On Democracy: An Interview with Roslyn Fuller

June 3, 2016

AS THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION approaches, many of us are apprehensive, not only about the outcome of this year’s election, but also the electoral process itself. Stalemate is the order of the day and political offices often seem more like prizes to be bought than positions of trust to be earned. Is there something really wrong with American democracy? Dr. Roslyn Fuller, a Canadian-Irish academic, has given her answer to this question in her recently published book, Beasts and Gods, and her view is decidedly “yes.” What is wrong, at the core, she argues, is the system of representative democracy set up by the founders in emulation of the ancient Roman republic. The founders feared the tyranny of the mob and placed their bet instead on a system of elected representatives analogous to the Senate and People’s Assembly of ancient Rome. While this style of representative democracy has served as the model for most modern democracies, Fuller believes it has resulted in a disconnect between the government and the citizenry, and a vicious cycle in which money buys office and office attracts money (for reelection). Fuller instead admires the model of ancient Athens, a participatory democracy in which citizens voted directly on legislation, acted as judges, and were compensated for their time. With the advent of the internet, she believes, a new era of a “government by the people” may be possible. Could this work for a nation as large and diverse as the United States? Is it idealistic to expect rank and file folks to step up and take on the tasks of governing? And what about the protection of the rights of minorities, so much the concern of the founders? Her views, to say the least, are controversial. Fuller discussed her book and its critique of modern representative democracy with LARB’s legal affairs editor, Don Franzen.