Musings on representational democracy

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Representational democracy, says Wikipedia, is

“…founded on the principle of elected people representing a group of people, as opposed to direct democracy. All modern Western style democracies are various types of representative democracies…”

And so is Canada, and by extension so is the Town of Collingwood; small cog it may be in the great machinery of democratic government. We elect people to represent us, to make decisions for us, to debate the issues for us.

Some people mistake the point of this system. They believe we elect people to do what they’re told, to act as their delegates and represent solely their own interests rather than those of the whole electorate. We’ve seen that reaction locally.

Edmund Burke, that great critic of unrestrained democracy, was adamant that the duty of a representative was not simply to act as a rubber stamp for the wishes of the electorate, turning every demand or grumble into legislation or votes. Burke said, in a speech in 1774, that representatives owed the electorate the duty of both their conscience and their judgment – even if their views ran counter to those of the majority:

“…it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France

Burke believed representatives should be a trustee, not merely a delegate. He never advocated acting without consideration for the electorate, but he believed at the end of the day, you were elected to make decisions, and for everyone’s best interests.

While good in theory, Burke was also skeptical about how it worked in practice because democracy is fraught with challenges. As Wikipedia notes, he believed,

“…government required a degree of intelligence and breadth of knowledge of the sort that was very uncommon among the common people. Second he thought that common people had dangerous and angry passions that could be easily aroused by demagogues if they had the vote; he feared the authoritarian impulses that could be empowered by these passions would undermine cherished traditions and established religion, leading to violence and confiscation of property. Thirdly, Burke warned that democracy would tyrannize unpopular minorities who needed the protection of the upper classes.”

Things have not changed as much since Burke’s day as we might imagine. In fact, we need even more knowledge today than ever before to govern effectively. Thanks to the advent of social media, everyone is empowered to rise to the level of demagogue, and passionate – often authoritarian and intemperate – impulses rule internet forums, blogs and social media. We see some people using those tools to “tyrannize” and bully others by the sheer volume and anger of their attack.

Perhaps the difference is that today you can more easily tyrannize the majority with these methods, not simply the “unpopular minorities” Burke wrote about.

Some people … believe we elect people to do what they’re told, to act as their delegates and represent solely their own interests rather than those of the whole electorate. We’ve seen that reaction locally.

Representational democracy exists because the “direct” democracy of the Greek city states is impractical today. You simply cannot convene a meeting where every citizen has a say and a vote for every issue and you can’t have a referendum for every vote. If we did, we would still be debating the palette of colours for the heritage district, or the size of A-frame signs, and nothing would ever get done.

One hundred percent participation may be democracy by strict definition, but it would veer uncomfortably close to anarchy and mob rule. The loudest voices would top the rest. That’s why we choose representatives to manage our interests: it avoids the decline into mob rule. And that means the representatives have the responsibility of listening to all voices, not just the loudest.

To prevent representational democracy from becoming a dictatorship of the elected, various laws are in place to act as checks and balances on the process and on how power is wielded. This works relatively well here in Canada, especially in our non-party municipal politics; it works rather poorly in the USA where lobbyists easily buy votes and favourable legislation. No system is perfect.


* The Concept of Representation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

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