Recent years have witnessed a deluge of commentary warning of imminent threats to democracy in the US, the West, and the world. In the US, this rhetoric has become especially heated with the rise of Donald Trump. Marine Le Pen of France and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands have similarly been described as threats to democracy. The unexpected electoral success of the “Alternative for Germany” and the “Five Star Movement” in Italy have provoked similar concerns. Hungary, Poland, and several Eastern European countries are already experiencing significant democratic backsliding. Beyond the US and Europe as well, many analysts agree that the danger signs for democracy are now “flashing red.”

But of course, warnings of this sort are hardly new. Some have suggested that the current climate of alarmism is unwarranted, and that a more “nuanced look” at the data reveals little evidence of worldwide democratic decay. And even if alarmism is warranted, Trump and other right-wing populist leaders may not be the appropriate targets. For students trying to make sense of our unique political moment, this cacophony can be extremely disorienting.

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 taught elements from the same syllabus at the same time. The course is being taught at a number of new participating universities this academic year. Students across campuses collaborate on select 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 read along with us or get in touch.

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.

There are several ways to join the Democratic Erosion project. 

1. Teach a full semester on democratic erosion

Shared syllabus here. It’s designed for a 13-week, semester-long course, and is structured as follows:

  • Introduction
  • 8 weeks of substantive themes
    • Definitions of democracy and theories of democratization
    • Definitions and theories of democratic erosion
    • Uses and abuses of democratic institutions
    • Populism and demagoguery
    • Propaganda, disinformation and the media
    • Polarization
    • Scapegoating, paranoia and exclusion
    • Resistance
  • 3 weeks of (non-US) regional case studies, to be selected by each instructor
    • Africa
    • Russia and Eastern Europe
    • Western Europe
    • Latin America
    • Asia
  • Conclusion (and/or a 4th regional case study)

Participating faculty receive lesson plans for each week of material, including lecture slides and discussion questions. If you decide to adjust these lesson plans (which we encourage you to do), we ask that you please share your adjusted plans with the rest of the group as well.

2. Teach one or two weeks on “core” themes related to democratic erosion

Some instructors choose to integrate several (typically 3-5) weeks of our shared material into existing classes on related topics. If you decide on this option, we recommend at least incorporating the weeks on “Definitions and theories of democratic erosion” and “Uses and abuses of democratic institutions.” The former addresses different ways that democracies can collapse, theoretically and historically; the latter focuses on democratic erosion through the slow, innocuous-looking decay of democratic institutions.

If you have room on your syllabus, you might also consider incorporating the weeks on “Definitions of democracy and theories of democratization” and “Resistance.”

3. Assign your students to write posts for our cross-university blog

In lieu of conventional writing assignments, students write posts for our cross-university blog, available here.

In each post students analyze some current event in the US or elsewhere through the lens of materials they’ve read and discussed in class. In weeks they don’t write their own posts, they comment on somebody else’s. The blog is publicly accessible, though only students enrolled in the course can comment on one another’s posts.

4. Assign your students to write a country case study for thematic and regional analyses targeting policymakers

In spring of 2018 Jessica Gottlieb taught this course as a “capstone” for second-year master’s students at Texas. A&M’s Bush School. TAMU’s capstone courses work with clients for whom they produce policy-relevant, research-based deliverables. This is like a practicum in lieu of a master’s thesis.

The client for this course was USAID’s Democracy Rights and Governance (DRG) Division, and the deliverable was an event dataset on the causes, symptoms, and consequences of democratic erosion worldwide. Our students wrote country case studies, which were then used to inform and construct the dataset.  The format of the case studies was standardized across universities. Cases were distributed across students and universities to maximize geographical coverage, though students were given the opportunity to voice a preference for specific countries. The preliminary results of the dataset were presented  to USAID, the US State Department, and a consortium of NGOs working on democracy promotion at the end of spring 2018.

See the beta version of the publicly available dataset here.

We will continue this project over the 2018-19 academic year, covering more countries and more years and further improving the standardized case study format.

5. Assign your students to attend an issue-based rally, town hall meeting, Indivisible meeting, etc., and write about their experience on the blog

A number of us assign our students to attend some sort of political event in the area and write about their experience on the blog. We then reserve some time in the last weeks of the semester for students to compare their experiences to one another’s, and to the experiences of students at other universities. The more universities that participate, the more interesting this is.

6. Poll your students about the current and future state of democracy in the US

In the first week of class we gave our students a poll, asking them to rate (1) the current state of democracy in the US, (2) the likely state of democracy in the US at the end of the semester, and (3) the likely state of democracy in the US in a year. We then spent some time in class comparing our own students’ answers to those of students at other universities. Some of us also re-surveyed our students at the end of the semester to see how their views have changed. We will repeat this exercise this year, most likely adding some more questions.

We can provide a web-based version of the survey for you to use for this purpose.