Types of Democracy

Explain how models of representative democracy are visible in major institutions, policies, or debates in the U.S.

Representative democracies can take several forms along this scale:

  • Participatory democracy, which emphasizes broad participation in politics and civil society

  • Pluralist democracy, which recognizes group-based activism by nongovernmental interests striving for impact on political decision making

  • Elite democracy, which emphasizes limited participation in politics and civil society

Three primary models of representative democracy underpin the constitution and its major institutions, its development, and debates. The first model emphasizes participatory democracy. In this model civil society is maintained when the broadest selection of citizens engages in the political process. A second model emphasizes a pluralist democracy. In this model rival groups form to compete against each other in their desire to influence public policy. A third model emphasizes elite democracy. In this model the primary political decisions are made and enforced by a select group of advantaged citizens. James Madison argued strongly for a pluralist democracy. The best way to protect the rights of the people from dangerous factions is to encourage a large republic of competing groups. Conversely the Anti-federalists argued a large pluralistic republic would result in an unwieldy polity. A large republic, they argued in an essay entitled Brutus 1, would increase the power and rights of certain elite while diminishing the power and rights of the people. Groups like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street demonstrate the ability of everyday citizens to affect policy from the grassroots. Participatory democracy is alive and well in America today. So, it can be said for pluralist democracy. Interest groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Sierra Club compete against each other over environmental policy both locally and at the national level. Elite opinions as well continue to play a disproportionate role in our major institutions, policies and events. Elected officials, appointed public servants, corporate voices and even entertainment figures often guide and direct our most pressing debates.

Elite Democracy

Elite democracy is a model in which a select, powerful subgroup holds political power. The rationale for limiting political participation to the wealthy or land-holding classes is that they typically have a higher degree of education from which to make more informed political decisions. Proponents of elite democracy hold the view that poorer, uneducated citizens may lack the political know-how needed to participate. Founding fathers John Adams and Alexander Hamilton advocated for an elite democracy, fearing that opening the democratic process to the masses could lead to poor political decision-making, societal instability, and mob rule.

We can find an example of elite democracy very early in the history of the United States. In 1776, state legislatures regulated voting practices. The only people allowed to vote were landholding white men.

Pluralist Democracy

In a pluralist democracy, the government makes decisions and enacts laws influenced by social groups with various ideas and perspectives. Interest groups, or groups that come together because of their shared affinity for a particular cause can impact the government by bringing voters together into larger, more powerful units.

Interest groups advocate for their causes through fundraising and other means of influencing government officials. Individual voters are empowered through collaboration with like-minded citizens. Together they attempt to advance their cause. Advocates of pluralist democracy believe that when divergent views enter into negotiations, it serves a protective function where one group cannot completely overpower another.Pluralist ideas can be traced back to early liberal political philosophy, and notably to the ideas of Locke and Montesquieu. Their first systematic development, however, is found in the contributions of James Madison to The Federalist Papers (Hamilton et al., [1787–89] 1961). In considering the trans - formation of America from a loose confederation of states into the federal USA, Madison’s particular fear was the ‘problem of factions’. In common with most liberals, Madison argued that unchecked democratic rule might simply lead to majoritarianism, to the crushing of individual rights and to the expropriation of property in the name of the people. What made Madison’s work notable, however, was his stress upon the multiplicity of interests and groups in society, and his insistence that, unless each such group possessed a political voice, stability and order would be impossible. He therefore proposed a system of divided government based on the separation of powers, bicameralism and federalism, that offered a variety of access points to competing groups and interests. The resulting system of rule by multiple minorities is often referred to as ‘Madisonian democracy’. Insofar as it recognizes both the exist ence of diversity or multiplicity in society, and the fact that such multiplicity is desirable, Madison’s model is the first developed statement of pluralist principles

Well-known interest groups include The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the National Urban League. States function similarly to interest groups, contributing the political perspectives of the citizens that live there. Political parties are another interest group that brings people together with similar political perspectives to influence the government.

Participatory Democracy

A participatory democracy focuses on wide-scale involvement in the political process. The goal is for as many citizens to engage politically as possible. Laws and other issues are voted on directly as opposed to being decided by elected representatives.

The founding fathers did not prefer participatory democracy. They didn’t trust the masses to make informed political decisions. In addition, having everyone contribute their opinion to every issue would be too cumbersome in a large, complex society.

The participatory democracy model wasn’t part of the U.S. Constitution. However, it is used in local elections, referendums, and initiatives where citizens have a direct role in decision-making.

It is important to note that participatory democracy is not a direct democracy. There are similarities, but in a direct democracy, citizens vote directly on important government decisions, while in a participatory democracy, political leaders still have an ultimate say.

Examples of participatory democracy include ballot initiatives and referendums. In ballot initiatives, citizens enter a measure onto the ballot for consideration by voters. Ballot initiatives are prospective laws that everyday citizens introduce. A referendum is when the electorate votes on a single issue (usually a yes or no question). However, in the United States, according to the Constitution, referendums cannot be held on the federal level but can be held on the state level.

Other Types of Democracy and Government: Direct, Indirect, Consensus, and Majoritarian Democracies