Aggregative Model of Democracy

… a core term used in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100


Joseph Heath (reference below) notes that advocates of aggregative theories of democracy see “the representative as merely a conduit for the transmission of the preferences and interests of constituents” because they believe that “all legitimacy must be anchored in a popular vote” (p. 5).

This model can be contrasted with the Deliberative Model of Democracy and the Competitive Model of Democracy.

Heath describes the ideal of the aggregative model:

“The ideal is one in which the political system is as transparent as possible to the popular will. Instead of the “elite” imposing its own goals and preferences upon the public, the public itself determines what should be done, and the political leadership simply implements its decisions. In a sense, the representative is a necessary evil. Whenever possible, it is best to cut the representative out of the loop entirely and hold a citizens’ referendum. Thus the idea of an “e-government,” in which citizens are able to participate on a day-to-day basis in the affairs of state through referenda conducted on-line, represents the ultimate expression of the aggregative ideal.” (p. 4)

“Proponents of the aggregative model tend to believe that all political legitimacy must be anchored in a popular vote. This makes them instinctively suspicious of any institutional arrangement that allows individuals who have not been directly elected to wield significant power. The appointed Senate represents the most obvious affront to this sensibility, but many proponents of this model also oppose the power of the judiciary, the idea of constitutionally entrenched rights, and any other countermajoritarian element within the political system. Commitment to an aggregative view also often underlies support for proportional representation, along with the widespread opposition to the exercise of party discipline over parliamentarians.” (p. 5)

Heath argues that, while there is something very attractive and uncomplicated about the aggregative view, this conception has major shortcomings and he analyzes them under the headings of information, indeterminacy, and instrumentalism.

Problem 1 – Information

“People are often woefully uninformed when it comes to even basic matters of fact concerning the society in which they live. Most have no idea how the economy works, how the political system functions, how the legal system operates, or how much tax they pay. Perhaps a third cannot identify the primary political ideologies, such as “liberal” and “conservative” and “left” or “right.” Often they do not even know where their own economic interests lie. Perhaps the most remarkable example of this was a recent poll, conducted in the United States, which sought to determine why a set of proposed tax cuts, which disproportionately benefited the wealthy, enjoyed such wide popular approval. It was discovered that 19 per cent of Americans believed that they were in the top 1 per cent income bracket (while another 20 per cent thought that they soon would be).” (p. 5-6)

“… As a result, there will always be an important fiduciary element in the role of the parliamentarian. The representative does not simply passively represent the interests and opinions of constituents. He or she is, in many ways, responsible for looking after their interests, exercising judgment on their behalf. Thus the parliamentarian is expected to develop expertise over time, to acquire a deeper understanding both of the constituency and of the broader political, economic and social systems.” (p. 6-7)

Problem 2 – Indeterminacy

“Information problems are somewhat minor, when compared to the central objection to the aggregative theory of democracy. The problem is that often there is simply no way to construct a social preference ordering out of the set of individual preferences. Individual opinions simply do not add up to one coherent general will. The most straightforward example of this is the Condorcet voting paradox.” (p. 7)

[See Condorcet’s Paradox]

“It would be difficult to understate the importance of this finding. For instance, it suggests that referenda are essentially useless for deciding even slightly complex policy questions. Similarly, electoral recall, which would allow a majority of constituents to “fire” their representative at any time, is unworkable. In a system with more than two parties, it will usually be the case that a majority opposes any one person or party, regardless of who it is. Because electoral recall imposes a pair-wise comparison, it will often generate a constant cycling of representatives, not to mention a state of perpetual electioneering, as representatives seek to defend themselves against the constant threat of recall.”

Problem 3 – Instrumentalism

“The third and final problem with the aggregative model of democracy is that it encourages an instrumental (or strategic) orientation to the political process. The aggregative model conceives of each individual’s private interest as something akin to a vector, with a certain direction and magnitude. The function of political institutions is to take each of these vectors and add them all up, in order to determine the overall direction and impetus of public policy. But if this is how the political system functions, then the only demand that it makes upon citizens is to advance their own interests as vigorously as possible, without regard for the concerns of others. It privileges, in other words, the rational (calculating the most efficient means to the realization of one’s ends) over the reasonable (advancing moderate demands, in recognition of the fact that others have legitimate interests that are in conflict with one’s own).

“Such a conception of politics in turn encourages a “checks and balances” mentality toward institutional design. Since political actors cannot be counted on to act reasonably, some formal countervailing power must be erected in every institution, in order to block any one agent from getting his or her way unopposed. And once institutions are designed in this way, the privileging of the rational over the reasonable becomes not just an option, it becomes mandatory for all political actors. After all, if everyone else is going to be acting in an instrumental fashion, pushing as hard as they can to block your agenda, then the correct thing for you to do is to push as hard as you can in return. The onus is no longer on the individual, as a citizen, to moderate her demands in light of what is best for all. The individual’s job is to push as hard as she can for her own interests, counting upon others to do the same, and for the political system to balance it all out in such as way as to produce the outcome that is best for all.” (p. 9-10)

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Electoral Systems and Democratic Reform (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Joseph Heath (n.d.), The democracy deficit in Canada, at, accessed 12 August 2016 and uploaded to the Atlas at

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 15 August 2016.