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What is the Difference Between a Direct and Indirect Democracy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The difference between direct and indirect democracy is fairly simple. In a direct democracy, citizens make decisions directly by proposing laws or referendums on laws which are disliked, voting to determine who enters public office, and recalling public officials who are not doing their jobs. An indirect democracy, on the other hand, uses a small group of officials to make decisions of importance on behalf of their constituents. In both cases, the input of the people is the cornerstone of the government, but the government is run in different ways.

A classic example of a direct democracy is the Town Meeting. Many cities around New England continue to hold town meetings, annual events where all citizens who want to can attend to vote on issues of importance to the community. At a town meeting, citizens might decide how to allocate funds in the community, or they may propose new laws to make the community run more smoothly.

A well known example of indirect democracy is a house of legislature such as the United States Senate. Members of a legislature are typically elected by constituents, although they may also be appointed, depending on how their government is run. These individuals are expected to make decisions on behalf of all citizens, but the voices of individual citizens are not part of the voting process, although citizens may testify at hearings on laws of interest, and they are encouraged to contact their representatives about issues of concern.

Direct and indirect democracies both have their place. A direct democracy works best in a small community with actively involved citizens, making it ideal for something like a small town in New England, but less suited to a major city. Indirect democracy creates a more streamlined and manageable process through experienced elected officials. However, it also relies on active and engaged citizens: in order for a direct democracy to work well, citizens need to be educated and interested, actively participating in votes and other events where their opinion is solicited.

Many nations try to create a blend of both types of democracy. For example, many states in the United States have an initiative and referendum system, which is a form of direct democracy. These systems allow individual voters to get issues on the ballot with the support of signatures from other voters, creating a forum where people can speak up about issues of concern to them and actively shape their governments.

Essentially, the difference between direct and indirect democracy can be highlighted in the names of these two different systems of democracy. Direct democracies demand direct participation from members of society, while indirect democracies rely on indirect participation. Direct and indirect democracy both also must rely on checks and balances which are designed to ensure that no officials overstep their bounds.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1000757 — On Dec 18, 2018

Sometimes it is human masses, control technology, or a piece of cheese in a political mousetrap -- or just a trigger word.

By anon340980 — On Jul 07, 2013

I thought that there was only one type of democracy but there are mainly two kinds.

By glinda — On Aug 11, 2010

Direct democracy is when the people represent themselves and indirect is when they elect representatives.

By livvyrocks — On Oct 21, 2008

i thought there was only 1 type of democracy.

By anon19079 — On Oct 05, 2008

Then what is the difference between Direct Democracy and Direct Citizen Participation?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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