Debating Democracy: Threats and Prospects

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Course DatesLengthMeeting TimesStatusFormatInstructor(s)CRN
June 21, 2021 - July 21, 20216/21 - 7/214 WeeksOnlineWaitlistedOnlineJonathan Sozek

Course Description

In this course, students develop a familiarity with some of the most prominent political thinkers of the modern period, then directly apply what they've learned to assess some of the most pressing debates about democracy in the United States today. The course is highly interactive, making use of the discussion forums on Canvas and asking students to record and share presentations and discussion questions on the course material.

We often hear that democracy is under threat. What does that mean? In this course we explore and debate this question, considering both the major threats to democracy today and prospects for strengthening our democratic institutions. After steeping ourselves in some classical works of political theory, we explore specific threats to democracy, in each case asking how to address it both in theory and in practice. Through our readings and in-class activities, students lay a strong foundation for future work in the humanities and social sciences.

In the first week, we begin by considering what it means to think politically and explore some ways of defining democracy. We consider how John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau develop the idea of a social contract, we debate the American and French Revolutions through the works of Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke, we survey Alexis de Tocqueville’s account of the social effects of democracy in the early United States, and we read works by Frederick Douglass and Mother Jones to explore early, influential efforts to secure the rights of all citizens.

In the second week, we move straight into the contemporary moment and consider four specific threats to democracy today: the curtailment of voting rights; extreme economic inequality, social media and disinformation; and the recent victories of radical populism in Europe, the UK, and the US. We conclude by assessing debates about the 2020 US election, in light of all we've learned.

Students will: - Develop a familiarity with several of the most prominent authors in modern political thought, including Locke, Rousseau, Burke, and Tocqueville; - Understand the origins of the distinction between ""conservative"" and ""liberal"" in modern political thought; - Gain experience applying claims made by political theorists to real-world current debates; - Improve ability to present complex ideas through recorded presentations; - Strengthen ability to compose an essay, through the essay assignment.

Prerequisites: There are no prerequisites for this course. All are welcome.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEPS0942

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences for students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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