Universities join forces on Brown-led course on why democracies fail

Inspired by concerns about the health of the American democracy, faculty and students at more than 20 institutions globally collaborated on the cross-university “Democratic Erosion” course established by Brown’s Robert Blair.

Robert Blair
Democratic Erosion, the course launched by Robert Blair, enabled students at 20 schools to critically examine what causes democracies all over the world to break down or solidify. Photo courtesy of the Watson Institute

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Brown faculty member Robert Blair was enjoying lunch with colleagues when the conversation turned to the wealth of alarmist news reports about threats to the health of American democracy under President Trump. Op-eds in major newspapers and analyses in scholarly publications were warning that in America, parts of Western Europe and elsewhere, democracies were backsliding or teetering on the brink of tyranny.

Blair, an assistant professor of political science and international and public affairs, and the group — which included political science professors Jeff Colgan and Nicholas Miller of Brown and Dartmouth, respectively — began debating ideas for how they could use the tools of political science to contribute meaningfully to the discussion.

“We wanted to critically adjudicate between those alarmist reports,” Blair said, “which ones were worth taking seriously and which ones were really not. And there was a lot of enthusiasm for doing something collaborative.”

What emerged from that lunchtime conversation is “Democratic Erosion,” a cross-university collaborative course organized by Blair that aims, according to its website, “to help students critically and systematically evaluate the risks to democracy both here and abroad through the lens of theory, history and social science.”

In the 2017-18 academic year, 20 universities hosted versions of the course, using all or some elements of a common syllabus. They ranged from selective private universities (e.g., Brown, Stanford, Yale) to flagship public institutions (e.g., University of California, Berkeley; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; University of Virginia) even to one in Southeast Asia (the University of the Philippines, Diliman). Blair said several additional universities in the U.S., France and Israel have expressed interest in offering the course next year.

Blair said the participation of so many institutions brings greater ideological diversity in addressing the course material and creates a broad conversation among students, who contribute to a common blog and are required to read each other’s work. It also fosters a sense of camaraderie among students and among the faculty who collaborated on the syllabus and assignments.

“One part of the motivation for designing the course in the first place was this sense of alienation,” Blair said. “That was a recurring theme in the election, the idea that voters felt alienated, and that was part of the appeal of Donald Trump. And then after Trump was elected, voters on the left felt alienated, in part because of the tenor of the campaign. This is a moment when we as Americans seem to profoundly misunderstand one another.”

Blair deliberately designed the course so that it did not focus on an American political party or elected official, something that could devolve into partisan critique. Rather, much of the course looks beyond the U.S., enabling students to examine the causes and consequences of a democracy’s dismantling globally. Discussion of the state of American democracy is interspersed in the coursework and couched within this comparative perspective.

Students first develop a theoretical framework, learning how democracies develop. Then they delve into democratic erosion, or how democratic institutions are undermined, often through legal means rather than a sudden seizure of power.

“Nowadays, democracies are not usually undermined through coups,” Blair said. “Now, more often democracies are undercut through systematic dismantling of democratic norms and institutions. It’s done in the name of democracy.”

Students study Venezuela, Nicaragua, Zambia and Poland as snapshots of how the phenomenon plays out in different parts of the world, Blair said, and are later tasked with creating case studies on democratic erosion in a country other than the U.S. Students analyze the role of propaganda, restrictions on the press, the practice of appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than rational argument, political polarization, scapegoating, paranoia and exclusion and other factors.

Erin Brennan-Burke, a Brown undergraduate who took the course last fall, completed a case study on Burkina Faso. She initially anticipated, based on quantitative data, that she would write an analysis of democratic backsliding in the African nation. Her qualitative research challenged that finding, however. Ultimately, she focused on why there was a disparity between the statistical analyses and the conversations that were happening in the media and on the ground, and how that supported her assessment that democracy in Burkina Faso was consolidating.

“I appreciated the openness of the dialogue in the Democratic Erosion course,” she said. “The assignments were flexible enough to allow that sort of initiative and argument.”

Because so many students were taking the course, Blair said, Democratic Erosion students at participating schools created more than 100 case studies. Master’s students at Texas A&M then used them to create a meta-analysis assessing the precursors and symptoms of democratic erosion around the world.

The meta-analysis will be presented to USAID’s Democracy, Human Rights and Governance division, Blair noted. That outcome is an example of what is possible with a cross-university course rather than a standalone seminar — but the value of the collaborative experience is greater than that single product, he added.

“For the students, I think a big part of the appeal is that they are communicating not just with a single professor in private but with one another through this blog that they write, with the public, with a policy audience through this meta-analysis we are producing for USAID, and with faculty at other schools,” Blair said. “We have assigned some of the best blog posts from the fall of 2017 as required reading for the 2018 course, which creates an online community. That’s really the dimension of the course that I’m most interested in moving forward.”

For Brennan-Burke, that online community means that students taking the course now are often in touch with her about her blog posts from last fall. The course also provides more direct means of connecting with students outside of Brown, she said — including, for her class, video conversations with students at the University of Memphis.

Assignments also take students beyond the classroom, to local political rallies or events which they write about, drawing on insights from class to help inform their reflections.

Students in 2017-18 attended and wrote about, among other things, a speaking engagement by conservative author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, a campaign event for Texas House of Representatives candidate Jessica Gonzalez, a terrorism-prevention workshop and an Indivisible Memphis rally. The blog posts analyze the dynamics at play in the events and draw connections to larger questions about political polarization, the efficacy of types of protest, the deployment of rhetoric and other issues.

Brennan-Burke attended a Providence rally to preserve Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) on Sept. 8, shortly after the White House unveiled plans to end the program. In her blog entry, she reflected on the experiences and beliefs that inform pro- and anti-DACA stances and discussed how rhetorical modes can impact policy outcomes.

“The course gave me modes of thought and modes of analysis that I wouldn’t initially have had,” Brennan-Burke said. “But more than giving me certain answers about democracy, I feel like the course taught me to ask better questions.”

Next August, Blair will host a conference that brings together those who taught or took the course at various institutions in the 2017-2018 academic year. The faculty and students will gather to identify more ways to integrate research, teaching and civic engagement and to think about what opportunities — like the meta-analysis for USAID — the scale of the course might enable.

The conference will also allow participants to talk over the effect of taking a comparative perspective when considering threats to democracy. Blair said that some of the students in his course, after comparing the U.S. to other countries, said they felt a greater sense of optimism about the health of American democracy.

Brennan-Burke said, “I’m not sure I’m any more confident about the state of democracy in America having taken the class, but I do feel like I can more critically analyze the state of democracy around the world.”