Democratic Theory

Democratic principles include popular sovereignty, political equality, popular consultation and majority rule. There are two broad schools of thought.

Advocates for direct democracy argue that decisions are best made by the full, direct, and unmediated participation of citizens. Decisions reached by elected representatives are inevitably distorted by the interests of their supporters. It can be shown that direct democracy develops citizen's understanding and awareness of public affairs through participation. Benjamin Barber, a leading political theorist, sees participation as an integral part of democracy saying that “when participation is neutered by being separated from power, then civic action will only be a game and its rewards will seem childish to women and men of the world; they will prefer to spend their time in the pursuit of private interests.”

Those who argue for representative democracy maintain that full participation is an unworkable ideal for a modern nation state. Direct Democracy arose in ancient Greek city states where participation in public affairs was a leisure afforded by the use of slave labour. They say that the citizen can realise the essence of democracy by electing representatives subject to periodic review.

In theory democratic goverments rule with the consent of their citizens and citizens participate through their representatives. The reality is that in Britain participation is declining as people realise how powerless they are, and how ineffective our political systems are at dealing with real problems. There are other alternatives, where representative democracy is supplemented with the direct votes of citizens. Switzerland and the American states are the most well known Western examples.

The main arguments used against the regular use of referendums are that ordinary people do not have the ability to make complex decisions, minorities can have their basic rights abused, and that the use of referendums undermines representative democracy. The reality is that larger groups are better at making good decisions, and we cover this in other parts of the website. Research shows that people living in countries where referendums are used regularly are better informed.

The protection of minorities is important and their rights must be protected but we already have extensive human rights and equality legislation in place. Our research shows that in the past one or two referendums could be considered to have had a negative impact on equality issues. In practice, the use of referendums has evolved in line with the general progress towards greater equality in western societies.