Representational democracy is fundamentally flawed

datePosted on 16:35, January 19th, 2009 by Anita

Representational democracy in New Zealand necessarily fails entirely to live up to its name. With a hundred and twenty people representing four million or so, this should be obvious. It is a system that forces each voter to make a choice using only at most a few of their views. Which party, or which individual, represents the person who wants to ban genetically modified organisms and privatise the health system? 

Even if the party you vote for is elected, they will hold different views from you and they will vote in ways you would not wish them to. In short they are not representing you.

This not only makes the choice a futile one, but also impoverishes any sort of debate or conversation, because the debates are led by politicians who work within blocks, and are covered by a media which is unable to tease out the individual issues.

This futility, and the requirement to give your vote to a package of policies, means we end up giving far too much power to politicians, and keeping far too little for ourselves. Indeed giving this power to politicians is a mistake. We give people whose motivation is largely to gain power the ability to say they are representing us although they have no desire to listen to our individual opinions, and there is no framework to force them to. Three yearly elections do not allow us to hold politicians to account on individual issues, or even individual actions. 

The problem is not the frequency of our elections or the parties we are able to vote for, it is that the system itself does not allow for all of an individuals views to be represented. Every single one of us is effectively silenced on the majority of our views, and forced to listen politicians claiming to speak on our behalf.

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37 Responses to “Representational democracy is fundamentally flawed”

  1. Quoth the Raven on January 19th, 2009 at 17:22

    Absolutley agree. Representative deomcracy is a sham. To that end here are a couple quotes from Proudhon:

    “Since, according to the ideology of the democrats, the People cannot govern itself and is forced to give itself to representatives who govern by delegation, while it retains the right of review, it is supposed that the People is quite capable of at least having itself represented, that it can be represented faithfully…This hypothesis is utterly false; there is not and never can be legitimate representation of the People. All electoral systems are mechanisms for deceit: to know one is sufficient to pronounce the condemnation of all.”

    “If monarchy is the hammer which crushes the People, democracy is the axe which divides it; the one and the other equally conclude in the death of liberty…”

  2. Thomas Beagle on January 19th, 2009 at 17:41

    Your article would make more sense and be more credible if you knew that it’s “representative democracy” and not “representational democracy”.

    The theory is that we elect people to represent us in Parliament.

  3. Anita on January 19th, 2009 at 17:57

    Thomas Beagle,

    Your article would make more sense and be more credible if you knew that it’s “representative democracy” and not “representational democracy”.

    I believe they’re synonymous and both in use (the joy of a language with highly productive suffixes :)

  4. Lew on January 19th, 2009 at 17:59

    Indeed, representative democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.

    L

  5. BLiP on January 19th, 2009 at 18:22

    Alas – I cannot agree more. “Representative Democracy”? More like “reprehensible democracy”.

    But its our own fault. Each individual New Zealander (18 years and over) is the keeper of our Democracy – yet we allowed it to become corrupt. The last election of our national representatives was a Punch and Judy Show.

    How did we let that happen? I dunno. I suppose, we could blaim the media for polishing up some hollow turds, we could blame big business for its filthy puruit of profit at all cost including a takeover of Parliament, heck, we could even blame the Goober himself for demonstrating how easy it is to remove legal rights without any need to involve Democracy at all – but, ultimately it comes down to those who didn’t even bother to vote.

    Democracy fails when we fail to participate.

  6. SPC on January 19th, 2009 at 21:50

    People have the representative democracy they deserve/contribute to/build.

    It is no more flawed than the people themselves.

    The centrist liberals could leave Labour and National, so could centrist conservatives. Maybe centrists lack the passion for this.

    The liberal left could separate from Labour, the liberal right from National.

    The main parties could sub-divide and reform coalitions – this would allow most a representative party that would suit them 80% of the time.

