Back in the olden days of Greece, direct democracy was practiced. All citizens could vote directly on every issue decided by the state. This is significantly different to the representative democracy practiced in almost all democratic countries today, whereby the people elect a much smaller group of representatives to vote on issues that the state will decide. How does direct democracy compare to representative democracy?

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    Hello! I think this question is asking an important one, but it's currently phrased in a way that solicits opinions rather than concrete answers. I strongly suggest you edit your question into something stronger!
    – Aarthi
    Commented Dec 4, 2012 at 22:22
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    Perhaps have a look at the politics of Switzerland as an example of modern direct democracy? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_in_Switzerland Commented Sep 4, 2014 at 10:15
  • Since the whole question, title should be rephrased, and the chosen answer doesn't focus on "where to draw the line" I have asked another question here: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/27887/…
    – JinSnow
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 11:29
  • Just so it's said... Athenian 'Democracy' was only democratic within a small group of male property owners. The vast majority of the population — women, immigrants, farm laborers, etc — were not considered citizens and had no say at all. The New England Town Hall model is a better example of DD on the merits, though the Greeks obviously did it first (if worse). Commented Jul 31, 2020 at 16:21

5 Answers 5


With direct democracy, decisions are made by the people. Now, legislation passed by parliament is typically extremely complex. Most people don't have the time nor the inclination to read a 50 page bill, so they'll just go off what other people tell them. Even if the issue is stated in only a sentence or two, most people aren't going to bother to read up about the issue. Politicians have more time, more education and more experience than the population on average, so they should be able to make better decisions.

Unfortunately, the political process can become affected by money, where someone's sponsors or the power brokers within the party, insist on policies that benefit them or don't represent the will of the people. Politicians can be overly affected by vocal minorities - sometimes the decision that causes 5% of people not to vote for you would be the best decision for the country (think for example people in an industry who want to maximise their conditions).

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    I can't +1 one this, because Politicians don't read the bills either and the legislation is often overly complex (how many hundred pages was Obamacare again?). I seriously doubt most people in the Congress or the Senate has read that bill and knows what it says. They vote for/against it because they are told to by the party or payed to by lobbyists. Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 6:30
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    @LennartRegebro: They probably haven't read the whole bill themselves, but I expect they have staff whose job it is to read the bill for them and give them the Cliff notes version
    – Casebash
    Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 6:35
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    Right. But the public get "cliff notes" as well. Hence this isn't a difference. I agree that Politicians should be more well informed, but they aren't. This is especially blatant when it comes to things like internet and intellectual property. Commented Dec 5, 2012 at 7:12
  • John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, said "Pure democracy cannot subsist long nor be carried far into the departments of state – it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage." Alexander Hamilton said, "That a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure, deformity." Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 20:15
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    @LindsayMorsillo The fact that famous historical figures said X or Y doesn't mean they are correct. There is an inherent problem with representative democracy. It is, in practice an oligarchy.
    – Jose Luis
    Commented Jul 10, 2015 at 9:39

The first answer pretty much sums up the functional differences of Direct (pure) Democracy vs. Representative Democracy. But due to the prevalence of representative democracy, the phrase "Direct Democracy" is sometimes used to describe the tools which the people have to directly impact their representative democracy.

These tools are forms of political action that provide limited direct democracy:

  • Initiative - These are usually put forward by the populace, force the consideration of laws or amendments (usually by a subsequent referendum), without the consent of the elected officials, or even in opposition to the will of said officials.
  • Referendum (plebiscite) - This includes the ability to hold a binding referendum on whether a given law should be rejected. This effectively grants the populace which holds suffrage a veto on government legislation.
  • Recall - This is ability to remove elected officials from office before the end of their term, although this is very rare in modern democracies.

In Athens, they also had elected representants in some part of the structure, as is illustrated in this scheme:

Constitutional organisation of Ancient Athens

A direct democracy consisting in citizens voting for all the rules is what is considered a "pure" democracy. However, if you consider the amount of regulations in most of nowadays societies, you realise that this is a full time job, even reading all the bills in details (they employ people to do that), simply attending reunions, parliaments, attending meetings, etc. is a full time job. You can't expect all the citizens in your society to dedicate that amount of time. Plus, even if politicians aren't expert in all the subjects, they need to be well enough educated to be able to write a bill and understand the wording, the consequences, how to discuss them, etc. This is not the case of all citizens.

Furthermore, if you look at how to organise the most direct element of modern democracies: the referendum. You will see that Greece was formidably fast recently in organizing one within a week. It usually takes more time for all the information to be understood by every citizen, give time to supporters and opponents to argue, etc. So it is pretty slow, and it is expensive. This is impossible because of the sheer amount of laws being passed every day. The only way to get around that problem, is to elect professionals who dedicate themselves to such issues, and that are (or should be) as close to your personal meaning/feeling as possible.

One way to add some direct democracy into a representative democracy is to organise referendums regularly on popular initiative and important selected subjects. This is what is done, e.g. in Switzerland.


Direct democracy is a type of democracy that is closest to the spirit and essence of the concept of democracy. This means that people get a chance not just to vote for their representatives but also to vote on policy matters that can affect their lives. This type of democracy can, however, work when there is a small area to be administered, and the population of the area is also very small. In a representative democracy, the role of the citizens is mostly limited to taking part in general elections and giving the vote to their preferred candidates. The elected representatives have to walk a tightrope taking decisions so as to satisfy the maximum number of people in their constituencies. Here is the website where I got this information from. http://www.differencebetween.com/difference-between-direct-and-vs-representative-democracy/ We however, are not a democracy. We are a constitutional republic. Here is a website that explains the difference between the two. http://www.diffen.com/difference/Democracy_vs_Republic

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    What if the population only votes on select laws - e.g. in kinda big Swiss?
    – user45891
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 23:00

A lot of other people have pointed out the difference between direct democracy and representative democracy already, but one thing I like to point out is that direct democracy (people directly voting on important issues) and representative democracy (people vote for representatives who represent them) don't have to necessarily be exclusive. There is semi-direct democracy: a democracy where "representatives administer daily governance, but citizens keep the sovereignty". The only nation doing this is Switzerland, which allows people to hold referendums on any law voted by federal, cantonal parliament, or a municipal legislative body. Because of this, the Swiss vote more than any other people since their votes can matter on a legislative level and on a representative level. Basically, the lines between direct democracy and representative democracy can be blurred and remove the issues each system has. Direct democracy can led to mob rule, as certain thinkers like Professor John T Tenders of the University of Idaho points out:

If we base our critique on the definition of democracy as governance based on the will of the majority, there can be some foreseeable consequences to this form of rule. For example, Fierlbeck (1998: 12) points out that the middle class majority in a country may decide to redistribute wealth and resources into the hands of those that they feel are most capable of investing or increasing them. Of course this is only a critique of a subset of types of democracy that primarily use majority rule.

Machiavelli also pointed out how a government under direct democracy can fall apart if it caters to the whims of a dumb, uneducated majority, but pointed out how combining direct democracy with some other form of government could prevent this.

However, people like Bernard Manin pointed out how representative democracy can lead to a certain group of elites controlling things on 'behalf of the people':

The real difference between ancient democracies and modern republics lies, according to Madison, in "the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity from any share in the latter, and not in the total exclusion of the representatives of the people from the administration of the former.

Both forms of democracy have flaws, but semi-direct democracy works to fix these issues by having a well-educated population get the tools to change laws if they truly want to while having a body of smart elected representatives craft laws and run daily tasks on their behalf.

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