Hamilton/Madison/Jay The Federalist
Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America
Abraham Lincoln Political Speeches and Writings (On Democracy)
Xenophon Constitution of the Athenians
Plato Republic & Gorgias
Robert Dahl, On Democracy (1998) & How Democratic is the American Constitution (2002)
Harvey Mansfield, Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction (2010)
Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (1996)
Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (2005)
Joseph Bessette, The Mild Voice of Reason (1994)
Selections from: Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Thurgood Marshall, Ronald Reagan, James Ceaser, Samuel Huntington, Harry Jaffa, Jürgen Habermas, Joshua Cohen, and Larry Diamond
This course examines democracy as a political order and idea in the Western tradition, and aim to clarify (if not to answer) many of these questions by focusing on critical perspectives toward democracy – ancient and modern, hostile as well as friendly. Our contemporary idea of democracy arguably descends from a rather late Enlightenment perspective which now seems so dominant as to foreclose all debate: democracy is widely held to be unquestioned – and even unquestionable – as the best or most desirable form of good government. But this view in fact is a relatively recent one; its apparently self-evident claim, however, has been hotly contested from the time of its origin. Students who successfully complete this course will acquire a practical and theoretical foundation for defining and articulating key concepts in democratic theory (broadly construed) and in the history of political thought, concepts relevant to contemporary debates on the ends, means, and limits of democratic government; such as: democracy itself, in various manifestations; popular sovereignty and the principles of equality and majority rule; the (social/economic/political) conditions, rights, and liberties necessary for democracy, including freedoms of speech, press, and assembly (especially exercised in political dissent); participatory citizenship (liberal-‘weak’/classical-‘strong’); popular rule; direct democratic deliberation vs. representation, the rule of law, and constitutionalism.
5 % Attendance
15 % Participation
15 % First Essay (4-5 pgs)
20 % Mid-Term Exam
25 % Second Essay(6-7 pgs)
20 % Final Exam
Attendance and Participation
Attendance is mandatory. Students are required to attend each class session, and to participate in class discussions–listening attentively, making comments, and taking notes. Active participation is strongly encouraged. Liberal education is never compulsory; the free mind must learn to educate itself. Sincere efforts to contribute to our class discussion (with thoughtful observations and questions as well as comments) will assist all of us to form sound opinions and arrive at reasoned judgments about questions raised in and by these texts. All readings should be prepared in advance, according to the Schedule of Readings.
Reading and Studying
Class discussions depend on your presence and participation, as well as preparation. For each hour of class time per week, please be ready to spend at least three hours outside of class preparing, reading, and writing. Endeavor to think seriously about what you are reading. In preparing for class, please pay attention to current political events at the national level, particularly those involving constitutional issues and/or disputes between the three branches of government.
Criteria for Grades
Written work or examinations meriting the grade of “A” (excellent) must:
- address the assigned question(s) and topic(s) directly;
- demonstrate a careful and considered reading of the relevant primary text(s);
- offer a lucid and coherent thesis defended by a persuasive, detailed argument;
- weave together thesis and argument, with fitting quotations and full citations;
- use correct grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, and academic style;
- exhibit thoughtfulness, originality, and insight.
Written work or examinations awarded the grade of “B” (good) fulfill a majority of these criteria with areas of improvement indicated in grading remarks and comments. The grade of “C” (average) is assigned to submissions that fail to meet at least half of these criteria; students should make an appointment to discuss specific methods for improvement. The grade of “D” (unacceptable) is assigned to work that fails to meet a majority of these criteria, in which case students must make an appointment to discuss revising and resubmitting the assignment.
Late submissions that are not pre-approved will be subject to a grade deduction and are unacceptable after five days (including weekends). Written work suspected of plagiarism, cheating, collusion, or other flagrant violations of the Academic Honesty Policy will not be graded; students will be asked to meet formally with the professor to discuss the suspected violation. Further action may be taken if the student cannot account for the suspected violation to the professor’s satisfaction.
Students are strongly encouraged to visit me during office hours or to make an appointment for some more convenient time to discuss any aspect of the course, especially any assigned readings. I’ll look forward to hearing your questions and thoughts on the readings.