    Why has this not occurred, people are still operating in FPP style mode. Until people work to change this, it won’t change. And National is determined to keep it the old order us or Labour by moving to the SM system (FPP 80 seats with a perhaps 40 SM seats – one seat for each 2.5% share of the vote).

  7. Quoth the Raven on January 19th, 2009 at 22:22

    SPC – Admittedly we have a farily good form of representative democracy – a proportional form. Nevertheless the point remains Every single one of us is effectively silenced on the majority of our views… and half the people or thereabouts votes are rendered useless. Further once they are elected they have three years to do what they wish with barely any checks until the next election rolls around in which we can punish them but tbe damage of the past three years has already been wrought. Even if the “liberal right” split from national and the “liberal left” split from labour it is still impossible for any party to represent an individual’s views in totality. Nor will it stop the parties ideals being compromised by the need for to appeal to a largest number of people for election, or succumb to pressure from big business and the state bureaucracy itself or making dubious coalitions with other parties in the name of getting themselves into power. In short the problem is that it is representation and not direct. Quoting further of that passage from Proudhon:

    “It is completely otherwise in democracy, which according to the authors exists fully only at the moment of elections and for the formation of legislative power. This moment once past, democracy retreats; it withdraws into itself again, and begins its anti-democratic work.”

    “In fact it is not true, in any democracy, that all citizens participate in the formation of the law; that prerogative is reserved to the representatives.”

    “It is not true that they deliberate on all public affairs, domestic and foreign; this is the perquisite, not even of the representatives, but of the ministers. Citizens discuss affairs, ministers alone deliberate them.”

    “…According to democratic theory, the ‘People’ is incapable of governing itself; democracy, like monarchy, after having posed as its principle the sovereignty of the People, ends with a declaration of the incapacity of the People!”

    “This is what is meant by the democrats, who once in the government, dream only of consolidating and strengthening the authority in their hands.”

  8. SPC on January 19th, 2009 at 23:00

    There is no problem the people could not resolve, if they chose to agree to do so.

    If parties were smaller and so more people joined parties akin to their values, then they would be a better vehicle for representation.

    There would still be compromise – because individuals and smaller groups of like minds do not command a majority – but it would be more public accountability in the parliamentary process/select committee process.

    The greatest flaw of democracy is that it requires a majority consensus and that displeases as many of it as the minority against whom they prevailed. That is also its greatest strength and is why we put up with it. Anything that limits others ruling over us (and unfortunately ourselves ruling over others is the price we must pay for our secure liberty) is not a bad thing.

  9. James on January 20th, 2009 at 02:42

    Libertarians don’t belive in democracy…its just another form of totalitarianism….the only difference being the number of feet on your throat…

    Its like two wolves and a sheep debating what to have for dinner…

    Human rights are not up for the vote…they predate the vote and are above it…

    Stick your “democracy where the sun don’t shine…

  10. Dimmocrazy on January 20th, 2009 at 04:53

    Agree with that one Anita. The quote from Churchill is of course correct, as is the argument that our form of democracy is flawed because people are essentially flawed (or perhaps rather have a genetic disposition towards organizational structures with a hierarchical dimension)
    In my view, a decent constitution including limits on possible duration of individual political engagement, and more use of technology in representative decision making would solve some of the problems.

  11. StephenR on January 20th, 2009 at 10:24

    There might also be the question of who a political party should represent, I think. The Greens make a point of regularly consulting their members to construct policy, with the end result that their policies are favourable to several thousand Greens members, but are then foisted on the rest of us. Democracy might be stronger if there was more political participation of this nature, but I doubt NZ would be the better for it.

  12. StephenR on January 20th, 2009 at 10:26

    Libertarians don’t belive in democracy…its just another form of totalitarianism….the only difference being the number of feet on your throat…

    So if we were living in Libertarian-Land, we wouldn’t get to vote for the government, regardless of the fact that they would still administer security and justice?

