Assessing the Strength of Democracy

How do we know if democracy is succeeding or failing?

Last updated September 15, 2020. Originally published in 2018.

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. The global COVID-19 pandemic has placed additional pressure on democracy. Some governments are using the pandemic to justify increasingly authoritarian behavior, and people who disagree with their government’s response to the crisis may lose trust in government for years to come. The pandemic has disrupted elections around the world, and many in the United States fear the impact that the coronavirus might have on the 2020 presidential election. At the same time, crisessuch as the one we are in nowpresent us with an opportunity to create significant, positive change, which could lead to a strengthening of democracy over the next generation.

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 news stories that report on democracies at risk in the world today. In the final activity, students connect their own understanding of democracy to the following quote from civil rights leader John Lewis:

Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.1

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 can share the nine questions in the checklist with your class using the Google Slides linked below.

Note: What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Get student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.

  1. How Do You Define the Term Democracy?

    Use the Concept Maps 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.

    Remote Learning Note: Ask your students to create their concept maps individually ahead of time. Then, students can share their concept maps with a small group synchronously in a virtual breakout room or asynchronously during a defined period of time in a discussion forum. Ask students to share one idea with the class, either synchronously or asynchronously, using the Wraparound (Remote Learning) strategy.

  2. How Can You Assess The Strength of a Democracy?

    Next, in pairs or as a whole class, ask students to spend a few minutes brainstorming questions they would ask 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?

    Then, ask students to return to their concept map for democracy and add new ideas or questions that the checklist raised for them.

    Remote Learning Note: To teach this activity during a synchronous session, explain the instructions to the full class, then send students to virtual breakout rooms to brainstorm the questions with a small group. After a few minutes, bring students back to the full class session, and ask each group to share one or two questions. Then, ask your students to read the “Checklist for a Healthy Democracy” questions, which are available in the Slides for this Teaching Idea. Students can return to their original breakout rooms to discuss the questions. Finally, students can revisit their concept maps individually.

    For asynchronous learning, students can share their questions for assessing the strength of a democracy with classmates in an online forum. Then, students can discuss the “Checklist for a Healthy Democracy” with a small group during a defined period of time in an online forum. Finally, students can revisit their concept maps individually.

  3. Who Is Responsible for Upholding Democracy?

    Civil rights leader John Lewis wrote the following statement about democracy in a letter that was published in the New York Times after his death:

    Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.2

    Ask students to read this quote and then discuss:

    • What do you think John Lewis meant when he said democracy is an act not a state?
    • What do you think the term Beloved Community means in this quote? How could thinking about your society as a Beloved Community be a part of building democracy?
    • How do you think John Lewis’s definition of democracy is similar to or different than the one you created on your concept map?
    • According to John Lewis, each generation is responsible for taking action to support democracy. What actions do you think people in your own generation are taking to create “a nation and world society at peace with itself”?

    Finally, ask students to read the rest of John Lewis’s letter, Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.

    Remote Learning Note: Ask students to discuss the quote synchronously in virtual breakout rooms, or asynchronously during a defined time period in a virtual discussion forum. Each group can summarize their keys ideas to share with the class, either in writing or orally.


  1. Explore a Checklist Question

    Ask each student to choose one question from the “Checklist for a Healthy Democracy” 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: How Do We Talk About Issues That Matter? 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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