Since Donald Trump’s election last November, Americans have been inundated with warnings that our new president represents a unique threat to the quality and longevity of democracy in America. Especially on the left, critics have warned that “this is how fascism comes to America;“ that the US has “never been so ripe for tyranny;” and that “yes, Trump is a threat to liberal democracy,” and we should all be worried.
Nor are these warnings unique to the US. Marine Le Pen has been described as “France’s homegrown threat to democracy.” Geert Wilders “won by losing” a presidential election in the Netherlands earlier this year—an election one commentator characterized as “the latest chapter in the death of European social democracy.” Beyond the US and Western Europe as well, many analysts agree that the danger signs for democracy are now “flashing red.”
But of course, this rhetoric isn’t new, certainly not in the US. From the right, Barack Obama was similarly accused of plunging American democracy into a state of “crisis,” and even of threatening to “end America, the country we love, as we know it.” In the wake of last year’s election, some are now insisting that “hysteria” is the real danger, or that “leftist anarchy, not Trumpian fascism” will eventually bring American democracy down.
Democratic Erosion is a cross-university collaborative course that aims to help students critically and systematically evaluate the risks to democracy both here and abroad through the lens of theory, history, and social science. During the 2017-18 academic year, faculty at over a dozen universities are teaching elements from the same syllabus at the same time. Students at all participating universities collaborate on a number of assignments, and are expected to engage not only with their own classmates, but with students at other universities as well.
Importantly, the course is not intended as a partisan critique of Donald Trump, or of any other politician or political party. Our goal is to treat the threat of democratic erosion as an empirical question, rather than merely a political one. Is American democracy really under threat? What about democracy in the West, or the world, more generally? If democracy is indeed under threat, what can we do about it? And if it’s not under threat, why are so many of us so worried that it is? This course aims to help answer these questions.
If you’re interested in the project but not enrolled in the course, you can still read along with us, using our syllabus and lesson plans as guides. You can also follow our cross-university blog, where students at participating universities analyze current events in the US and elsewhere through the lens of the readings we discuss in class.
The collaboration is led by Robert Blair, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. For more information, please contact him and/or Hannah Baron, our teaching and research assistant for the course.