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.