Does Democracy Work? An Inquiry into American Democracy

by Dawn McShane & LynnAnn Perlin

Democracy has existed for hundreds of years in this country. Our population today is more informed than ever, have opportunities that our ancestors could only dream of, yet more and more Americans don’t think our democracy is working. Democracy is an important topic for our students to discuss as many people view this current political climate as a crossroads between the expansion of democracy globally vs. a shift towards soft authoritarianism. Many people have posed the question: are we experiencing a fourth wave of democracy with countries like Iraq and Afghanistan in transition? While on the flip side the popularity of the Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt book, How Democracies Die (2018),has challenged us to questions whether the global trend is going away from democracy towards an eventual death of democracy. These are conversations happening in our world today, and our students have to familiarize themselves with democracy to even engage in such debates. 

The Inquiry Design Model allowed us to create a lesson that challenges students to reflect on the history of democracy, the current state of democracy, and the future of democracy in America. In order to encourage student’s interest in the topic, we suggest starting with a staging question related to the topic, specifically the idea of voting. For our staging question, we used a brief clip on the history of Alice Paul and asked students to consider why Alice Paul and her fellow suffragettes were willing to sacrifice everything for the opportunity to participate in American democracy? You want to use this as an opportunity to engage all students in the conversation so that they can how it relates to them personally. This staging question also challenges students to question the value of democracy and how those included in democracy has expanded through the years. 

The first compelling question of this inquiry asks students to consider the definition of democracy. We suggest starting with a definition of democracy from one of the Founding Fathers and select primary source texts from different points in American history. We selected a variety of different primary sources for this first document set so that students can examine different perspectives of democracy. You want to give students time with these documents and allow them to close read each of them so that they truly understand what is being said. Using analysis strategies along with frequent conversations about the documents gives student confidence with difficult documents. 

With the second compelling question, we want students to analyze data in order to examine how voter turnout has changed throughout American history. Using the data students will create a claim that explains America’s relatively low voter turnout compared with other developed democracies. This task can also be modified for younger students by providing them with three possible claims and allow them to choose one and develop evidence to support their chosen claim. This task pushes students to think about American democracy and what a lack of voter turnout means for the future of our democracy. 

The third compelling question asks students to explore how Americans have developed a negative view of democracy. We wanted to use this inquiry to build upon ideas and help students make connections to ultimately question whether “democracy works.” By asking students to create a visual comparing both the positive and negative views of democracy, the students are able to make those important connections. The students then use all the information to create an argument that answers the question, “Does Democracy Work?” While answering this question, students should consider the following: Are there still groups that are left out of our democracy? Does everyone have an equal voice? Is America the democratic model for the rest of the world? 

Beyond this inquiry, we also encourage students to use what they learned about democracy to take action. Through conversations, students can think of ways to become active members in their communities and practice true democratic values. With so many young activists visible in the news, students are encouraged to fight for change in their local communities based on their own interests. The discussion of democracy and its future is not limited to any one type of student, but is an important discussion for every young person on the cusp of voting to engage in. 

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