Schedule of Readings
I. Defining Democracy
In this first part of this course, we begin with questions (the answers to which we often take for granted): What is democracy? What are the basic institutions, aims, and limits of democratic government? What are the historical and theoretical origins of democracy? What makes certain political institutions “democratic” in nature? What arguments are made by the critics of democratic regimes or governments, now and in the past? Is there a tradition of anti-democratic thought in the intellectual and political history of Western civilization? In what sense can some opponents of democracy be considered “friendly” critics? How can the revival of a critical perspective on democracy, in theory and in practice, help to address the potential flaws inherent to democracies – thereby helping to improve democratic government?
We start with the American Founding and its revival of popular government. Although the Framers of the Constitution of 1787 claimed to have learned the lessons of history, and so to have conceived of a new science of politics capable of overcoming the inherent defects and weaknesses of “pure” democracy as it has been practiced in antiquity, there is some reason to believe that the Americans had little appreciation of the historical facts regarding practice of democracy at its point of origin in ancient Athens. The distant ancestor of our modern liberal democracy, the ancient regime known as dêmokratia placed “power” (kratos) directly in the hands of “the people” (dêmos) over 2500 years ago at the end of the 6th century BCat Athens, where popular rule asserted itself over against the fundamental alternatives that then existed in practice: oligarchia (rule of the wealthy and/or the few), monarchia (rule of one), tyranny (rule by force), pan-basileia (universal kingship or empire), and the elusive or theoretical aristokratia (the best regime, or rule of those who are best by nature). A quick survey of Socratic or elite criticism of this peculiar political order, with its ostensible penchant for unrestrained or whimsical action, at times inflamed to the point of ‘mob rule’ by unreflective and impassioned opinion stoked by demagoguery, reveals the origin of the anti-democratic sentiment that dominated Western political thought from antiquity to early modernity.
what is democracy?
- Robert Dahl, On Democracy, Chs. 1-4
- Freedom House: Criteria for Freedom and Democracy (Annual Report)
- The Economist: Index of Democracy (Annual Report)
- What is democracy? What are the most basic or characteristic institutions, aims, and limits of a democratic form of government?
- How do such organizations as Freedom House and The Economist (two well-reputed and widely recognized institutions) define democracy today? Why do they have a set of criteria that differs? Is one more interested in liberal democracy than in democracy per se?
- Why is it important to develop a set of metrics for assessing or comparatively judging the quality or quantity of democracy in any given country?
criticism of the united states constitution as anti-democratic
- Robert Dahl, “On Removing Certain Impediments to Democracy”
- Thurgood Marshall, “On the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution”
- James Ceaser, “In Defense of Republican Constitutionalism”
- Robert Dahl, On Democracy, Ch. 5, Ch. 8, & Ch. 10
- Robert Dahl, How Democratic is the American Constitution?, Chs. 2-3
- To what and to whom does Thurgood Marshall attribute the advances that have made with respect to democracy since the original Constitution of 1787?
- What are the “historical commitments” that Dahl identifies and critiques in his essay, and how does recognizing these commitments (or “impediments”) help us to improve our democracy?
- How does Ceaser attempt to refute Dahl’s argument? What would we lose, if we were to accept and embrace Dahl’s seemingly incremental improvements of democracy?
- Why should we believe that ‘more democracy’ is the solution to the problems that we already face in our democracy?
political forms in the age of revolution
- Edmund Burke, “On Conciliation with the Colonies” (1775)
- Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)
- Edmund Buke, “On the Revolution in France” (1790)
- Thomas Paine, Rights of Man (1791-92)
- Why does Burke advise reconciliation with the recalcitrant and rebellious colonists in America? What, in fact, has educated the colonists to such a love of freedom?
- How does Paine characterize self-government in Common Sense? Does his opinion of what constitutes good government change between 1776 and 1791? How is it that the American form of democracy will exceed or surpass ancient Athenian democracy? (Consider the intervening arguments about representation given in The Federalist.)
- What does Burke say about the tyranny of the people in relation to the tyranny of one in an absolute monarchy? Which is more fierce or destructive, and why?
a revolutionary form of government: democracy or republic?
