Assessing the Strength of Democracy | Facing History & Ourselves
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Assessing the Strength of Democracy

This mini-lesson provides students with an opportunity to deepen their understanding of democracy and a framework for making meaning of news stories about the tensions and conflicts in democracies today.


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At a Glance

mini-lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • Social Studies


  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Mini-Lesson

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, crises—such as the one we are in now—present us with an opportunity to create significant, positive change, which could lead to a strengthening of democracy over the next generation.

This mini-lesson 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.

This mini-lesson is designed to be adaptable. You can use the activities in sequence or choose a selection best suited to your classroom. It includes:

  • 3 activities
  • Student-facing slides
  • Recommended articles and videos for exploring this topic 
  • 2 extension activities

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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.

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.

Project the following nine “Checklist for a Healthy Democracy” questions: 

  • Does the culture of the country value and protect the free expression of ideas? Does it tolerate disagreement and dissent?
  • Are diverse segments of society able to trust each other enough to unify behind causes upon which they agree?
  • Do citizens and civic groups actively work to hold the government and its leaders accountable?
  • Are local, city, and state governments effective, trusted, and responsive to constituents?
  • Do citizens prioritize democracy? Or are they willing to trade democracy for other outcomes such as a better economy?
  • Do schools teach students to value democracy and how to participate in government at local, state, and national levels?
  • Is there a free and open press? Does the government allow for the free flow of information from multiple media sources? Are journalists given access to cover the government and elected officials?
  • Are democratically elected leaders committed to preserving the democratic processes? Do they value democracy for its own sake, not just as means to enact a preferred agenda?
  • Are the branches of government and primary institutions within civil society healthy and effectively balancing each other’s power?  

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.

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. 1

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.

Extension Activities

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.

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.

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