Representative versus Delegate Democracy

The British parliamentary model requires representatives to act on ‘behalf’ of the people. MPs are expected to apply their own judgment. It has to be so, for under this system representatives are asked to make decisions for constituents who didn’t elect them. A PM decides for the whole country while he is only directly elected from a small constituency.  Similarly, an MP represents his entire state but he is elected only from a few districts of that state.

Edmond Burke, the famed British parliamentarian, described their model thus: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

The U.S. system on the other hand is based on the ‘delegate’ model, meaning that the decision making is left in the hands of the people. Elected representatives do not act on behalf of the people, but as their delegates. They are expected to see what people want rather than apply their own judgment. It works because of the American system’s unique structure.  It allows each representative to speak only for the constituents that elected him: a senator, elected by the whole state, and a president, by the entire country.

Comparing the two in the 1950s, Douglas Verney, a British professor of political science, noted that the delegate model made governance more participatory. It makes sense because people feel they have a greater say in their representative’s decisions.

Verney wrote, “There does seem to be a heightened sense of responsibility for political action in local or national or even international affairs in a country like the United States which in some respects tends to favor delegate democracy. … [In Britain] on the whole… we have accepted the view of our leaders that firm government is more important than the radical notion that the will of the people must prevail.”

In this recent article The Economist concurs, and shows how the British are moving toward delegate democracy. For, as it notes, “it is hard to have confidence when you don’t know who’s making the decisions.”

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