- John Adams,A Defence of the Constitutions (1787)
- Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Query XIII
- John Adams & Thomas Jefferson, Selected Letters
- Robert Shoemaker, “‘Democracy’ and ‘Republic’ in Late 18C America”
- R. R. Palmer, “Notes on the Use of the Word ‘Democracy’, 1789-1799”
- Robert Dahl, On Democracy, Chs. 8-9; How Democratic…?, App. A
majority tyranny (faction) vs. the new science of politics (representation)
- Federalist 1, 6, 9-10, 14, 18-20
- Dustin Gish, “The View of Classical Democracy from the Founding”
- What makes a form of government ‘mixed’ according to Adams’ in his Defence? Are the classes of society which he identifies eradicable? Which class is at the heart of any democracy or “democratical republic” (to use Adams’ phrase)?
- Are there any positive uses or connotations of the word “democracy” at the time that The Federalist papers were being written? (See the articles by Palmer & Shoemaker.)
- How do Jefferson’s objections to the Virginia Constitution amount to an implicit view in favor of a more radical (that is, a more democratic) form of republicanism?
anti-democratic sentiment in the western political tradition
- Robert Dahl, On Democracy, Ch. 2
- Jennifer Roberts, Athens On Trial, Chs. 1, 3, 8, & 9
an american experiment in deliberative democracy
- Federalist 10, 39, 43, 48, 49, 51, 55, 58, & 63
- Martin Diamond, “Democracy and The Federalist: A Reconsideration of the Framer’s Intent”
- Joseph Bessette, “Deliberative Democracy: The Majority Principle in Republican Government”
- What is the intellection link in the Western tradition between anti-Athenian sentiment and anti-democratic rhetoric? What historical factors led to the depreciation of interest in ancient Athens, as opposed to ancient Sparta, in the early modern period?
- How do Diamond and Bessette seek to recover a proper understanding of democracy, as embedded in the structural framework and arguments of the Framers of the original Constitution of 1787?
- How and why do Diamond and Bessette differ in their definitions of democracy? Do they both take for granted that direct democracy rather than representative democracy is not a viable alternative for modern America?
First Essay due
ancient athenian democracy in action
- Herodotus 3.77-84
- Thucydides II.34-65 (Pericles’ Funeral Oration)
- Xenophon, Constitution of the Athenians
- How does the dialogue among the Persian nobility in this section of Herodotus amount to comparative political theory? On what grounds do the successive speakers introduce and defend one form of government, while, at the same time, criticizing and rejecting the other alternatives?
- What do we learn about democratic statesmanship from Pericles’ Funeral Oration?
- What does this treatise on the Athenian democratic constitution (here the words refers both to a form of government and way of life or culture), which is highly critical of it, at the same time reveal about democracy that might be considered positive?
classical democracy in theory: specialized knowledge and elite guardianship
- Plato, Gorgias 455b-460a, 513d-519d; Republic 543a-569c (Book VIII)
- Robert Dahl, On Democracy, Chs. 6-7, & Democracy and Its Critics, Chs. 4-5
- What does Socrates argue (in Gorgias and Republic) is the necessary foundation for any political action? What does Socrates mean by “knowledge”? If politics is an “art” or “science” like any other, on what body of knowledge does it depend?
- How can a political order without knowledge of what is justice accomplish the good, or the interests properly understood, of its citizens?
- Why does Dahl insist that this requirement leads to the concept of guardianship? How does elite guardianship differ (if it does at all) from Dahl’s own criteria of informed or enlightened understanding of citizens in his ideal democracy?
- Is there a proper role for a bureaucracy with specialized knowledge in democracy, or is every form of technocratic rule undemocratic?
classical regimes in practice: defending the regime, in practice and theory
- Aristotle, Politics III-IV
- Polybius VI.2-18 (the ‘mixed’ Roman constitution)
- What, according to Aristotle’s Politics, is difference between the rule of law and the rule of human beings – whether of the Many, the Few, or One? What role is there for certain aspects of democracy (which he categorizes as a “bad” or defective regime) as a part of the blend or mixture of regimes that makes Polity (a good regime) possible?
- Why does Polybius argue (from first-hand experience) that the “mixed” constitution of Republican Rome was the most important factor in its rise as an imperial power? In describing its constitution, how does Polybius employ and transform classical Greek terms for the various political regimes (both good and bad)? What part of the Rome’s “mixed” constitution is recognizable as democracy?
- How does Polybius’ “mixed” regime compare to that described by Adams’ Defence?
