Project Project
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The Future of Representative Democracies

December 2007
European Science Foundation (ESF)
John Keane

Project description

The invention of representative government is often taken to be the central achievement of modern politics. In its European homeland, it took seven centuries (and quite a few rebellions and revolutionary upheavals) to consolidate representative institutions. Church hierarchies had to be resisted in the name of true religion. Monarchs had to be brought under the control of assemblies. Legislatures then had to be subjected to democratic election, and in turn these democratic elements had to be grafted onto pre-democratic institutions of representation. The model of representative democracy that resulted is today familiar as a cluster of territorially-bound governing institutions that include written constitutions, independent judiciaries and laws that guarantee such procedures as periodic election of candidates to legislatures, limited-term holding of political offices, voting by secret ballot, competitive political parties, the right to assemble in public and liberty of the press.

Compared with the previous assembly-based forms of democracy associated with the classical Greek world, the invention of representative government and its subsequent democratisation greatly extended the geographic scale of institutions of self-government; it also fundamentally altered the meaning of democracy. Representative democracy came to signify a type of government in which people, understood as voters faced with a genuine choice between at least two alternatives, are free to elect others who then act in defence of their interests, that is, represent them by deciding matters on their behalf. Much ink and blood was to be spilled in defining what exactly representation meant, who was entitled to represent whom and what had to be done when representatives snubbed or disappointed those whom they were supposed to represent. But what was common to the new age of representative democracy that matured during the early years of the twentieth century was the belief that good government was government by representatives.

Often contrasted with monarchy, representative democracy was praised as a way of governing better by openly airing differences of opinion – not only among the represented themselves, but also between representatives and those whom they are supposed to represent. Representative government was also hailed for encouraging the rotation of leadership, guided by merit. It was said to introduce competition for power that in turn enabled elected representatives to test out their political competence before others. The earliest champions of representative democracy also offered a more pragmatic justification of representation. It was seen as the practical expression of a simple reality: that it wasn’t feasible for all of the people to be involved all of the time, even if they were so inclined, in the business of government. Given that reality, the people must delegate the task of government to representatives who are chosen at regular elections. The job of these representatives is to monitor the expenditure of public money, domestic and foreign policies, and all other actions of government. Representatives make representations on behalf of their constituents to the government and its bureaucracy. Representatives debate issues and make laws. They decide who will govern and how – on behalf of the people.

What are the current contours and probable futures of representative democracy in this sense? In practice, there has always been a gap between the ideals of representative democracy and its actually existing forms. Some observers draw from this the conclusion that expressions of dissatisfaction with representative democracy are normal, even healthy reminders of the precious contingency of a form of government that has no other serious competitors. According to other observers, euphoria about representative government is unwarranted. The mechanisms of representation that lie at the heart of actually existing democracies are said to be afflicted with problems. These observers claim that such difficulties are nurturing public concerns about the future of representative democracy itself. In democratic systems as different as the United States, India, Germany, Great Britain, Argentina and Australia, these observers point to evidence of a creeping malaise: formal membership of political parties has dipped; voter turnout at elections is tending to become more volatile; levels of trust in politicians and government are generally in decline; public perceptions of the deformation of policy making by private power, above all by organised business interests, are rising. When considered together, these disparate trends have encouraged some analysts and citizens to draw the conclusion that the system of representative democracy is breeding political disaffection. Others have argued that the ideals of representative democracy are themselves now under siege, even that we are heading towards an epoch of 'post-democracy.'

  • Alonso, Sonia/Keane, John/Merkel, Wolfgang (Eds.) (2011): The Future of Representative Democracy. Cambridge u.a.: Cambridge University Press, XIV, 307 S.