How To Assess the Strength of a Democracy

Posted by Dan Sigward on December 11, 2017

democracy inauguration donald trump

On December 15, 1791, the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution—known as the Bill of Rights—were ratified. Designed to spell out limits to the federal government’s power and to protect the individual liberties of Americans, these amendments include many of the hallmarks of the country’s democratic ideals: freedom of speech, the press, and religion; and the protection against being punished by the government without due process of law. 

This anniversary reminds us of the values that are core to democracy in the United States and around the world, and the need to recommit ourselves to nurturing those values. As history has shown us, democracy can be fragile, and democratic values need vigilant protection against their erosion. The current climate today presents us with the important need to reflect on and renew our engagement as committed participants in a healthy democracy. As we take stock of our own role in this, how do we also help students make sense of these divisions and assess the strength of democracy and civil society?
 

We might begin by examining the idea of democracy itself, what strengthens it, and what weakens it—a central theme in Facing History case studies about the Reconstruction eraNazi Germany, the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and others. Political scientists today view democracy as a multi-dimensional concept and look at more than a country’s leaders, laws, and constitution to assess its strength. They also study a variety of other factors such as a society’s culture and institutions, both of which are created by the people and shaped by history.

Culture includes a society’s “moral universe,” its unwritten rules of right and wrong, of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Those unwritten rules can influence the choices of leaders, especially when breaking the rules will offend enough citizens to cost the leader public support. Institutions include courts, political parties, government bureaucracies, schools, unions, professional organizations, industries, and other organizations through which large groups of individuals collectively influence the lives and opinions of citizens and the choices of leaders.

When students begin to see these broader contours of democratic society, they might develop a deeper understanding of how our present moment has come to be.  When they appreciate the diffuse nature of power in a healthy democracy, they might also see more clearly the avenues through which their voices and choices can help shape society. 

Students might continue to articulate their thinking by creating a “checklist,” like the one provided below, for a healthy democracy. Reflecting on this list can help bring the state of a democracy into better focus and it can help us identify where we have work to do. You might share this list of questions with your students. How would they answer these questions? What do they need to find out in order to answer them better? What questions do they think need to be added to the list? What can we do when we feel our society is falling short of these standards?

Checklist for a Healthy Democracy:

  • Does the culture of the country value and protect the free expression of ideas? Does it tolerate disagreement and dissent?
  • Are diverse segments of society able to trust each other enough to unify behind causes upon which they agree?
  • Do citizens and civic groups actively work to hold the government and its leaders accountable?
  • Are local, city, and state governments effective, trusted, and responsive to constituents?
  • Do citizens prioritize democracy? Or are they willing to trade democracy for other outcomes such as a better economy?
  • Do schools teach students to value democracy and how to participate in government at local, state, and national levels?
  • Is there a free and open press? Does the government allow for the free flow of information from multiple media sources? Are journalists given access to cover the government and elected officials?
  • Are democratically elected leaders committed to preserving the democratic processes? Do they value democracy for its own sake, not just as a means to enact a preferred agenda?
  • Are the branches of government and primary institutions within civil society healthy and effectively balancing each other’s power? 

While this list is not comprehensive, these questions can spark vital conversation between our students and ourselves about the state of democracy. They can help remind us that democracy is about more than government and that keeping it vital requires more from us than voting. It requires that each of us attend to our culture, our institutions, and each other to nurture the spirit of liberty on which democracy rests.

 Want to help your students consider how they can help nurture democractic values? Use our lesson, "Keeping Watch on Democracy." This lesson challenges them to consider what can be done to strengthen democracy by first considering the characteristics that define democracy itself. 

Get the Lesson

This piece has been adapted from its original version, published on January 18, 2017.

Topics: Democracy, Reconstruction, Weimar Republic, To Kill a Mockingbird

At Facing History and Ourselves, we value conversation—in classrooms, in our professional development for educators, and online. When you comment on Facing Today, you're engaging with our worldwide community of learners, so please take care that your contributions are constructive, civil, and advance the conversation.

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