We live in a time of great tension and conflict in democracies around the world. Elections in 2016 and 2017—in England, the United States, France, and Germany—have both revealed and exacerbated deep divisions within these societies, raising fundamental questions about the strength and fragility of democracy. In this lesson, we start to help students understand these challenges by examining the idea of democracy itself.
As we seek to define democracy, we might also consider the relationship between a democratic government and the freedom and liberty we expect it to provide. In a speech given in 1944 by federal judge Learned Hand to 150,000 newly naturalized citizens in New York’s Central Park, Hand remarked:
I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.
Like Judge Hand, political scientists today view democracy as a multidimensional concept and look at more than a country’s leaders, laws, and constitution to assess its health. They also study a variety of other factors, such as a society’s culture and institutions, both of which are created by the people and shaped by history. Culture includes a society’s “moral universe,” its unwritten rules of right and wrong, of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Those unwritten rules can influence the choices of leaders, especially when breaking the rules will offend enough citizens to cost the leader public support. Institutions include courts, political parties, government bureaucracies, schools, unions, professional organizations, industries, and other organizations through which large groups of individuals collectively influence the lives and opinions of citizens and the choices of leaders.
In this lesson, we will help students think about the definition of democracy and then consider how it might relate to the communities and culture in which they live and participate. In later lessons, we'll look more closely at what strengthens and weakens democracy.