  13. Rich on January 20th, 2009 at 15:20

    Democracy is good. I say this because other systems are worse – Jawaharlal Nehru

    So I guess if you don’t like representational democracy as it’s practiced in NZ, what’s a better system? Or how can it be enhanced?

    I’d argue for a few changes like:
    – an immutable structure of human rights that restrains parliament
    – decision making devolved to the lowest level possible – communities and communities of interest
    – a better educated population that isn’t brainwashed by vested interests

    Alternatively, we could adopt anarchism and have all “government” stem from decisions of the people at a community level.

  14. Lew on January 20th, 2009 at 15:35

    Rich: This is what my somewhat taciturn comment after Churchill was driving at, above.

    The trouble is that Anita’s argument in the initial post (and supporting comments from QtR and others) isn’t that there are implementation problems with representative democracy in NZ – it reasons that representative democracy is “fundamentally flawed” in principle, because having to subsume the majority of one’s views to a few which happen to be shared by a candidate for whom you might infrequently vote is an unacceptable trade-off of political expedience against personal sovereignty.

    I don’t know if that problem can possibly be solved within a democratic framework. After all, the objection in principle will hold regardless of proposed improvements to the implementation.

    L

  15. BLiP on January 20th, 2009 at 16:13

    Alternatively, we could adopt anarchism and have all “government” stem from decisions of the people at a community level.

    Now we’re talking ; )

  16. Anita on January 20th, 2009 at 16:28

    dragging myself away from s59 for a minute or two…

    SPC if we are going to have a representational democracy I utterly agree that a proportional system (like MMP) is hugely better than any non-proportional one (FPP, STV, SM etc).

    I think we could supplement a decent proportional system with lots more opportunities for direct democracy; some form of deliberative democracy.

    Does anyone know if the Greens (or anyone else) has done much work on citizen’s juries? I know they suggested one on electoral finance but I can’t remember hearing much about it. I don’t know much about citizen’s juries but they sound like an interesting option to add to elected representatives and direct referenda.

  17. James on January 20th, 2009 at 20:26

    So if we were living in Libertarian-Land, we wouldn’t get to vote for the government, regardless of the fact that they would still administer security and justice?

    There would be voting for various officers etc but as the State would be only handeling its core business of rights protection then the scope of voting to use state power to steal others money and redistribute it would be eliminated.

    Politicans become irrelavant as they can’t now make promises that if implemented are prohibited by the law and constitution and so the people loss intrest and get on wth their lives…I long for the day that most people don’t know who the prime minister is for the same reason thay don’t know who owns the gas station they use…its unimportant and irrelavant.

    Its only because pollies can steal and coerce with the states backing now that gives politics its intrest….remove that power and who will give a jot?

  18. StephenR on January 20th, 2009 at 21:08

    Does anyone know if the Greens (or anyone else) has done much work on citizen’s juries? I know they suggested one on electoral finance but I can’t remember hearing much about it. I don’t know much about citizen’s juries but they sound like an interesting option to add to elected representatives and direct referenda.

    There was some discussion here a while ago:
    http://blog.greens.org.nz/index.php/2007/12/04/would-you-support-a-citizens-assembly/

    …but if you prefer something a little less disjointed than a blog discussion, this article in a series on direct democracy/citizen’s juries by OpenDemocracy was interesting:
    http://www.opendemocracy.net/blog/dliberation/what_and_why

  19. StephenR on January 20th, 2009 at 21:09

    There would be voting for various officers etc but as the State would be only handeling its core business of rights protection then the scope of voting to use state power to steal others money and redistribute it would be eliminated.

    You say you don’t believe in democracy – isn’t the above still democracy though!?

  20. Rich on January 20th, 2009 at 21:36

    I reckon the perfect Libertarian state is an African dictatorship like Zimbabwe or Nigeria.

    In those places, providing you pay the state (or cops) to handle the “core business of rights protection”, you can more or less do as you will. The level of bribe money required is mostly set by the market, there is little interference in the liberties of the citizen and there is no chance of democracy intruding and stealing a citizens wealth.

