Keeping Watch on Democracy

Learning Objectives

  • Students will know that political scientists define democracy as a multi-faceted form of government that guarantees free and fair elections, protects individual rights, limits the power of each of its branches of government, and values debate and compromise.
  • Students will understand that our experience of living in a democratic society does not always live up to the ideals we use to define democracy.


One of Facing History’s core commitments is the safeguarding of democracy, and instilling in students the attributes that will enable them to become active participants in a democratic society. In today’s world, political and social tensions, eroding trust in institutions, and rising incidents of bigotry make the question of how to sustain and strengthen democracy more essential than ever.

In order to consider what can be done to strengthen democracy, students need to first consider the characteristics that define democracy itself. This lesson introduces students to a list of characteristics compiled by Bright Line Watch, a collaborative of political scientists at Dartmouth College, University of Rochester, and Yale University that monitors the status of democratic practices in the United States.

An extension to this lesson invites students to research a trend recently noticed by political scientists, including those at Bright Line Watch: younger generations of Americans are increasingly less likely than older generations to claim that they value living in a democracy. By establishing the defining characteristics of democracy and then reflecting on why younger people might say they value democracy less than older people, students can perhaps reach a deeper understanding both of democratic ideals and of the extent to which our lived experience of democracy meets those ideals.


Teaching Strategies


  1. Reflect on the Meaning of Democracy
    Ask students to briefly reflect in their journals on the meaning of the term democracy, using the following journal prompt:
    What is democracy? How would you define it? What are its essential characteristics? What happens in a democracy that doesn’t happen in societies with different forms of government?

    Use the identity chart format to create a class concept map for the term democracy on chart paper. Ask students to share ideas from their journal entries and add them to the map.

  2. Analyze Benchmarks Used to Evaluate Democracy
    Instruct students to read the Bright Line Watch’s Twenty-Seven Statements of Democratic Principles (pages 3–6). Explain to students that Bright Line Watch is comprised of political science professors who are evaluating democracy in the United States. The twenty seven principles of democracy represent the criteria that the project uses to measure the health of democracy.

    Students will individually read through the principles and choose one principle that either 1) seems especially significant or 2) seems under debate in our current political climate. They should copy the characteristic into their journals and write a few sentences explaining why the chose that principle.

    Students will then share and discuss the quotations they chose and responded to in small groups, using the Save the Last Word for Me strategy. Ask students to briefly share out what they discussed in their groups. What stood out to students? What common themes or patterns emerged?

  3. Revisit the Identity Chart on Democracy
    Once the small group discussions are complete, bring the whole group together to debrief the activity with the following questions:

    • After reading the twenty-seven principles, what characteristics do you want to add to the identity chart for democracy? Are there any you want to remove?
    • How has your thinking about the concept of democracy evolved?
    • What did you learn from each other in your discussions? What ideas from your discussions resonated with you?

    If possible, keep the identity chart visible in the classroom throughout the year. The class can return to it, discussing ways they might revise it based on what they learn about democracy.



  1. Analyze the Research Findings From Bright Line Watch
    Encourage students to explore the reports and data from the Bright Line Watch surveys of political scientists and the public at large. You can ask students to focus on a particular category from one of the twenty-seven principles (such as elections) or ask them to summarize the survey findings as a whole.

  2. Research and Contextualize US Polling Data
    Recent polling data from Bright Line Watch and other experts indicate that younger American generations are increasingly less likely than older generations to claim that they value living in a democracy. Consider asking students to investigate this issue more deeply by assigning them the role of “policy expert.” Their job will be to identify the root causes for a decreasing faith in democracy among their generation and to propose policy solutions for the problem. You might give students a list of reputable publications and sources to guide their research.

  3. Explore an Alternative Vision of Democracy
    To further explore the meaning of democracy, consider using excerpts from Facing History’s Fundamental Freedoms resource, which explores Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    One idea is to have students read How Much Democracy Do We Want?, which lays out Roosevelt’s vision for achieving democracy in the United States. Students can analyze the text in conjunction with the twenty-seven principles from Bright Line Watch, discussing the following questions:

    • According to Roosevelt, what is the “moral basis of democracy”? What do you think of as the moral basis of democracy?
    • Re-examine the the Bright Line Watch’s Twenty-Seven Statements of Democratic Principles. Which of the twenty-seven principles do you think Roosevelt would most agree with? Explain your thinking with support from the text.
    • If you were Roosevelt, which principles would you add to the Bright Line Watch’s list? Explain your thinking with support from the text.

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