensures stability but allows political experts to run the country far more effectively. Lack of participation in the election process may also reflect a sense of satisfaction with the amount and quality of representation and not a sense disillusionment with the government.

Additionally, some argue that low voter turnout in the U.S may not be linked to the crisis of representative democracy but rather with the crisis of a“broken” voter registration system in the country. According to a study by the Pew center on the States of Election Initiatives, of some 220 million eligible American voters, more than 50 million are not registered to vote and another 24 million voter registrations have serious data problems that could block or interfere voting. This inefficiency in the voter registration system elucidates why voter turnout analysts predict a further decline in voter turnout for November 2012 presidential elections.

Nevertheless, many countries endorsing representative democracy have been heavily scrutinised for their incompetence in protecting the interests of poorer citizens. Marginalised groups in both the North and the South often do not participate effectively as the poor are often badly organised and ill served by the organisations that mobilise their votes and claim to represent their interests. Fortunately, the crisis of legitimacy has  now been widely documented as shown by the ‘Consultations with the Poor’ report drawing from participatory research in 23 countries and prepared for the World Development Report 2001, it states: “From the perspectives of poor people worldwide, there is a crisis in governance. While the range of institutions that play important roles in poor people’s lives is vast, poor people are excluded from participation in governance”. Some countries, particularly in the North are beginning to see deliberative and inclusionary processes as a way to democratise policy-making by moving beyond representative democracy and traditional forms of consultation to give the historically excluded a voice.

Conversely, it is argued that representative democracy and democracy as a whole- is intact as almost all established democracies have experienced high voter turnouts. Turnout in Canada reaches seventy to seventy-five per cent and well over eighty per cent in most other democracies. Denmark experienced an eighty-five per cent voter turnout in recent elections with nearly five in six eligible voters electing representatives to its national legislature and France witnessed an eighty-six per cent turnout in the first round of the presidential elections, with ninety-one per cent in the 2004 proportional representation election for Luxembourg’s legislature.

Moreover, the 2009 presidential election in the United States revitalised American politics and in India, over four hundred million people recently voted in the reformist Manmohan Singh as prime minister for a second term. This highlights the promise in representative democracy of  engaging citizens in political participation through general elections as well as encouraging them to maintain a healthy political life. Additionally, representative democracy may be justified from the normative perspective of deliberative democracy where political decisions are made based on public discussions among autonomous, equal and rational citizens.

Philosopher and political theorist Edmund Burke’s Principle is one that states representatives should act upon their own conscience in the affairs of a representative democracy. This is contrasted to the expectation that such representatives should consider the views of their electors- an expectation particularly common in the U.S with strong constituency links, or with representative recall provisions such as modern British Columbia, Canada. The system of representative democracy can avoid and ought to defer from, acting against a person’s conscience and also ought to maintain the principle: “to deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of Constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a Representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider”. If such ‘principles’ are adopted, the system of representative democracy can essentially impede any accusations of corruption, crisis and mismanagement.

Essentially, despite experts in democratic studies such as Les Marshall, suggesting that “globally, there is no alternative to representative democracy” a number of preferable alternatives have been put forward. Wolin maintains that democracy is too simple for complex societies and too complex for simple ones and thus democracy needs to be re conceived as something other than a form of government, rather it is to be re conceived as a mode of being. This conceptualisation of the democratic process as a certain ‘mode of being’ is one shared by Chantel Mouffe, Bonnie Honig and Benjamin Barber.

Others have advocated a transformation into more open and adaptive forms of ‘post-Westminster’ or ‘monitory’ democracy that defy textbook definitions of the nature of representative government. Ostensibly, a monitory democracy tends to focus on single simple issues better than on complex aggregated problems. Nonetheless it is a widely held belief that when democracy- in the classical sense of direct and continuous popular participation- is regarded as hopelessly impractical, representative democracy may be the closest thing to come to achieving government by the people and exceptionally high voter turnouts in established democracies intensify this.

Keane traces representative democracy back to 1188 when the Spanish King Alfonso convened a parliament of delegates from the nobility, church and towns. Yet despite its endurance through time, arguments such as mass protests demanding for enhanced representation; apt arguments on legitimacy and accountability; volatile voter turnouts in the US and UK; poor levels of trust in government and incompetence in protecting interests of poorer citizens give substance to the argument of the decline, decay and disappearance of representative democracy that concludes on its tendency to breed political disaffection. In fact it can be argued that it is not in the fundamental facet of representative democracy where problems appear, but in the idea of self-interest where decisions are not made on behalf of the people and lack the conscience of representatives, as Burke argues.

Ultimately, representative democracy is in crisis and representative democracies are under severe stress, it is certainly apt to adopt a dubious attitude to its future, however in light of this crisis and whatever the case may be, all must be done to avoid heading towards a possible epoch of ‘post-democracy’.

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