    (Where “citizen” is defined as a person or corporation who keeps the cops and government appropriately paid off. The people you see living in shacks and getting beaten up are not citizens, do not pay their dues, and deserve what they get).

    That’s propertarianism in action!

  21. Tom Semmens on January 20th, 2009 at 23:11

    This post is probably the weakest on this site so far and so pointless as to be quite useless for any sort of meaningful discussion. I am struggling to try and work out the point of it.

    To complain that that the system doesn’t cater for the views of every single one of us is about as stupidly emo as it can get.

    The whole point of democracy is YOU ELECT THOSE WHO YOU TRUST TO RULE ON YOUR BEHALF, not to indulge the over weaning ego of the unqualified whinging about something they haven’t got a clue about, but still think that somehow they are as important and have something as valuable to say as those who might.

  22. imperial zeppelin on January 23rd, 2009 at 14:26

    The whole point of democracy is YOU ELECT THOSE WHO YOU TRUST TO RULE ON YOUR BEHALF…

    Em. No it isn’t. That’s the point of a system that calls itself representative democracy….which is no more democratic than fly.

    Which is the point of the post, no?

    Would you have someone else walk for you even though you have legs of your own? An absurd notion.

    You have a voice, you can talk. You have a brain and can think. You have interests and can speak to/ action them.

    So give that all up to others to do for you? To not see the absurdity of that proposition (our reality) is, well…absurd.

  23. Lew on January 23rd, 2009 at 17:31

    IZ: You delegate your authority to all sorts of people all the time. If you get a taxi home from the pub you delegate your driving to the taxi driver. When you decide what movie to watch based on a review, you delegate a certain amount of your authority over the choice of movie to the reviewer. When you buy vegetables, you delegate the task to a market-gardener someplace, rather than growing them yourself. And so on.

    The fundamental premise of society – that people specialise and co-operate for mutual benefit – applies just as clearly to politics as it does to anything else.

    L

  24. SPC on January 23rd, 2009 at 22:01

    This is slightly off topic, but to expand on a point I made earlier about to be a more representative democracy we would need more parties and in particular break up of Labour and National into factions (liberal and conservative and centrist – 6 groups).

    Many of the centre and right write how they are for the environment but could not vote for the Greens because they see a sustainable economy as built on both the environment and a just eco-system/society for the people as well. But none of them has ever tried to form a centre-right Green party which is the political vehicle they claim to favour.

    Why is that … they are all anti left Green talk (just highlighting how left the Greens are to diminish their support base in the centre ground), or they doubt their own strength in numbers to achieve any change – or they oppose working through small political parties preferring the larger mainstream parties if they engage in the process …?

  25. Lew on January 23rd, 2009 at 22:18

    SPC: So form them.

    Good luck.

    L

  26. SPC on January 23rd, 2009 at 23:16

    Lew, I support the existing party Greens on both their sustainable environment and sustainable human habitat focus (yeah sure I don’t support them on all policy).

    It’s not for me, but for those who claim representative democracy excludes them …

    The current deterrent to their doing so, is of course the MMP review which could render it futile.

  27. Anita on January 23rd, 2009 at 23:22

    SPC,

    The Greens for me are and example of exactly the problem I’m talking about.

    Last election I voted for the Greens because, of all the parties who had a realistic chance of getting into Parliament, they were the ones who are most aligned with my views. Which is to say there are many things I disagree with the Greens on.

    I will spend the next three years knowing that no-one represents some of my views, and that the Greens speak with the strength of my vote on things that I don’t agree with.

  28. SPC on January 23rd, 2009 at 23:47

    Anita

    And of course if the Greens did represent either of us more completely, there would be some other Green Party voters happy about that but also some not so happy about it as well.

    The thing is, there are other forms of political activism besides voting – action/lobby groups, representations to Ministers/MP’s/select committees/public forums etc – in our democratic engagement.

