Since direct democracy is not possible in large and complex societies, the mechanism through which people take part indirectly in government is through electing representatives to carry out their will. For early social contract theorists, such as Hobbes and Locke, representative government was a form of government authorized by the people to act on its behalf. For Rousseau, however, sovereign power over the state should rest in the hands of the citizenry and its “general will”, because the opinions and interests of representatives could never be identical to those of the electorate.
Be that as it may, today representative government- based on the majority principle- is considered the best way of giving effect to the democratic impulse. It has, however, two types of critics, those who consider it unrealistic (Schumpeter and the elite theorists) and those who consider it inadequate (participatory democrats, discussed in the next section). The Schumpeterian view of democracy projects this statement of the classical eighteen century theory of democracy as an inaccurate account of what democracy is really about. To Joseph Shumpeter, the classical theory of democracy assumes- mistakenly- that sovereignty lies in the hands of the people as an institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions which realize the common good in this way. In reality, however, Schumpeter argues, democracy is not about popular sovereignty. It is not really the case that the primary task of democracy is to vest political power in the hands of a sovereign electorate, and its secondary task to elect leaders. On the contrary, the main purpose of democracy seems to be to elect leaders from among a given set candidates, who compete with each other for the people’s vote. Leadership is the driving-force, the people merely give their endorsement to one or the other leader. This has been called the “realist” theory of democracy.