The disadvantages of representative democracy

Updated March 23, 2017

In a representative democracy, citizens control the government through their elected representatives, who act on their behalf. Voters select the persons who will represent them in regular elections. Representative democracy may be the best form of government to protect individual rights and give citizens a voice in the government. Various elements of this form of government exist in the United Kingdom and other nations of the world. However, representative democracy has its disadvantages.

"Tyranny of the majority"

Because majority rule is a central characteristic of democracy, the danger always exists that a majority, free of restrictions on its power, will oppress members of the minority. This so-called "tyranny of the majority," as Alexis de Tocqueville called it in his book, "Democracy in America," is the greatest disadvantage of representative democracy. James Madison, in The Federalist Papers, also recognised the dangers of democracy, when he noted that democracy cannot control for the problem of factions. The U.S. Constitution avoided this drawback of representative democracy with a series of measures and safeguards designed to protect the rights of those not in the majority. These include two houses of Congress, the presidential veto and the protections in the Bill of Rights.

Short-term focus

Citizens in a representative democracy elect their leaders for fixed terms of office and have the right to change them by choosing others in the next election. In the United States, members of the House of Commons serve five-year terms; however, the Prime Minister, or the Queen can call an election at any time within that five year period. In addition, there are Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assembly and local elections in which voters elect legislators, city mayors, and council members and other elected leaders. Regular elections encourage short-term thinking by elected officials, causing them to focus on the next election at the expense of what is best for the citizenry. This discourages the development of long-term public policy solutions to existing problems. Further, the frequent elections -- at national and local levels -- may cause voter fatigue.

Local interest vs. national interest

Voters choose elected representatives from their communities, and those representatives act on behalf of their constituents. In the House of Commons, for example, members reside in and represent the people of their constituencies. Serving constituent needs and interests in a representative democracy often leads elected officials to favour local interests over policies that benefit the nation as a whole. The controversy over subsidies reflects this issue, as many elected officials steer national money and projects to their districts, benefiting their constituents. This may serve a legislator's reelection prospects, but the projects and money may hold no benefit for the nation as a whole.

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About the Author

Shane Hall is a writer and research analyst with more than 20 years of experience. His work has appeared in "Brookings Papers on Education Policy," "Population and Development" and various Texas newspapers. Hall has a Doctor of Philosophy in political economy and is a former college instructor of economics and political science.