Is representative democracy really democratic ?
I would like to debate the question of whether representative democracy is a contradiction in terms or the true essence of democracy.
PRO will argue that Representative democracy is a perfectly democratic form of government.
While CON will support the claim that Representative democracy is a mixed form of government inspired on democratic principles but fundamentally contradicting itself.
(Half a democracy is not a real democracy)
Representative Democracy :
System of government in which citizens elect their representatives and entrust to them the complex task of government. The government has a degree of freedom in what it does but it is restricted by the fact that it is periodically answerable to the people.
72 hours, 5000 characters
1st round : Acceptance
2nd and 3rd Round : Arguments and Rebuttals
4 Round : Rebuttals and Closing statement
For Voters :
Only debate arguments should be taken into account while voting
It is a common assumption that democracy is the only justifiable form of government because of its very nature: a government “of the people, for the people and by the people”. Sure nobody proved yet it is the best system, but it is very appealing as most people see something intrinsically good in it
Nowadays, one thing Democracy is for sure is “a good brand” and nearly every country in the world claims to be democratic !
Of course a “good brand” is not enough. The product should also be good. In fact, many profoundly undemocratic regimes are labeling themselves ‘democratic’ in an attempt to legitimize their rule. (ex: DPRK, GDR). I will not talk very much of these obvious and extreme cases. Instead, what I will try to prove is that modern representative democracies (e.g.: USA, United Kingdom) are fundamentally mixed systems rather than pure democracies and that the concept of representation itself is undemocratic.
1)Origins of Democracy
Let’s go back in time to stare at baby democracy in its cradle: Ancient Athens
-Democracy has been conceived in its refined form by the Greeks
-Democracy almost reached is purest form in Athens
-Athenian Democracy can be used as a “Gold Standard” for democracy
In Ancient Athens, the assembly of all citizen was the main legislative body. Every Athenian citizen could show up and vote at the assembly without being elected. Regular attendance is estimated at roughly 6000 at a time of about 30.000 eligible to vote. But the main point is that everyone could participate in meetings and vote resolutions if they wanted to.
Having said that, what is one of the main differences between a modern representative democracy and Athenian democracy?
There were elected officials in Athens: but they were elected to occupy executive and administrative functions for the city, not to represent the citizens. Also they answered directly to the citizen, not to their representatives.
2)Democracy and Representation
-Representation is not part of the original concept of democracy. (There was no representation at all in ancient Greece. Representation has been introduced later in history (Roman Republic, English parliament etc…). Self defining Western representative democracies are more based on the Roman model of Republic than the Greek concept of democracy. Although a Republic is inspired by democratic concepts, calling it a perfect democratic system is an abuse of language.
-There is no such a thing as a people representative, unless you use sortation to pick congressmen. That would ensure to have a representative sample of the population. This was frequently used in Athens to appoint smaller citizens councils. Representative sample is a scientific definition.
-If you sample is not representative, then the whole thing is about giving power to some elites. In fact have you noticed some social classes have a much higher representation in politics (ex: Law Graduates for instance). My point here is that representative are not ‘of the people’, they are ‘of some of the people’
-There are as many party as individuals! There are not two people in the world with exactly the same political views… Why should we make a compromise and elect a representative who will not fully represent us?
-In a perfect democratic system there should not be any “official” political parties. Instead what we have in most our Western countries are political system dominated by party rather than individual citizens. Quite absurd for a democracy isn’t it?
-One could argue that two party system are a natural product of the democratic process and that perhaps people want to keep it simple. However this is far from being accurate, two party systems are artificial situations created in the long term by First-Past-the-Post voting.
-Even admitting that elected representatives are real people’s representatives. There is no guarantee they will defend people interests over their own or others (corruption, lobbying...)
As a conclusion I would definitely say that in our western mixed form of government, democracy is no more than a tiny component. The use of democratic as a brand name exceeds any real democratic nature of the system. It’s just like when you buy a fruit juice attracted by the exotic and expensive fruits printed on the box! Then you read the label and you realize you have been tricked: its 75% apple juice.
For the sake of this debate, I define a tyrant as "one who rules without law, looks to his own advantage rather than that of his subjects, and uses extreme and cruel tactics against his own people as well as others." and therefore a Tyranny of the masses would be "A group who rules without law, looks to their own advantage rather than that of those they rule, and use extreme and cruel tactics, against those they rule as well as others."
I am certain my opponent will agree with democracy that we are talking about a system where the authority of the governance is derived from the people through their collective, majority will. This has already been defined above.
