Political scientist Robert Blair was at home on the morning after President Trump’s first travel ban, scrolling through Facebook photos of his lawyer friends sitting on the floors of airports and meeting refugees from seven predominantly Muslim nations whose path to the United States Trump had blocked. An unmoored worry washed over Blair, an assistant professor of political science and international and public affairs at Brown University in Providence, R.I. “I don’t know if U.S. democracy is under threat,” he recalls thinking. “I don’t feel that I have the tools even to know what to worry about.”
Blair, 35, specializes in post-conflict security in Africa. But in the months that followed, he began to think about the idea of teaching a new course at Brown. It would address three big questions that were troubling him: “Is America’s democracy at risk? If it is, how would we know? If it’s not, why are we all so freaked out that it is?”
He reached out to professors at other universities to see if they wanted to work together, received a $4,000 grant from Brown and employed some research assistants. The result of that collaboration is a university course now being taught across the country. At Brown, the course is called Democratic Erosion; it might have a slightly different name at other schools — Democratic Decay or Democratic Backsliding, for example — and some universities are offering it as a master’s-level class, but the syllabus is virtually the same.
Ten American schools, including American University, the University of Denver, Ohio State and Yale, are offering the class this spring — seven more than in the fall. And six schools, including Georgia State University and Indiana University, are teaching parts of the curriculum. The course is also being taught at the University of the Philippines Diliman, in a country where thousands of people have been killed in the authoritarian war on drugs waged by its president, Rodrigo Duterte.
Democratic Erosion provides a sort of postmortem of democracy in nations where it died — and sometimes was revived. Students learn about the fate of democracies in Venezuela, Poland, Hungary and Russia, and read scholarly work such as Cas Mudde’s book “Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe” and Kurt Weyland’s journal article “Latin America’s Authoritarian Drift: The Threat From the Populist Left.” Each class has a theme, such as “Populism and Demagoguery,” “Scapegoating, Paranoia and Exclusion,” and “Resistance.” Students attend a political event, and write and respond to posts in a cross-university blog. By the end of the course, each student produces a country case study. Master’s candidates at Texas A&M will synthesize the case studies from all the universities and send a final report to the U.S. Agency for International Development in the spring, in hopes of showing “exactly how democratic erosion manifests in different countries and over time,” says assistant professor Jessica Gottlieb.
In his first semester teaching the class at Brown, where the course attracted more students than allotted spaces, Blair focused on reinforcing the theme of erosion: a subtle wearing away of something that by most appearances looks sturdy. “We tend to think about things like coups — that’s the way democracies die,” he says. “They die in a firefight, or they die in a president being abducted by the military and shuffled off into exile. A real impetus of this course was on the ways that democratic backsliding can be extremely subtle and difficult to detect.”
As an example, he cites a leader enacting libel laws that inhibit free speech or electoral laws that create barriers for opposition parties. “It tends to happen at the hands of democratically elected leaders,” says Blair. “And often with a veneer — doing things that undermine democracy while arguing that they are taking those actions because they are necessary for democracy,” such as supporting strict voter ID laws by claiming they guard against fraudulent votes.
Using legal mechanisms to retain power, rather than subverting the law and resorting to violence, is called “stealth authoritarianism,” says Molly Winders, a recent master’s graduate who took the course in the fall at the University of Memphis. “I’ve seen that with Trump when he challenges the authority of the Supreme Court. That’s one of the symptoms,” she says. But “it’s more talk right now than actual policy change.”
The course could run the risk of turning into Trump-Bashing 101. But “this isn’t a partisan class,” says University of Memphis assistant professor Shelby Grossman. The students read both an opinion column titled “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” published in the New York Times, and a column written in response, “Anti-Trump Left a Threat to American Democracy,” which appeared in the Washington Times. The professors try to strike a balance, though they concede that the U.S.-focused readings “tend to have an anti-Trump slant” and acknowledge that academic articles defending the president are in short supply.
Grossman says she sometimes distances the class from media that sensationalize Trump: “Sometimes we read about the things Trump does or says and we think it’s super exceptional. But in fact there have been populist leaders throughout time and space who have done these things as well.” And sometimes, she says, leaders like him can actually lead to stronger democracies over time.
Class by class, debates unfold in person and online: What is the significance of civil society in democracy? Is the bureaucracy a safeguard or a hindrance? Are Trump voters fairly depicted in the media? And is the free press at risk if a president cries "fake news"?
Arthur Avkhadiev, a physics major from Russia who is studying at Brown, argued that there was a silver lining in Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections. “The fact that the U.S. was susceptible to it in some ways speaks to the fact that the U.S. is a democracy with free media,” he told me, recounting a point he had made in class. By comparison, he said, and as the students would later read in class, a major Moscow media outlet was raided right after Vladimir Putin became president, foreshadowing the government’s control of Russian media. Not all of Avkhadiev’s peers bought that argument.
