The Fundamental Problem with Representative Democracy

Most of us, at least in the West, live in some version or another of a representative democracy. Sometimes that democracy is a little more democratic than at other times (as can easily be seen using tools like the democracy index) and sometimes that democracy is combined with some vestiges of the past (such as in many European constitutional monarchies) but, by and large, representative democracies (at least nominally) dominate in the West.

A good thing, right? Well, maybe in some ways.

The ability to vote, to have a small part in determining how your country is governed, is a great right that many of our predecessors fought and died for. And yet, how often do you find yourself excited to exercise this right on election day? Or rather, on election day, do you more often find yourself begrudgingly putting on your shoes and your jacket and having to drag yourself to the polls to vote? Do you more often feel you are forced to vote for a party you hate or a politician you loathe just because of damage reduction? Because the other side is “worse.” You’re voting for them and yet you don’t even like the people you’re voting for at all. They don’t align with you. Well, this is the product of a fundamental problem many modern democracies have.

The Upside

Now, don’t get me wrong. If you look at what came before representative democracy in places like Europe, you can certainly say that we’ve moved forward quite a lot. Unlike the peasants in a feudal monarchy, for example, we all (above 18) have the ability to influence the political process and the direction of our country. Even without getting out our pitchforks and torches out and storming the Bastille. And this is a good thing. This has contributed to a largely more peaceful, more prosperous and happier society with more accountable government. However, just because democracy is good in this way does not mean we should be afraid to criticize it where it’s flawed.

One such flaw, and the flaw I want to focus this article on, stems from this simple fact: You only have one vote but many positions.

Explaining the Problem

Imagine the following scenario: You deeply care about the issue of not allowing the usage of paper cups in bars for whatever reason. This issue is important to you and you’ve even gone to a protest or two about it (no paper signs allowed, of course). It must be said you really hate those dumb paper cups. Maybe your father left your mother to go live with a paper cup, who knows. The point is: you no likey.

On the other hand though, you also really love nuclear energy. Like you adore it. You’re hoping to finish your degree in nuclear engineering. You have a sticker warning of radiation danger on your bedroom door. You drink uranium on the regular while you furiously masturbate, the works.

And now it’s election time. Oh happy day. There are three main parties you can vote for (just for simplicity’s sake, this also works with more parties): The Party of Pete’s leader, Joe, says he wants to ban those damn paper cups in a debate. You, having already taken your dick out, nod along in agreement until you’re on the brink of a concussion. However, this is followed by a tirade on how much he absolutely hates nuclear power. Your throbbing erection is reduced to a limp noodle instantly.

Alright, so maybe you’re not voting for the Party of Pete this time. But what about the other ones?

Well, the Dannyiest party wants to maintain and expand nuclear, however their leader wears an “I Heart Paper Cups” shirt 24/7. So he’s out. And the party of the Joeists, well… they both love paper cups and hate nuclear. Those damn, dirty Joeists.

As you can see, you are now in a position where you clearly know what you want (no paper cups, and lots of nuclear) but you have no way of truly expressing this with your vote. You can only vote for one party (or a representative of one party), because you only have the one vote, and yet you have two things you want. You are stuck voting for the lesser evil as always.

And this is a fundamental problem with the entire system: The way we express ourselves in this system (by voting with a single vote every few years) cannot accurately reflect our actual positions. It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, it ain’t gonna happen.

They Know

On top of this, politicians and political parties know this. They know that if they give you just enough, but screw you over in every other concievable way, you’ll still vote for them. They can keep taking money from billionaires in return for legislative positions and they can keep sending your soldiers over sea to die in pointless wars, all so long as they make sure to also give you a few tax cuts or wave a gay pride flag once in a while.

Because they know you only have one vote. They know that in order to get the good shit they’re promising, you’ll have to put up with the bad shit you hate.

This dynamic, especially in a two-party system such as the U.S., encourages the existing parties to screw you as much as they can get away with.

Moe Parties, Fewer Problems?

Now, you may point out that another party can arise. And yes, this is true. But not only does that take significant time and resources (and it will be fought very heavily by the older, more established parties) but you’ll likely have the same problem no matter what that new party believes.

They may support banning paper cups and maintaining nuclear, but maybe they’re also very pro-free trade and you’re not. Or maybe they’re very protectionist, and you’re not. There are so many issues (including important issues) that you may want to vote on, that it is simply impossible to have a traditional representative democracy where there are enough parties to cover all the options.

After all, simple math dictates this. If you have 2 issues which are binary in nature (for and against, although reality is rarely even that simple) then there are 4 possible combinations. So in order for everyone to be able to make their optimal choice you would need four parties. Four parties might not be so bad, but few of us have only 2 issues we think are important. Crank that up to 3 binary issues and suddenly there are 9 possible combinations. Go up even further to 4 and wadda you know, now there are 16 possible combinations. That would be 16 parties just to cover 4 important issues. To quote my personal idol: That escalated quickly, that really got outta hand fast. And this goes on and on and on until there are more political parties than stars in the galaxy. Exponential growth is a bitch.

On top of this our stances can rarely be reduced to a simple binary. Maybe you don’t want more nuclear, but you also don’t want to get rid of the nuclear plants you already have. Maybe you want most startup businesses to get subsidies, but not fossil fuel businesses. This further multiplies the number of parties required to cover all possible combinations of all important issues. And to add yet another layer on top of this political cake, the same issues aren’t the most important issues to everyone.

So while more parties might reflect the populace’s desire more accurately, it’s not actually a viable solution to this problem.

What’s the Solution?

So what is the solution then? Well, time to disappoint you harder than I disappointed my father the day I was born: I’m not sure.

There are many POSSIBLE solutions, or at least partial solutions, to this problem. Either through adjustments in the way we go about representative democracy (such as by having direct elections for ministerial positions) or through the adoption of other systems of government (such as a digital direct democracy). But none of them are ideal and each of them have their own challenges and problems.

However, the main point of this article was never to provide you with an easy solution. Because the fact is, there aren’t any. Politics is messy. The world is messy. But I hope that I’ve gotten you to think about some of the political difficulties and complexities that exist in our systems of government. And I encourage you to remember that, while democracy is great, it doesn’t have to be the end point. Political systems are clay in our hands, we can always shape them into something better.

…Or squeeze them into the shape of a dick and laugh at them cuz why the fuck not?



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Dr. Analyze

Dr. Analyze


Writing about society, politics and a hefty dose of fiction.