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Difference between participatory democracy and representative democracy

Participatory democracy vs representative democracy

The Greeks are often credited with the creation of democracy. Named “demokratia,” or “rule of the people,” this political system radically changed the relationship of power between a government and its people. Democracy challenged political elites to be accountable to the very people who elected them. Democracy is generally perceived the most ideal and preferred system of governance based on its ability to empower its citizenry and enable self-determination. Much like any system of government, how a democracy is implemented and practiced has produced varying shades of opinion. Two such interpretations include representative democracy and participatory democracy.

Most people are familiar with representative democracy. This process involves an electorate selecting and voting on political candidates and/or political parties, who in turn make policy. Citizens entrust their elected leaders to act in accordance to how they wish to be represented. Candidates who behave irrationally or unethical will likely not return to office after losing favor with the voting public. In practice, this system of governance is also referred to as a republic, which is what the United States is classified as.

Representative democracy is the most prevalent system of government in the Western world. It varies from constitutional monarchies (United Kingdom) to parliamentary republics (Canada or Germany) to constitutional republics (United States). In each scenario, there are parallels. For example, most elected officials are constrained by a constitution, which codifies a system of checks and balances to curtail any significant centralization of power. This is usually supported by an independent judiciary (which determines what is and isn’t constitutional) and an elected legislature (which drives policies and legislation). In most cases, the legislature is bicameral, meaning there are two separate political institutions for legislation to pass through before becoming law.

Though representative democracy has been generally considered favorable in comparison to the oligarchies and tyrannies of yesteryear, it still hasn’t necessarily promised the highest degree of freedom. Even political revolutions built on the ideas of liberty produced checkered results when it came to full enfranchising its citizenry. Voting rights were predominately in the hands privileged elites and did not include ethnic minorities and women until the past century. In addition, many argue that representative democracy produces a class of professional politicians who are beholden to the agendas of the economic elite who finance their campaigns. The sometimes unholy union between political power and economic wealth reproduce the plutocratic or oligarchical tendencies of past failed governments.

This is where participatory democracy enters the picture. Many argue that if democracy is to be considered a fully liberating ideology , then it should remove the “middle man.” Participatory democracy (also known as direct democracy) puts policy responsibilities directly in the hands of the citizenry. To date, there isn’t a country in the international order that could be properly defined as a comprehensive participatory democracy. However, there are microcosms. For example, referendum voting in the United States is the best example of codified participatory democracy. The legislature can pass the buck when it comes to voting on a measure, and place a proposal on the ballot for the citizens to vote on directly.
Participatory democracy finds its strengths in smaller settings. For example, the recent Occupy movement is often cited for utilizing this model of governance within the ranks of its protesters. Turning all constituents into equal stakeholders, participatory democracy has the unique power to build communities based on mutualism and cooperation. Many activist networks and organizations – especially those drawn to progressive causes – favor such an environment because of it allows them to “practice what they preach.” However, its lack of broad appeal on a larger, national scales highlights its primary weakness: As the size of the citizenry grows and diversifies, the harder it is to build consensus in an efficient manner.

Democracy is often criticized – and has been for centuries – for vesting too much power in the collective hands of general public. Winston Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” Early advocates for republicanism, who wished to invest more power in the individual, equated the practice of democracy to the “tyranny of the majority” and “mob rule.” Critics joke that democracy is the equivalent of two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. Regardless of the criticisms, the impact of democratic movements across the world throughout history is uncanny. A large majority of the world – whether those living in a democratically shaped country or those living under tyranny who yearn for democracy – strive for many of the principles (e.g., free speech, practice of religion, etc.) that make democracy an exceptional political system.


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1 Comment

  1. There will never be true democracy anywhere until the political playing field is leveled to include the disenfranchised, the poor, and the stripping of legal but immoral use of too much money to represent the relatively few who control and manipulate the political system. There is developing world-wide a revolution against the elite by an underclass of the poor and socially marginalized….History always repeats itself when “progress” marches forward looking backwards .

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