In a cross-university blog, students debated the implications of “alternative facts.” One argued that “reporting is subjective” and “if the government were to stifle ‘false’ news, what would keep parties from suppressing news that they found politically troublesome?” Another disagreed, asserting that alternative facts “have a tremendous amount of impact and can be used to anti-democratic ends.”
On a Tuesday evening at American University earlier this semester, nine graduate students taking Democratic Decay and Authoritarianism in the West gather with associate professor Cathy Schneider for a lively conversation. They set aside cellphones and Nalgene bottles to type notes as Schneider discusses populism and what it means when a leader claims to represent the will of the people: “Those who dissent [become] enemies to the people,” she says.
The discussion morphs into a debate on whether the Internet is a boon or a burden to democracy. It can bring together protesters yet leave digital bread crumbs for authorities to track down opposition, the students note; it can provide quick, targeted information yet mobilize people under false pretenses, as in the case of Russia’s army of propagandizing bots. “It’s not inherently a democratizing force because it allows information and opinions to compound on themselves,” argues Victoria Hill, a 27-year-old from Utah who is a master’s candidate in American’s comparative and regional studies program.
Hill genuinely likes having these conversations, she says later: “By being in class with a lot of really smart people, it forces me to think more carefully about what I believe and how I interpret current events.”
On some level, the civilized disagreements, which are rooted in scholarly articles and news reports, help the students process the Trump-dominated news cycle. “The primary purpose [of the course] is to understand what’s going on in our country,” says Hill’s classmate, Chase Dunn, a 29-year-old, also from Utah, who is earning a law degree and a master’s in international relations. The class, he explains, allows students to make sense of “whether Trump really does represent an authoritarian threat to liberal democracy or whether he’s just an illiberal politician.” Two months into the course, he’s come to believe there is “some overreaction” to what Trump does and says. “I actually have come to see Trump as less of a threat to our democratic state than I did when I first joined the class.”
Arthur Avkhadiev says that after taking the class at Brown in the fall, he understands how important political freedom is: “People can be living perfectly happy lives in a country that is not democratic as long as they don’t engage in politics or try to oppose their government. But knowing that you don’t have certain freedoms or you cannot exercise certain rights is something in the backdrop.” He isn’t sure he wants to go back to Russia when his studies end.
Like Dunn, Avkhadiev feels more equipped to follow U.S. and Russian politics. “I was aware of the general sentiment that the Kremlin is trying to suppress opposition in some ways, but it’s easier to identify the specifics after taking this course.” He has started to read more about the Russia of the mid-’90s and early 2000s, he says, learning about how Putin centralized power under the guise of fighting terrorist activity in Chechnya.
And what about Robert Blair, the professor whose concerns about American democracy launched the course? Now that the class is up and running, he says, he is less concerned about Trump than about the “substantial minority” of Americans who he believes might cheer Trump if he undermined democratic institutions, by restricting the press or infringing on the judiciary. Blair’s worry isn’t confined to the right, however: “I have a feeling that if the left were to come up with some obviously unconstitutional mechanism for removing Trump from power, a lot of people on the left would cheer that.”
Through his research and teaching of the course, Blair has concluded that the high stakes in U.S. elections — lifetime judicial appointments, redrawing of congressional district boundaries — make the other side start to feel like more of a threat. Voters begin to believe that “if my party doesn’t get in power, then democracy is at risk.” He cites a study about Venezuela that is part of the curriculum. People were so polarized there, he says, that they were willing to tolerate candidates with authoritarian tendencies so long as they shared their policy positions.
Authoritarianism might not be such a far leap in the United States, he says. Polarization sets the stage for voters to support candidates based solely on the letter R or D following their names. "In this sense, it's not about Trump" or any president, says Blair. "It's about us." He laughs when he adds, "That's how you know the U.S. really is a democracy now — it's that we can blame ourselves when we turn out not to be a democracy later on."
Sasha Ingber is a multimedia journalist in Washington who has contributed regularly to NPR, Smithsonian and National Geographic.
The syllabus for the cross-university Democratic Erosion course, which can be found online at democratic-erosion.com/syllabus, recommends these readings concerning the definitions and theories of democratic erosion.
“The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes,” chapters 2 and 3, by Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan. First published in 1978.
“The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Chapter 11, by Hannah Arendt. First published in 1951.
“Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding,” pages 1 to 15, by Ellen Lust and David Waldner. Published in 2015 by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“On Democratic Backsliding,” by Nancy Bermeo. Published in January 2016 in the Journal of Democracy.
“Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks,” by Pippa Norris. Published in April 2017 in the Journal of Democracy.