    These intend to both include many but moderate change – ensure a building of consensus for any change or have it subject to review. And doing so within a party of like minded folk is one way to learn this and function as a politically active citizen before doing so in society at large.

    If we extend the option to direct democracy, the process of the issue referendum, we are both blessed and cursed by the power we seek being shared with others. Would society choose to impose its values on individuals or allow liberty (and what that means to the liberal left and the social conservative economic freedom liberal right is totally different).

  29. Lew on January 24th, 2009 at 13:06

    SPC: My point is that if there really is demand for such a party, why doesn’t someone create it? I don’t think the MMP review has much bearing on it. I think the major deterrent is that politics is easy to criticise and hard to do right.

    L

  30. Anita on January 24th, 2009 at 13:25

    Lew,

    My point is that if there really is demand for such a party, why doesn’t someone create it?

    The number of people in the NZ electorate who hold exactly my beliefs on every policy issue is exactly one. Creating a political party for each individual elector to fix representational democracy is a non-starter. Splintering parties into smaller and smaller lumps (5%, 1%, 0.1%) still won’t see me truly represented.

    We need to supplement a system of representatives with truly direct representation.

  31. Anita on January 24th, 2009 at 13:26

    SPC,

    The thing is, there are other forms of political activism besides voting – action/lobby groups, representations to Ministers/MP’s/select committees/public forums etc – in our democratic engagement.

    There are indeed, and they are more accessible to me than to at least 99% of NZ. That is, they are not democratic because access and engagement is not equal; they give the elite more power rather than giving everyone more voice.

  32. Lew on January 24th, 2009 at 15:05

    Anita:

    Splintering parties into smaller and smaller lumps (5%, 1%, 0.1%) still won’t see me truly represented.

    But the more electoral granularity, the closer you are to direct democracy and the less imperfect the system, right? This is about the perfect being the enemy of the good, again.

    We need to supplement a system of representatives with truly direct representation.

    This presupposes that everyone should have all of their views represented all the time. I’m not sure I accept that; I believe that compromise is a big part of civil society, and having to subsume some of my beliefs and opinions to those of others on the grounds that they subsume some of theirs to mine is right and proper.

    That said, I’m not opposed to a larger toolkit of governance options, such as citizens’ juries. However the danger is that we spend too much time talking about governing, and not enough actually governing. Plenty of people I know would consider that the ideal case, but not me. I believe in government.

    L

  33. SPC on January 24th, 2009 at 16:15

    Lew

    SPC: My point is that if there really is demand for such a party, why doesn’t someone create it?

    Fair question, possibly the right wingers for a party focused solely on the environment first want to destroy the existing leftist party and then take over the name and brand. But I am not one of them and thus can only speculate.

    I don’t think the MMP review has much bearing on it. I think the major deterrent is that politics is easy to criticise and hard to do right.

    The MMP review will have an impact though – its timing will possibly finish off NZ First and the Progressives, keep United limited to an electorate party and deter the old Alliance from re-forming while Labour is in opposition (even under a centrist like Goff). It is hard to develop new parties and those who would make the effort it would take to build them would be aware that a sustainable momentum could only (for most) occur in an MMP environment.

  34. Lew on January 24th, 2009 at 16:21

    SPC: You seem convinced the MMP review will result in MMP being scrapped. I don’t think it will.

    L

  35. SPC on January 24th, 2009 at 17:58

    Lew

    I am not sure of the outcome, but the uncertainty over the 2011-2014 period is I think going to have these short-term effects anyway.

    It parallels, the threat to end the Maori seats by 2014 – while they will probably stay – the idea, of National being a threat to them that needs to be appeased by Maori electorate MP votes supporting National in government, has also worked in their own favour much as they intended.

    National’s goal here appears to be a FPP MMP compromise – SM (80 electorate and 40 SM seats – this would require a 2.5% vote to return each supplementary member).

