Teaching Democratic Erosion

27 February 2017, 1829 EST

This is a guest post from Rob Blair and Jeff Colgan of Brown University.

Since Donald Trump was elected last November, there has been no shortage of commentary warning that he represents a unique threat to the quality and longevity of democracy in America. (For just a few examples, see recent articles in the New Yorker, Atlantic, New York Times, and NPR.) Like many scholars and concerned citizens, we have been asking ourselves what we can or ought to do to help prevent this threat from materializing.

Although we do not wish to professionally engage in partisan politics, as scholars we are alarmed by Trump’s willingness to transgress long-standing norms of democracy, tolerance and civility. We find reflections on defending democracy by fellow social scientists Josh Busby, Timothy Snyder, and Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stepan very helpful.

We want to push a little bit further, especially as we think about our obligations in the classroom as political scientists. We have noticed historians and scholars from other disciplines creating mock syllabi, including Trump 101 or Trump Syllabus 2.0. We applaud these efforts, but believe political science has something distinctive to offer.

For us, the ball got rolling when Jeff publicly shared a reading list he was developing to inform himself about democratic erosion. Rob suggested that we teach an actual course on the topic, collaborating with scholars at other universities who were interested in doing the same. We brainstormed about how to design the course and make it happen, and Rob is now leading the effort. His work has begun to gather steam, with over a dozen (tentatively) participating institutions so far, including Brown, Penn, Stanford, Boston University, American University and UCLA, among others. Our initial syllabus, still a draft at this stage, is posted here, and the version Rob submitted to Brown (before the collaboration took shape) is here.

We are very excited about this fantastic group of institutions. We are also hoping to recruit a few more, which is why we are writing now. We include more details on the course below; please contact us if you are interested in joining. (Most of the participating faculty are comparativists, which makes sense given the nature of the course, but we strongly encourage faculty from other subfields to join.) We also provide some resources on democratic erosion that professors can incorporate into their own courses, regardless of whether or not they participate in the collaboration.

The idea: cross-university collaborative course on democratic erosion

The idea is to assemble a group of professors who agree to teach some version of the same course on democratic erosion sometime next academic year (2017-18). We expect that most of us will end up teaching the course in the spring, but we don’t all need to teach the course at the same time, and we don’t all need to teach the exact same version of the course (though some may decide to do that). Our hope is that we can agree on 6-7 weeks of material that will be shared across all iterations of the course. The remaining 6-7 weeks will be up to the discretion of each professor.

We also hope we can design one or more assignments that the students can all contribute to (e.g. a cross-university conference at the end of the year, or a cross-university blog that analyses current events in the US through the lens of the topics we cover in the course). The course can be taught either as a lecture or a seminar, targeting either undergrads or grad students (or both). We expect to have an undergrad RA at Brown to help with course prep and inter-university coordination over the summer.

Why you should participate

Many of us will be giving up a little something to teach this course—the opportunity to reteach a course we’ve already taught, for example, or to teach on themes that are closer to our own research. But the more we see people from other disciplines (lawyers, journalists, etc.) using their expertise to engage with the current political moment, the more we want to do the same. Reading as much as we can and training students to think carefully and knowledgeably about what’s happening around them seems like a good place to start.

Additional resources

We realize that some professors won’t be able to teach a full course on this topic, but may nonetheless want to incorporate some of the material into their existing classes. Jeff put together a reading list on democratic erosion a few days after the election in November, and has updated it recently. Other resources by Tom Pepinsky, Brendan Nyhan, Julia Azari, and Stephen Walt are worth consulting as well. Cathy Schneider at American University is teaching a terrific Master’s-level course on “Democratic Decay and Authoritarianism in the West” this semester. The Watson Institute, our academic home, also put together a list of readings to understand the current moment from various political scientists.

Next steps

If you are interested in teaching a version of this coordinated course, please contact us. Our next step is to post a Google Doc with prospective readings and themes, then to hone in on the topics and assignments that will be shared across all iterations of the course. We will keep you posted by email.

Even if you cannot or do not wish to teach a whole course on this subject, please feel free to use our materials. Again, our initial reading list is here, the current draft collaborative syllabus is here, and the draft Brown version is here. And please spread the word.