Assessing the Strength of Democracy

How do we know if democracy is succeeding or failing?

We live in a time of great tension and conflict in democracies around the world. Elections in recent years—both inside and outside of the United States—have revealed and exacerbated deep divisions within many democratic societies, raising fundamental questions about the strength and fragility of democracy in our world today. Hungary has seen a rise of anti-immigrant sentiments as its leader, Minister Viktor Orban, consolidates and secures his party’s power. Similarly, in recent years, countries like Venezuela, the Philippines, and Poland have seen their own democracies similarly threatened. In the United States, ideological divisions separate individuals and communities, and institutions that were once protected, such as the press, now feel threatened.

This Teaching Idea provides students with an opportunity to explore and deepen their understanding of the concept of democracy and equips them with a framework to assess the health of a democracy, as well as make meaning of current news stories that report on democracies at risk in the world today. 

In advance of using this Teaching Idea, you should read the January 2017 Facing Today blog How to Assess the Strength of a Democracy. The second activity below uses questions from the blog’s “Checklist for a Healthy Democracy.” You will need to project or pass out the nine questions during class. 

  1. Capture Students’ Thinking about Democracy

    Use the Concept Map teaching strategy to have students generate, sort, and connect their ideas about democracy on a piece of paper. If you have colored pencils or markers, pass them out for the sort and connect stages of the strategy to help students categorize and organize their ideas.

    After students have shared their ideas in pairs or small groups, elaborating on their own maps, use the Wraparound strategy to have each student share one idea with the class.

  2. Consider How to Assess the Strength of a Democracy

    Next, in pairs or as a whole class, ask students to spend a few minutes brainstorming questions they could ask if they wanted to assess the strength of a democracy. You might provide them with an example to help them get started: Is there a free and open press? Have a few pairs share their questions.

    Pass out or project the nine “Checklist for a Healthy Democracy” questions from the Facing Today blog post How to Assess the Strength of a Democracy. Compare the list with the questions that the students brainstormed. Then have students work in small groups to respond to the following questions about the “Checklist for a Healthy Democracy”:

    • How would you answer the questions?
    • What do you need to learn more about to give stronger answers to the questions? Where can you get that information?
  3. Reflect on the Concept of Democracy

    Have students reflect individually by first adding new ideas or questions to their democracy concept maps that the checklist or discussion helped raise for them.

    Then have them complete and elaborate on the following sentence starter in a their journals:
    The most valuable idea on my democracy concept map is . . . because . . .

Extensions

  1. Explore a Checklist Question
    Ask each student to choose one question from the checklist that they would like to explore on their own. Have them find a current news article that helps them answer the question in a new, different, or deeper way. .

  2. Learn More about Political Polarization in the United States
    Some experts argue that increased political polarization places stress on democracy. To learn more about political polarization, review our Explainer: Political Polarization in the United States with your students. Discuss your students’ responses to the questions in the “Ask Yourself” boxes throughout the Explainer.

Additional Resource

For strategies to help navigate difficult conversations with your students, we recommend that you read Fostering Civil Discourse: A Guide for Classroom Conversations. When discussing current events that can raise issues of identity, membership, and belonging, it is important that students know and respect each other as individuals, are guided by a classroom contract that they collaborated to create, and feel that they can take risks and feel heard. This guide has tools to help you create this kind of inclusive community in your classroom.

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