Roslyn Fuller – In Defence of Democracy

The basic meaning of democracy for Roslyn Fuller is not theoretical. She has a visceral attachment to its value and importance which she feels is embedded within the Western cultural tradition. Its meaning is therefore both evident and apparent. Yet she is not a conservative. She senses deep issues within the current framework of democratic governance. But her critique of contemporary democracy is the same which Robert Dahl posed thirty years ago: The problem with democracy is it is not democratic enough. But unlike Dahl she is not drawn to polyarchy but a purer form of direct democracy.

It is a mistake to believe Roslyn Fuller lacks a theoretical framework for her ideas about democracy. There are further echoes of Dahl in her work even though he is not directly cited. Democracy is often reduced to the idea of majority rule but like Dahl this faith in political majorities depends on the principle of political equality. This is the basis to her relentless focus on the idea of one person, one vote. This principle is the key which avoids majority rule from devolving into a tyranny of the majority. No majority can take away the political rights of others without undermining the source of their legitimacy.

Her commitment to the judgement of the people is refreshing. It does not waver even when she disagrees with the outcome. She finds it incomprehensible to criticize voters for the outcome of Brexit or the election of Donald Trump. Although she has mixed feelings about the institutions which led to Trump’s election. The electoral college undermined the outcome of the popular vote. And she is even critical of the nomination process of the Democratic Party which she feels made the nomination of Bernie Sanders an impossibility. Yet her critique is based not on the outcome but the process. Ultimately, she believes the American Presidential election was not democratic enough.

Adam Przeworski has said elections are unpredictable. This is a challenge for social reformers because there is no promise the voters will value either liberal or conservative causes. Moreover, governance often requires compromise which dilutes the purity of social agendas. Anyone who has had a job knows it is a challenge to work with others. Many of the democratic critiques Fuller has focused upon are from clear ideological perspectives. Some are derived from the political left while others emerge from Libertarians. But they all have a clear vision of the outcomes of government policy. The great challenge to the democratic process is the polarization of politics which emphasize policy outcomes rather than the fairness of the process to make those decisions.

Fuller finds it difficult to challenge the substance of these challenges. Instead, she finds it easier to undermine the premise of the argument. For example, the first objection she refutes is “People are too racist or sexist” for democracy. In response, she denies people are too racist or sexist. Yet she struggles to deny the substance of the argument. She recognizes racism has been a part of democratic politics for a long time. But she uses this fact to note how racism has receded as democratic institutions have consolidated. Sheri Berman makes a similar case in the Journal of Democracy. She explains how liberalism expands with the franchise. Civil liberties become difficult to protect for the disenfranchised. Amartya Sen goes even farther in his work on famines. He found people represented through democratic governance do not have famines. Their governments are compelled to redirect public resources to alleviate disasters. On the other hand, the famines of Ireland and India were possible because those affected had no say in their government.

Nonetheless, it is not clear that democratic governance brings out the best in its people. The American South reformed its policies of segregation during the same period which widened African American enfranchisement. Yet many of these policies were compelled through an activist court and the power of the central government. It is not clear whether the franchise alone would have reformed Southern institutions had there not been more powerful sources of authority. I do not believe a segregated south would have been democratic even if the franchise was expanded to include all African Americans. There are elements of democracy which extend beyond the mere idea of one person, one vote. Majoritarian theories of democracy focus on universal participation, but actual governance is in the hands of those represented within the political majority. There is no necessity to listen to the concerns or complaints of others. There is no need to compromise because all political decisions are easily resolved through the outcome of a vote. Her critique of sortition draws out some of her majoritarian biases. She imagines sortition as an extension of the modern polarized electorate. But Van Reybrouck envisions sortition as regular citizens who find resolution to disputes through discussion and compromise. Fuller sees majority rule as a necessary and natural means to resolve disagreement. Compromise is left entirely outside the equation.

It is in the third and final section where she incorporates the influence of Athenian democracy on her ideas about democratic governance today. Many scholars have found inspiration from the democracy of Athens. Robert Dahl derived his ideas about participation and equality from the Athenian Model. But Fuller’s ideas are closer to Majid Behrouzi who saw representative democracy as “the betrayal of an ideal.” Behrouzi also found her inspiration in the Athenian Model which relied on the direct participation of its citizens. But both Fuller and Behrouzi go beyond mere inspiration toward idealization. Fuller goes so far as to defend slavery within Athenian society because its absence “would likely have had a negative impact on their military and economic capabilities (compared to where they were with slave labour).” There is no support provided to show a slave economy has any advantages over free labor. Indeed, the writings of Frederick Douglass, a former slave, emphasized the comparative wealth he found in the northern economic system compared to the southern slave economy. But the passage is relevant not for her interpretation on discredited ancient institutions but to show how Fuller transforms the Athenian Model from a source of inspiration into an idealized goal free from blame.

Democratic theory is largely based on the premise that the legitimacy of government rests in the people. But ideas about democracy have not always agreed on how this idea is meant to be realized. Lijphart began his Patterns of Democracy with two chapters. The first explained the Westminster Model of Democracy. The second gave an alternative he described as the Consensus Model of Democracy. This is how he divided approaches toward democracy. But there are many other divides and cleavages between proponents of democratic governance. Roslyn Fuller provides a glimpse into the debate between representative and direct democracy. Her argument is not as academic and thorough as scholars like David Altman who have analyzed nations who incorporate frequent referendums into their constitutional system like Uruguay and Switzerland. Rather her approach is fundamental to her political consciousness. It reads less like an academic work than a moral cause. This does not take away from her case but gives it a sense of authenticity which allows the reader to accept the writer on her terms but will ultimately make it difficult to persuade those who disagree.

jmk, carmel, indiana,

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