Representative democracy is a form of democracy where representatives form an independent ruling body charged with the responsibility of acting in the people's interest. See the Wikipedia article on Representative democracy. Representative democracies are common not only in governments but in many other institutions and organizations where a board of directors, committee, or similar body is in charge of the organization.
Proponents of representative democracy usually hold it to be practically superior to direct democracy because it provides a solution for the problems of mob rule, issue overload, and demagogy. However, there are numerous criticisms of representative democracy. The Metagovernment project intends to overcome the traditional limitations of direct democracy (through the use of the collaborative governance software of active projects), thereby allowing people to dispense with representative democracies.
The problems with representative democracy can be divided into two broad categories: harms to governance and harms to individuals.
Harms to governance
Because representatives are given power, they are prone to corruption. Their power can be used to enrich themselves and their friends, to promote interests they hold (as opposed to those of their constituents), and to sell their influence to others for personal gain.
Elections favor the corrupt
Because of the concentration of power in elected representatives and the resulting inflow of money and influence into their campaigns, it becomes extremely difficult for am ordinary citizen to get elected. Often, the only way an honest candidate can make a meaningful bid for office is for them to succumb to corruption by promising favors to powerful contributors.
Serving the interests of a few
Decision-making processes involving a small number of individuals with a large influence can be captured such that they serve to promote the interests of particular groups in society. The most pervasive example of this is lobbying.
Focus on conflict
Politicians need to differentiate themselves from each other in order to distinguish themselves as the best candidate for office. This requires them to focus on conflict and avoid reaching significant agreements with their opponents. As a result, they not only focus on conflict but actually encourage it. Governance becomes one of internal strife, and consensus through synthesis becomes nearly impossible. The best solutions representatives can come up with are mere compromises, which tend to fail in the long run.
Suppression of issues
Many (often crucial) issues are completely ignored when candidates for an office do not disagree over them. The option of voting for one candidate or another does not provide any recourse for citizens wishing to address such an issue.
Overlooking problems and solutions
People who do have a say on decision-making (representatives, lobbyists, etc.) are not necessarily the most intelligent, creative, or informed individuals. The individuals in power may not be able to properly identify the most important problems, nor to come up with the best solutions.
In representative democracries, successful politicians have to concentrate on being re-elected in the next round of elections, for instance after a period of four years. This can result in a focus on short-term results which, whilst intended to prove politicians' effectiveness in their role, may be detrimental in the long term to the community they are there to serve.
Democracy is always endangered
Since leaders have power, there is always the threat of the leaders dispensing with the democracy. In times of severe crisis (such as economic disaster, impending external military threats, terrorist attack, etc.), a charismatic leader can persuade the people to "temporarily" suspend some of their freedoms while the emergency lasts. Yet once those freedoms are suspended, the people have no recourse to regain them except at the whim of the leader.
News media conflict of interest
Citizens learn about issues and politics from the news media. However, the news media are quite often controlled by large corporations with political agendas.. For example, all American major broadcast TV networks and cable news networks share a corporate parent or controlling investor with one of five studios in the Motion Picture Association of America.
Single point of failure
Representative democracies still suffer from the inherent flaw of feudal governments: kill the king and the entire nation is critically injured. If a president, prime minister, executive director, etc. is unable to govern for any reason, the entire body is often weakened and at greater risk to external harm or internal degradation.
Harms to individuals
No direct say
Citizens get no direct say on any particular issue, instead being forced to support a platform and/or candidate.
Views not represented
A voter may find that none of the candidates from which they may choose, or none of those who stand a realistic chance of being elected, represent the voter's own views. This leaves the voter with the unenviable choice of a) not voting or spoiling their ballot, and thus forfeiting their democratic right; b) voting for 'the lesser of two evils', and thus legitimising a candidate who does not truly represent them; c) running for election themselves, which is financially and practically inconceivable for the vast majority of citizens.
Voting seems like a meaningless act, sometimes being at best the barest expression of a general sentiment summarized by exit polls. The word "democracy" does not seem to be fulfilled by that once-every-couple-years, five-minute act of choosing from a handful of unfamiliar people (who then are granted sweeping power over one's life).
There are always artificial limits to participation. Often even in the most "open" democracies, defined groups (such as children, non-citizens, and criminals) are not given any voice.
To explore the Metagovernment's alternative to representative democracy, please read the article on collaborative governance.