The last few years have witnessed a deluge of commentary warning of the coming end of American democracy. Commentators have warned that “Trump is a threat to liberal democracy,” that the United States is a “breeding ground for tyranny” and that “this is how fascism comes to America.” Every week seems to bring with it new reasons for concern.
In a recent study, we argue that if you want to feel better about the prospects for democracy in the United States, you should look beyond our borders. Studying democratic erosion abroad increases optimism about those prospects, instilling confidence in the strength and longevity of American democratic norms and institutions.
Since fall 2017, we have led a collaborative, multi-university course on democratic erosion taught at more than two dozen college campuses in the United States, Israel and the Philippines. The course encourages students and faculty members to critically evaluate threats to democracy here and abroad not through the lens of partisan attachments, but rather through theory, history and social science. We aim to treat democratic erosion as an empirical question rather than just a political one. Is American democracy really at risk? What about democracy in the West? The world? And if it is at risk, what can we do about it?
To our knowledge, this is the first multi-university course of its kind in the social sciences, and it has received both local and national news media attention. The course is built around a 13-week syllabus on democratic erosion that we developed with a small group of professors and students. Assignments maximize opportunities for collaboration. Instead of reading responses, students write posts for our publicly accessible blog, where they are also required to read and comment on one another’s posts.
Instead of final papers, they write case studies on countries that have recently shown signs of democratic decay -- such as Hungary, Nicaragua, Zambia and the Philippines. This is not merely an academic exercise. This past May, students studying for their master's degrees at Texas A&M University converted the undergraduates' case studies into a downloadable data set. They then presented preliminary findings to USAID, the U.S. State Department and a consortium of more than 20 NGOs involved in the promotion of democracy worldwide.
When we started this project, we worried that 13 weeks of thinking about dead or dying democracies might induce even more hand-wringing about our own democratic norms and institutions. Using a combination of surveys, interviews and written questionnaires, we compared the experiences of students who took our course to a similar group that did not (including students who attended the first day of class but were not admitted due to enrollment caps). Our results are now forthcoming in a peer-reviewed article in PS: Political Science & Politics.
At the start of the semester, students’ prognoses for American democracy were almost universally grim. Across 14 universities, the average student rated the quality of U.S. democracy as a 6.4 out of 10. Half believed this number would decline over the following year. About a third believed it would stay the same. Only 15 percent thought it would improve.
But something surprising happened as the semester progressed. The more our students thought about democratic erosion abroad, the better they felt about democratic stability at home. The key, it turned out, was to take a step back from the breathless, often alarmist headlines that dominate the daily news cycle and view American democracy from a global perspective.
As one student put it before taking the course, “I thought Trump was more drastically bad for the country than I do now. I was caught up in the rhetoric. [But] the course helped me think about the strength of institutions and the many things that aren’t in Trump’s power.” Another student said the course helped illustrate that “the United States has more preventative measures than most countries to stop erosion from happening.” A third said that, before taking the class, “a lot of news was, ‘the world is ending.’ Now looking at other countries, seeing America’s response to the possibility of democratic erosion, gave me encouragement rather than bringing me down.”
When we asked students who didn’t take the course about their perspectives on American democracy, we got very different responses. Those students tended to focus on the day-to-day drama of the Trump administration. They also tended to discount the lessons we can learn from nations beyond our borders. For example, when asked if he felt more or less optimistic about American democracy when thinking about other countries, one student said, “I wouldn’t say it makes me feel any way in either direction. I think that’s because I feel like America is a superpower in its own way.” Other students who didn’t take the course voiced similar sentiments. They thought that America is one of a kind and faces one-of-a-kind risks that are real and growing.
Broadening people’s limited views is why the study of comparative politics can be a powerful tool for countering pessimism of this sort. For those on the political left in particular, it’s tempting to instinctively compare all of Trump’s objectionable actions to the worst analogues abroad. Trump says he wants stronger libel laws in the United States, and we immediately think of Russia, China and Venezuela. But some established democracies have strict libel laws as well -- notably the U.K. (the inspiration for Trump’s remark).
Or to cite another example: the president elevates Jared Kushner and other family members to plum White House posts, and we think of Iran, South Africa and Zimbabwe. But we forget about France, Japan and a slew of other democracies that have suffered nepotism scandals in recent years. Maybe the United States is becoming Venezuela. Or maybe it is becoming Japan. One of those fates is much worse than the other.
Of course, we should not be too sanguine about democracy under Trump. The president does not appear to care about the health of our democratic norms or institutions. His incessant attacks on the press, his reckless meddling in the judiciary, his disrespect for our democratic allies abroad -- all of these are reasons for concern. But as the students from numerous higher education institutions in our course have found, if you look long and hard beyond our borders, the picture at home seems a lot less gloomy.