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What is the Difference Between a Representative Democracy and a Participatory Democracy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A democracy is a type of government that is run with the input of its citizens, either directly or indirectly. It contrasts with other types of government that are run by individuals or small groups of high-ranking people. Many governments have adopted democracy in varying forms and to varying degrees. Most of these governments are representative democracies, in which the citizens elect representatives to run the government on their behalf and vote on matters such as the passing of laws. The difference between representative democracies and participatory democracies is that in participatory democracies, all eligible citizens can vote on these matters themselves.

Representative Democracies

In a representative democracy, certain people is established as eligible voters based on their age or other qualifications. Eligible voters then elect representatives to serve as government officials, such as members of a chamber, senate or parliament. These officials typically are elected by voters in a certain area, such as a region of a country. An elected official represents the citizens of his or her area and tacitly agrees to serve their interests. Often, a representative must balance competing interests in his or her jurisdiction and will try to satisfy the greatest number of his or her constituents.

To help serve the needs of their constituency, representatives who serve in the national government typically maintain regional offices so that their voters can communicate with them. Individual voters often contact their representatives to encourage them to vote a certain way on a bill or to push through a specific piece of legislation. Some of these measures might be voted on directly by the citizens, in the form of propositions on the ballot. In addition, many representative democracies also permit referendums — pieces of legislation that are proposed directly by the people. If citizens can get enough signatures on a referendum to indicate a certain level of public interest, it could be placed on the ballot during an election.

Participatory Democracies

In a participatory democracy, also called a direct democracy, every citizen plays an active role in the government. Many people believe that for this type of government to be successful, it must be in a localized region with a relatively small population. This is because large numbers of eligible citizens might clog the workings of the government, sparking endless debates and votes but never actually achieving anything. Citizens must also have an active interest in the success of their governments for participatory democracies to work as intended.

A nationwide participatory democracy might be difficult to manage, although many people are hopeful that modern technology will allow citizens to have greater participation in government. Many small towns within representative democracies use a form of direct democracy at their town meetings. Allowing each citizen on the town level a vote and a role in the government is believed to lead to a more active, caring and interconnected community.

The participatory democracy model also allows citizens to prioritize what is important to them, rather than relying on representatives to address issues for them and decide what is important. For example, the citizens in one area might place a higher priority on funding for schools and libraries, and the citizens of a neighboring area might place greater importance on building better roads. When an elected representative decides what is most important, there is a chance that he or she will make a decision that is contrary to the desires of the majority his or her constituents, possibly because of his or her own beliefs or for political reasons.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon230344 — On Nov 18, 2011

It's true that a national participatory democracy in the U.S. would be challenging if not impossible, but why hasn't anyone considered a modified version of a participatory democracy?

Wouldn't it be possible to, for example, open up congress meetings to the public through the internet and allow real-time polling and some form of organized commenting on the issues being discussed? Or at least allow representatives of the affected parties to represent themselves where that would make sense? As it is, the only people that get to participate in "participatory democracy" are those that can afford a huge number of paid lobbyists. Surely it doesn't have to remain that way.

By anon156890 — On Feb 28, 2011

This is a good article. It really helped with my homework.

By anon130529 — On Nov 29, 2010

brief and concise!

By Albona — On Sep 17, 2010

@Ubiquitous - I think we can all agree that a participatory democracy just isn't realistic for a country of the United States' magnitude. There are far too many people that are too politically passionate and not well enough informed about the issues for this type of ideal democracy to work. If you've ever found yourself annoyed with how little gets done in our government now due to religious, political, and idealistic differences, then your mind must reel at how little would get done if everyone in the country got a vote on every issue. It's simply mind-boggling to imagine.

A participatory government can only really work in small communities, where decisions have an immediate and easily tangible impact. With as complex of an infrastructure as the United States currently has (and will continue to have), it is a good thing that people don't have full representation on everything that gets done. Don't get me wrong, I'd like to think that this type of government could work, but it just wouldn't.

By Ubiquitous — On Sep 15, 2010

The limitations of technology that once required us to use a representative democracy are no longer an issue.

With the use of computers and the internet, we could now develop a system that would allow for a direct and participatory democracy to exist in the United States.

The question that then arises is, would we want the mass population of our country voting on every issue that would pass in front of congress? Perhaps overcoming the technical challenges is not the only thing stopping us from a participatory democracy.

Our politicians are educated and versed in the workings of government and can therefore could be better suited for making such decisions.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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