    I know the argument for it very well as it was my own preference in 1993 (and it is one I argued in favour of to the British – 500 electorate MP’s and 125 supplementary MP’s – .8% of the vote for each seat – as Jenkins later recommended), though I only favoured it in combination with preferential voting in the electorate seats so each MP has 50% mandate (which is where the MMP coalition vote is delivered under such a system). If Labour + Green/LD + …, is larger than National/Tory + ACT/LD + …, then they will win the election in the electorate seats – under preferential voting SM.

    The argument for SM

    1. it allows all parties (it having a lower 2.5% threshold) to be represented and have a voice in parliament, while allowing majoritarian government to more directly accountable to the public because it is less limited by coalition restraints (SM parliaments allowing most incoming governments a first term as a one party governing majority).

    2 every vote counts – because elections can be decided in the electorate seats under SM.

    I now favour MMP – because it allows better continuity across electoral cycles (consensus before change is more necessary) – though I would have preferential voting in the electorate seats with it and an adjustment to the threshold.

    1. 2.5% – for 2 seats, 3.75% for 3 (a half rate representation threshold
    2. a 5% minimum for 6 seats (full rate representation threshold)
    3. electorate seat winning parties also needing to reach 2.5% before gaining a second seat.

    1 and 2 reduce the effect of the 4.9% nothing or 5% 6 seats divide.
    3 reduces the advantage of one man show parties (so far just MP’s who left major parties and held their seats) over real political party member movements.

    Any SM parliament without preferential voting in the electorates both politicises boundaries and delivers the advantage to the party with Maori Party MP support (threatening the seats coerces appeasement by the MP and this is a card only National can play). The reason being SM would leave the MP (so long as Maori seats continued) as the only large sized third party.

    Which is why National finds a relationship with the Maori convenient for now, and might even support Maori electorate seat continuance, if the MP can be seen as offering a longer term partnership to National.

    This speaks to the heirarchy of authority and partnership building in relationship to authority. The (Tory) Crown and the Maori (property rights and devolution of the state delivery apparatus consensus of the 20thC to local provider agency) partner forming a “conservative” alliance in governance over the people and holding republicanism at bay.

    Am I too cynical in saying that most Maori will be worse off, because it means less work in support of closing the gaps (not so much the colonial National army in alliance with some Maori to loot the property wealth of other Maori, but a new alliance working against the interests of the poorest members of society, some of whom will be Maori).

  36. Rich on January 24th, 2009 at 19:28

    I think the policies of the Green Party actually illustrate the benefits of representative democracy.

    The “social justice” and “environment” aspects of Green policy work together, they are not a coincidence or a random result of the way the party evolved.

    In order that we can make the changes we need in order to protect the environment, the impact of those changes must be equitably shared. Without social justice and accountability, it is likely that those burdens will fall on the poorest in society, while the wealthy will simply pay additional taxes and continue much as before.

    So carving social justice from Green policy would leave a party very different to today’s Green party. Anyone who feels that, for instance, it’s reasonable to make the poor take the brunt of environmentally-forced adjustments is welcome to start their own party, try and change Green policy, or join a party like ACT and try to make it more environmentally oriented (like the UK Tories).

    For those who support the broad thrust of Green policy but have difficulties with a few specifics (like me) it is easy to join the party and advocate for change. (I’d also point out the the media representation of Green policies is wildly different from the actual policies of that party, and many people disagree with the imaginary rather actual policies).

  37. Ari on January 28th, 2009 at 19:37

    1. it allows all parties (it having a lower 2.5% threshold) to be represented and have a voice in parliament, while allowing majoritarian government to more directly accountable to the public because it is less limited by coalition restraints (SM parliaments allowing most incoming governments a first term as a one party governing majority).

    An open-list proportional system would have the same advantage without hamstringing the minor parties, which would be an extreme shame now that everyone is actually beginning to work together under somewhat reasonable terms.

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