Where I am certain that me and my opponent disagree is in the final mechanism of the deliverance of that power. I assert that a representative Democracy is a perfectly democratic form of Democracy. I made a poor word choice here. I used perfectly in a colloquial sense. A better choice of words is
"A Representative Democracy is a fully functional form of Democracy that is comparable to any other form of Democracy, and is Democratic in nature and execution."
I am not asserting that a Representative Democracy is in any means perfect or better than another form, but instead, using the colloquial sense of "perfectly" meaning completely, fully, or adequately. I apologize for any confusion that may have made.
The American Model of Democracy:
The American model of democracy came from a broad swath of knowledge by a group of well-read individuals. While it is true that the Greek and Roman models influenced them, it is hard to tell every aspect that was considered, as sources can be seen even in things such as the Iroquois confederacy and other native tribes.
Democracy is often described as two wolves and a sheep figuring out what to eat for dinner. In a raw democracy, this is a good analogy. When you vote for a specific issue, it is the will of the majority without respect of the Minority. In essence, anyone who is in the minority have no power. How do you consider that supreme power vested in the people, when it automatically disenfranchises anyone not in the majority?
A pure form of democracy automatically becomes a type of tyranny. The founding fathers described this as a tyranny of the masses. This is why they took not only from the Greek Model, but from the confederated Iroquois tribes and any other model they could find which would create the best chance for individuals to have a voice in the governance of the nation.
Value of a Representation:
A tyranny of the masses is what you get when you have a pure democracy. You get a system in which the minority have no voice, no matter how cruel and inhumane the will of the majority is. That is not democracy. To solve this problem, the American model instituted a representative model. Through representation, there is a specific individual who is granted right of rule by the majority of the people, but with the understanding that they represent the will of all the people, the minority included. While this isn't a perfect way to eliminate the tyranny of the masses issue, it does dull it down quite a bit. A vocal minority can speak with more volume against a particular heinous violation of their will with the same volume to a representative as a majority whom only slightly believe in an issue. Through a representative democracy, the level of value of the opinions on people can be addressed, which isn't addressable with a simple yes or no vote on an issue.
A representation also allows for another aspect required in large nations. Holding a vote for every issue that arises is difficult. Imagine if you had to poll everyone in your neighborhood every time you wanted to wash your car. With the busy schedule of everyone involved, it might take weeks before you were able to get the opinions of everyone involved. It is not always possible to poll for any issue that comes up, and a level of speed is required. Also, the effort of polling everyone to find out their opinion often uses more energy than just to do whatever it is to do. For the example of washing your car, if you lived in a neighborhood of 1000 houses and lived 4 blocks from a river, you could probably carry more water to your house from the river than volume of space your car takes up in the same time and effort as talking to each person in the neighborhood would take. By appointing a representative to represent you in the issue, a lot of effort is saved in polling, and decisions are able to be made in a timely manner.
My points are this:
1) A pure form of Democracy is a Tyranny of the Masses.
2) A Representative Democracy establishes a form of supreme power which is vested in the people, and used to establish the rule of the people by the will of the people.
3) A Representative Democracy allows for governance by both the majority and minority
4) A Representative Democracy allows for timely decisions to be made.
You made some interesting points. However :
I. tyranny of the masses
"A tyranny of the masses is what you get when you have a pure democracy"
1: government by the best individuals or by a small privileged class
2: a : a government in which power is vested in a minority consisting of those believed to be best qualified
b : a state with such a government
Oligarchy (Merriam Webster)
1 : government by the few
Political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville claimed that "Sortition is natural to democracy, as elections are to aristocracy".
Democracy is not the primary component of the US model and yet it is widely used as a catchy brand name. In reality the US model corresponds more to an Electoral Aristocracy (a government of the best with popular approval).
I do not judge its efficiency but I assert that we cannot consider it to be purely (or at least mainly) democratic !
For a system to be able to check or balance power, it has to be able to wield, at the very least, an override to such power. A judiciary which can override the decision of the masses in an election seems to me to be exactly what you are arguing against. A single individual interpreting the will of both the majority and minority to make a common system of governance. How would you give this person power? Election? That would be a representative democracy. Merit? Then who determines merit? Vote of the people? Again, it becomes a representative democracy. This is not an argument of refinement against the current system of Representative democracy. I love your people veto system, but it does demonstrate that any system that gives anything except the majority veto power eliminates a pure democracy. It isn't possible. The best you get is a system that allows for a second vote on something the majority has already voted on. If the power rests only in the voted will of the people, it rests there and no place else. A tyranny of the masses exists any time you do not allow for the minority to have a say. That eliminates "supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them" for at least some. This means the democracy is no longer a pure democracy. There is no way to put a check on that system that does not remove direct exercise of the power. Even the Swiss model is a Representation in execution and only really provides the masses with veto power, which is not direct application of power.
