Representative Democracy’s Fundamental Flaws

We all know that there are a myriad of problems with our election system, ranging from out-of-control spending to a talking-head media. These are important and the details of these problems and potential solutions are discussed through the sub-headings under this topic. There are many groups doing good work on these solutions and they should absolutely be supported and encouraged.

However, there are underlying problems that come with representative democracy that aggravate and reinforce the rest that do not have an apparent solution. These boil down to two issues: all-or-nothing elections and the focus on individual politicians.


Every politician knows that to affect policy change, they, and their party, have to win.

All elected and party officials, then, as well as many government employees, have a huge incentive to to lie, distract, compromise ideals and break or abuse the law to give themselves or their party an edge in the next election. It also forces politicians, and often voters, to forgive, explain away or ignore any sin or idiocy committed by a fellow party member, even as they crucify a member of the opposing party for a similar but relatively minor infraction.

This incentive also increases the difficulty of affecting reform to solve problems with our democratic system and is often responsible for creating them in the first place. People who know they have an advantage in raising money want more money in the system, not less.

Individual Politicians

Elections in the U.S. ultimately come down a choice between two politicians. That means political fights where the voters have an actual say in what happens often become about the two individuals and not the policies they espouse. A politician that thinks they would lose a policy argument can distract from that with an attack on the other person’s character.

Even when these fights do focus on policy, voters are forced to choose between two politicians that do not agree with them on all issues, perhaps even most issues. If a politician feels like they may lose an election, they look for a policy they can exploit. For example, they may take a position they hadn’t taken before knowing that the public supports it. Alternatively, they may find an issue where the public agrees with them. but doesn’t prioritize it. They can use increasingly hyperbolic language to when describing the problem to make voters care about it more.

Either way, the public has little way of knowing how much the politician really cares about the issue, how hard they’ll work for it or how they will vote if the policy ever actually comes up.