Elections can be exhilarating, exhausting and sometimes embarrassing. To many, these spectacles lie at the heart of a democracy; elections are an open competition for the power and authority to control what government does and does not do. Others doubt the importance of elections, pointing instead to other modes of engagement — particularly the interaction of pressure groups. Elections might be a blunt instrument, they argue, but other pathways ensure the system’s responsiveness.

In light of the exceptionally turbulent 2016 presidential election, as well as a broad array of other on-going transformations, many now ponder the soundness of what Alexander Hamilton dubbed our “grand experiment.” Are citizen’s sovereign or largely powerless? Have we ever had a true democracy? Do elections reflect the policy preferences of the public? Might campaigns overstate the deliberative capacities of voters? Can our governing institutions, forged in a very different time, adequately express the will of the public in the 21st century? Were these structures ever designed to reflect the general will – or are they placebos used to empower the economic elite? And if our democracy is faltering, might there be avenues for reinvigoration? Can the future generations redeem a government of, by, and for the people?

The 2017 William R. and Linda K. Cotter Debate will offer a wide-ranging and vibrant conversation about the democratic character of the United States in the 21st century.

Panelists include:
  • Benjamin Page, Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making, Northwestern University; author of Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It (Forthcoming).
  • Roslyn Fuller, scholar; author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose (2015)
  • Peter Levine, associate dean and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Tufts University; author of We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America (2013)

Moderator: Joseph R. Reisert, Harriet S. Wiswell and George C. Wiswell Jr. Associate Professor of American Constitutional Law, Colby College

Speaker Biographies

Benjamin I. Page

Benjamin I. Page is the Gordon S. Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University, where he has taught since 1988. His interests include American politics and U.S. foreign policy, with particular interests in public opinion and policymaking, the mass media, empirical democratic theory, and political economy. He has written a number of books, including Class War? What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality (with Lawrence R. Jacobs, University of Chicago Press, 2009). His current book project, with Martin Gilens, is Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It (University of Chicago Press, November 2017). Page graduated cum laude from Stanford University with an A.B. in history, completed his J.D. from Harvard Law School, and earned his Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University.

Roslyn Fuller

Roslyn Fuller, a scholar on democratic institutions, wrote the widely acclaimed Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose (Zed Books, 2015), which has challenged conventional theories of democracy. Having lectured on international law in Ireland, Fuller is now a regular commentator in leading international publications, including Salon, The Nation, Los Angeles Review of Books, Alternet, and many others. Fuller is currently president of the Solonian Democracy Institute, where she studies how Athenian democratic principles can be applied to modern times. She received her Ph.D. from Trinity College in Dublin.

Peter Levine

Peter Levine is the associate dean for research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life. He has secondary appointments in the Tufts philosophy department and the Tufts Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute. He was the founding deputy director (2001-06) and then the second director (2006-15) of Tisch College’s CIRCLE, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, which he continues to oversee as an associate dean. Levine is the author of We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America (Oxford University Press, 2013), five other scholarly books on philosophy and politics, and a novel. He graduated from Yale with a degree in philosophy then studied philosophy at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, receiving his doctorate.

About the Moderator

Joseph R. Reisert is Colby’s Harriet S. Wiswell and George C. Wiswell Jr. Associate Professor of American Constitutional Law. His areas of expertise include the history of political thought and American constitutional law and jurisprudence. He is the author of Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A Friend of Virtue (Cornell University Press, 2003).