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Democracy and Its Critics

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Course DatesWeeksMeeting TimesStatusInstructor(s)CRN
June 30, 2014 - July 11, 20142M-F 12:45-3:35POpenJonathan Sozek10654

Course Description

In this course we will examine and challenge our often unreflective political commitment to democracy. We will engage a number of key texts in the history of political thought, using these as lenses through which to see how democracy was thought about as it was coming to the forefront of political life in the U.S. and Western Europe in the decades after the French Revolution and throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

"Everything is argued over in this world,” the author Jose Saramago has written, “apart from only one thing that is not argued over. Nobody argues about democracy.” The language of democracy, along with related concepts such as equality and freedom, are at the center of American political life and are often employed as standards for political legitimacy in the international arena. But what exactly is democracy, or "the rule of the people"? Our unreflective support for democracy may blind us to the fact that, historically, democracy has not always been viewed favorably, but rather with a great deal of skepticism, particularly as it was coming to the forefront of political life in the United States and Western Europe in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This course investigates claims and assumptions about democracy through a series of historical and philosophical readings: after touching briefly upon the classical critiques of democracy in Plato and Aristotle, we will read works by Burke, Paine, Wollstonecraft, Tocqueville, Marx, Douglass, Mill, Nietzsche, and Weber. Motivated by the criticism implied in Saramago’s remark, we will actually argue about democracy, asking: What is democracy? How is it justified, or not? What dangers have been associated with it, and how is democracy related to themes such as representation, liberty, gender, and class?

Students will develop their critical thinking skills by engaging in close textual analysis and debating key questions and concepts in arguments about democracy and political life more broadly. They will also cultivate an appreciation for historical arguments about democracy, and become better able to articulate their own positions regarding a political commitment to democracy.

No prerequisites.