At the birthplace of democracy, in the ancient Greek ecclesia or principal assembly, government was the people, with the demos (or citizens—limited to adult males) having full knowledge of what government was doing, directly involved in government decisions, and able to create the governance solutions it wanted (Rhodes 2004).
Thriving for approximately 200 years, direct Athenian democracy ultimately became unworkable in part because the increasing population and geographic size of political communities made it unwieldy (Scott 2010). As political entities grew and city-states gave way to the nation-state as the prevailing political model, and legislative assemblies could only accommodate reasonable numbers of participants, it was no longer feasible for all citizens to be directly engaged on a regular basis in their governance, other than through occasional voting. Direct democracy thus evolved into representative democracy, becoming the norm for most political jurisdictions (Mezey 2008).
In this model that we are today most familiar with, candidates seek to represent the interests of a number of citizens spread over some geographic area. Occasional free and open elections are used to select the preferred candidate. The elected representative then travels to a central legislature on behalf of the electorate to take part in the process and acts of governing.
Thus, our modern definition of democracy holds that policy decisions are constitutionally controlled by elected officials who are chosen in frequent and fairly conducted elections, where most adult citizens have the right to vote and the right to stand for election. Citizens have the right to express themselves on political matters, to seek out information independent of the government, and to form independent organizations and associations (Dahl 1994).
Representative democracy, however, introduced three types of communication challenges:
- literal distance between representatives and their electors,
- figurative distance between them, and
- the problem of how to aggregate the diverse views of many citizens.
The geographic size of constituencies, and the distance from the constituency to the central legislature, limits the extent to which citizens can know what their representative or the government is doing, or can be involved in those decision. The physical size and population density of electoral ridings or constituencies varies, but the challenge of how the citizen can know what their representative or their government is doing, and in what ways can they be involved, is amplified with very large constituencies and when the legislature is a very long distance away.
The distance between the citizen and their representative government is also figurative. The rise of the administrative state was a response to the increasing complexity of governing. As government became more complicated than could be managed informally, its formality resulted in a specialization that was opaque to the citizen. In addition to representing their interests, the representative also functions as the full-time, paid, professional legislator, exercising their expertise in overseeing the business of government. They are assisted in this task by full-time, paid, professional administrators. Thus, the elected legislator and the public administrator do for the electors that which they have neither the time nor inclination nor expertise to do themselves. Thus the machinations of government became conducted behind closed doors, away from view of the occasional voting citizen.
But even if the problem of distance—literal, and figurative—were addressed, the issue of diversity of opinion is not far behind. Representing large numbers of electors raises some obvious questions: which electors are able to communicate with their representative, and which voices reach the ear of the representative? The question of how, precisely, a representative should represent the interests of their constituency remains an unsettled debate (see Koop, Bastedo and Blidook, 2018).
Throughout the rise of representative democracy, citizens continued to generate governance solutions with their government or on their own. From the informal (e.g., neighbourhood watch arrangements, or the original ‘sharing economy’ of tool lending and barn raising) to the formal (e.g., civil society organizations like benevolent associations and cooperatives, or common property management regimes; Ostrom 2015), these flourished with the implicit blessing of government so long as they did not contradict the objectives of the government. These organizations, however, are affected by the same distance and number limitations that afflict government: over long distances, or in large numbers, the social capital, authority, and monitoring systems required to sustain their organization diminishes, and thus their governance solutions remained localized (Putnam, Leonardi, and Nanetti 1994).
Rhodes, Peter John. 2004. “General Introduction.” In Athenian Democracy, edited by Peter John Rhodes, 1–12. New York: Oxford University Press.
Scott, Michael. 2010. From Democrats to Kings: The Downfall of Athens to the Epic Rise of Alexander the Great. Icon Books Ltd.
Mezey, Michael L. 2008. Representative Democracy: Legislators and Their Constituents. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Dahl, Robert A. 1994. “A Democratic Dilemma: System Effectiveness versus Citizen Participation.” Political Science Quarterly 109 (1): 23–34. https://doi.org/10.2307/2151659.
Koop, Royce, Heather Bastedo, and Kelly Blidook. 2018. Representation in Action: Canadian MPs in the Constituencies. UBC Press.
Ostrom, Elinor. 2015. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press.
Putnam, Robert D., Robert Leonardi, and Raffaella Y. Nanetti. 1994. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press.