Representative Democracy

Jump to: navigation, search

One problem with finding a new form of government that would replace the monarchy was that no-one had been successful in coming up with a model that could at once balance the interests of all citizens in a satisfactory manner. This was one of the issues that had caused problems for Rousseau. But in the wake of the American experience with democracy back in the 1780s, new ideas arose in the course of the 19th century that could resolve this Gordian knot.

The democratic challenge

In the representative governments that were known about - for example, monarchies with a number of public institutions and ministries - political power was executed by a hand-picked assembly which hitherto had been selected according to aristocratic principles. Theoretically, it opened the possibility for the most qualified for public office to be appointed. But they were chosen from a very narrow group of people who either belonged to the nobility or were hand-picked, wealthy citizens.

Direct democracy, which was known from Greece, was relevant to small city-states in which all adult citizens could meet up at the same time. The European nation states were too large for direct democracy to be able to work in practice. For example, in 1820, Great Britain had nearly 20 million inhabitants and France 31 million, while the USA had almost 10 million, Sweden 2.5 million and Denmark 1.2 million.

It was thus a challenge to find a democratic model that could work for such large communities.

Representative democracy in America

In the 1770s, when the Americans seceded from Britain, the United States of America consisted of a fairly loose federation of 13 independent states, each of which had their own government and their own laws. In each state and at local level, there were different variations of democratic government (or a sheriff who shot first), but the multitude of different laws caused problems for trade between the states. The need therefore arose for common legislation and a proper union between the states.

The Americans were thus forced to invent a form of government suited to their situation. It was logical that all states should be represented individually in the new legislature. It was also logical that the citizens of the individual states should themselves choose who from their state would represent them in the new joint parliament. From these requirements, they devised Congress, which consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Two senators from each state are elected to the Senate; a number of representatives from each state, according to the size of the state, are elected to the House of Representatives.

Furthermore, it was logical that the United States had to have a head of state, and therefore a president had to be democratically elected.

What didn't seem obvious to people at that time was that there had to be political parties where people could get together according to their political interests. It was thought that the formation of such "cliques" would lead to division and preferential treatment of special interests.

In practice, it turned out to be impossible to avoid political parties. In the 1780s, America had over 3 million inhabitants and, if people were to stand for election individually, it would become totally impossible to organise. Moreover, it became apparent that, in practice, there were administrative benefits with political parties because they arranged voter registration and could raise the money required for campaigning.

With the U.S. Constitution of 1776, a combination of democracy and representative government was thus realised for the first time. However, this didn't guarantee the USA's position as a coherent democracy yet. For the first thing, a large proportion of the population were slaves without either civil or democratic rights; secondly, the southern states would not recognize the majority held by the northern states for the abolition of slavery. Americans didn't manage to create a unified, common democratic system whose sovereignty was recognized by all U.S. states until after the Civil War of 1861-65.

The ideas from the USA reach Europe

The new form of government in the USA caused a stir in Europe and, although it happened slowly by present day standards, it inspired Europeans.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) even went to America and studied the American democracy. He thus became the first to formulate in theoretical terms the possibility of reconciling the democratic with the representative. He did so in his two-volume work De la Democrati en Amérique from 1835 and 1840 respectively.

From the middle of the 19th century, de Tocqueville's ideas formed the basis for the development of the representative democracies in Europe.

Constitutional monarchy

As mentioned in the chapter Revolutions, Human Rights and Constitutions, the 1800s were a turbulent century with many new ideas and phenomena. In some places, the numerous new ideas led to violent revolutions and the dethronement of kings, but elsewhere monarchs succeeded in manoeuvring through the upheavals politically, so the monarchy was preserved and a peaceful transition was created to a new kind of monarchy with a constitution and an elected parliament: Constitutional monarchy.

Among the constitutional monarchies in Europe today are Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom.

The peaceful establishment of democracy in Britain and Scandinavia

In Britain, there had been a parliament and democratic traditions for centuries. The establishment of democracy was therefore a matter of the gradual expansion of the electorate and the authority of Parliament, with a corresponding reduction in the king's power. For example, in 1832, an electoral reform was introduced that made the requirements for who had the right to vote less stringent. The reform increased the electorate from, it is believed, about 400,000 men to 650,000 men - which probably meant 3-4% of the English population; not impressive seen through modern eyes, but exceptional in 1832!

The Scandinavian countries had internal struggles and the beginnings of revolution and civil war in connection with the establishment of democracy, but in practice it never went so far as serious armed conflict.

Sweden introduced a constitution as early as 1809 which established the power relationship between the king and parliament, and in which four branches of government, each independent of the others, are defined. This constitution was revised in 1866, after which Sweden was still formally a constitutional monarchy, but was actually a democracy. In 1974, Sweden got a new constitution that uniquely defines Sweden as a democracy: "All public power in Sweden emanates from the people ..." as it says.

In Denmark, the danger of revolution was lurking in the 1840s, as in other European countries, but both king and people thought better of it, and instead the king voluntarily relinquished some of his power; under some political pressure, of course, but without violence. Denmark is still technically a constitutional monarchy with a separation of powers, in which the king and the government jointly represent the executive, but the parliament and the government have been democratically elected since 1849, and the King's (at present, Queen's) power is purely symbolic.

Norway belonged to Denmark until 1814, when the country came under the rule of Sweden. In 1905, Norwegians voted for secession from Sweden, with only 1% voting against. Norway thereafter became a constitutional monarchy like Sweden and Denmark, but their constitution bore the imprint of its time and was far more modern than the contemporaneous Swedish and Danish constitutions.

Nowadays, the monarchs of these countries have no political power whatsoever. They may have a little pseudo political power - in Britain, the Queen is also head of the Church of England and in Denmark, the monarch has to sign any new laws - but Sweden's royal family has turned into pure decoration.


Representative democracy is a form of government where the people do not participate directly in the individual political decisions, but elect a parliament that appoints a government. The government consists of ministers responsible for the daily management of the country. Parliament adopts the laws which the government must work under. The people are only directly involved in individual decisions if a referendum is drafted on a specific topic.

It took a long time to devise representative democracy; just as long as it took to get countries to change to the new form of government. From the revolutions of the 1770s right up until 1890, it was still uncertain whether it would be that kind of democracy which the USA and the European states gradually introduced. It didn't happen from one day to the next - or from one year to the next; it was a process over several decades, with various intermediate forms.

It was actually not until the 20th century - and not really until after World War II - that democracy became entrenched in Europe as a recognized and generally accepted form of government. Until then, there were many, even in the democratic countries, who were unsure if representative democracy was really a suitable form of government.

Next chapter: Democracy in 20th Century Europe