Eliminating the Contradiction.
Under the definition of democracy we agreed to, it is the people who have supreme power. By appointing individuals to act as agents for them, the people are not abdicating their right in governance. Instead they are establishing a governance under common rules utilizing their power the very system of governance they have chosen, and appointing agents to act on their behalf in monitoring and managing this power that is theirs by right. It is not an abdication of their power, but the method in which they choose to exercise their power.
"A judiciary which can override the decision of the masses in an election seems to me to be exactly what you are arguing against. A single individual interpreting the will of both the majority and minority to make a common system of governance. How would you give this person power? Election? That would be a representative democracy. Merit? Then who determines merit? Vote of the people? Again, it becomes a representative democracy. "
In a direct democracy, people can elect a person or a council whose task is to protect the law.
A judge or a collegial court, even if elected, does not have to be representative of the people.
Example : Imagine you are in a sport club and the member's assembly elects a treasurer. The treasurer is not a representative of the assembly, he his just a guy appointed by the assembly to handle finance.
So my point is that you can elect people to ensure some state functions without having to elect representatives to replace the people in their role.
I have some objections here:
1) Have we really chosen this system or our fathers did for us ?
Someone who do not agree on delegating legislative power to congress automatically looses his fraction of power.
2) There is a difference between agents acting on behalf of people and representatives acting in place of people
I agree with you that the former is perfectly democratic and necessary to ensure a well functioning state, I consider the latter to be profoundly undemocratic.
You cannot split hairs and say someone appointed to protect laws is somehow different in the principle of bestowed power than someone appointed to enforce laws. Both have been given a mandate to do something that restricts the rights of others.
For my opponent's example of the treasurer, let's look at it closely.
You have an individual who is appointed by the majority of the assembly to handle financial issues related to the club. While the powers granted to him by the assembly might vary wildly, at the very least he is granted the power to know the financial status of all associations as they connect to the assembly as a whole. This is a specific power that has now been abdicated by the assembly to an individual. Some treasurers have the ability to enter into financial contracts, committing money contributed jointly from the assembly for tasks of interest to the assembly as determined by the treasurer. No matter how you look at it, his power derives in some way from the power the people once had, and in giving him that power, they have abdicated it to a representative with the expectation that the representative operates with the best interest of the assembly.
Welcome to the core principle of a representative democracy. Where the assembly agrees to an individual to represent them by abdicating specific powers to them with the expectation that they operate with the best interest of the assembly.
My opponent's point that you can elect people to ensure some state functions without having to elect representatives is false. By their very nature, anyone elected by the assembly to perform a state function is representing the people who elected him to perform the duties he was elected for on behalf of them.
My opponent's first objection is valid. He did not agree to the system the United States operates under. In fact, the method of ratification of the system of a representative democracy wasn't really something that was democratic at all. My opponent is wrong in implying that this doesn't make it a democratic system. If America were a perfect and pure democracy or an exact copy of the Swiss system he admires, it still would have started with an outside imposition of the structure. Only a society that is already democratic can have a democratic government form via a democratic system. If a democratic society has such a creation imposed upon them and they do not approve though, the ultimate authority, the people, should engage in revolution to remove the imposed system. He could argue that the Civil War was exactly that, but the Civil War wasn't about establishing a better form of democracy. As such, he has de facto chosen this system, or at the very least is a victim of the Tyranny of the Masses.
My opponent's second objection about a difference between agents acting on behalf of the people and representatives acting in place of people is just a game of semantics.
A representative represents. A representative doesn't replace. Representation is not replacing. A representative is not a collective body of people. He is an individual empowered by a collective body of people to act on their behalf. They do not always do a good job, but democracy by its very nature involves a large collection of people attempting to agree on one subject. The collective whole is often not as smart as one would wish, and as such don't always make the best choice. Still, the individual is chosen by the people and empowered by powers from the people. If the people did not pick him and empower him to act on their behalf, he would have no power. Without the will of the people, the individual politician is powerless.
For a democratic system by our agreed on definition to be democratic, Supreme power vested in the people must be supreme. How they choose to exercise it must be how they exercise it. The people granting their authority to individuals to operate in their interest is still the people exercising power. As that power is not limited by a group that is not subject to the authority of the people, it is supreme.
As long as the representatives are chosen by the people in a system determined by the people and exercise power only over the people who were granted the opportunity to pick that person to represent them, then the representative system is a Democratic system. By our agreed on definition, there is no problem in a Representative Democracy being democratic.
I thank my opponent for this opportunity to debate, and thank everyone for their time in reading this.