II – The Evolution of Democracy and Popular Sovereignty in America
Democracy itself appears to have disappeared entirely in actual practice from late antiquity (with the rise of the Hellenistic kings and the conquests of the Roman Republic), until almost fifteen centuries later in the late medieval age, when rudimentary forms of popular rule re-emerged in the Italian city-states, only to be overwhelmed in turn by the emergence of great nation-states in early modernity. The intellectual critique of popular rule culminated eventually in the high-stakes debates which took place before, during, and after the great Enlightenment revolutions (English, American, and French) regarding the tension between the democratic and republican elements of the governments to be formed under the influence of a new science of politics. In tracing the history of the democratic republic in America, the first democratic regime since ancient times, we see the rebirth and struggle for legitimacy of the principle of popular rule (or, in Tocqueville’s words, the omnipotence of the majority; or, in Lincoln’s words, popular sovereignty) – especially over against accusations of political instability and fears of majority tyranny – throughout the tumultuous nineteenth century.
politics in the age of democracy: the principle of popular sovereignty
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. I, Intro. & Part One, Chs. 3-4
- Harvey Mansfield, Tocqueville, Intro., Chs. 2-3
- What importance differences between America and France does Tocqueville cite that prove to be decisive in understanding why democracy in France (or, for that matter, anywhere else in Europe) will not – or cannot – resemble democracy in America?
- What does Tocqueville claim is the one object in American democracy that struck his eye more vividly than anything else, and what is so striking about what he observes?
- Why is the social state in America “eminently democratic”? How is democracy made to seem naturally fit for America (or vice-versa)?
- While not necessarily mutually exclusive, how does love of equality in a democracy undermine the love of freedom therein?
- How does Tocqueville describe “the dogma of popular sovereignty” in America?
the omnipotence of the majority in america
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. I, Part Two, Chs. 1-4, 7-8
- Robert Dahl, On Democracy, Ch. 6
- Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, Preface & Intro.
- What exactly are the “secret springs” that drive the power of the people, and the march of democracy therefore, in its “irresistible advance”?
- Why is there a natural inclination to associate in a democracy, so much so that a right to associate seems inalienable to human beings – especially in a democracy?
- What are the two fundamental principles or ideas upon which “the moral empire” and “omnipotence of the majority” are founded? Why does Tocqueville proclaim that any form of absolute power is an evil and dangerous thing in itself?
- How is the influence of the majority over thought insidious? Why does it necessarily lead to a lack of intellectual freedom?
individualism and democracy
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, Notice & Part One, Chs. 1-4, 13-16
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part Two, Chs. 1-7
- Harvey Mansfield, Tocqueville, Ch. 4
the doctrine of self-interest well understood
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. II, Part Two, Chs. 8-16
- Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, Chs. 1-3
- Robert Dahl, On Democracy, Ch. 12
- What philosophy or philosophic method does Tocqueville argue that the Americans adhere to without even knowing it, and how does this philosophic method trace its roots to the pervasive influence of democracy?
- What does Tocqueville imply about individuals in a democracy when he refers to an American belief in “the intellectual empire of the greatest number” and the “faith in common opinion” that becomes “a sort of religion whose prophet will be the majority?
- Why does a democratic people show a more ardent and more lasting love for equality than for freedom? Why are they willing to be enslaved, in the name of equality?
- What is “individualism” according to Tocqueville, and how is it (a) opposed to a sense of “selfishness” in aristocratic culture, and (b) its adverse effects tempered by the art of civil association and the proliferation of newspapers?
- What is the “doctrine of self-interest well or rightly understood”?
- How does religion in America combat the degrading effects of the materialism which democratic centuries tend to produce in citizens?
- In the midst of their democratic equality, why are Americans so restless and agitated?
honor, ambition, and greatness in democratic america
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America, II, Part Three, Chs. 5, 16-20
- Harvey Mansfield, Tocqueville, Ch. 6
equality, the taste for freedom, and soft despotism
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America, II, Part Four, Chs. 1-4, 6-8
- Pierre Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, Chs. 5-7 & 9
- Robert Dahl, How Democratic…?, Ch. 6
- How does democracy modify the relations between master and servant, in a way that destroys the possibility of community (as opposed to aristocratic culture)?
- To what are citizens in a democracy ultimately enslaved? Why does democratic honor find its place in America only in the realm of commercial activity? (What becomes of courage and the other traditional virtues?)
- Why is anarchy less to be feared in democracy than tyranny according to Tocqueville? How does the sentiment of a democratic people grow into accord with a desire for the concentration and centralization of governmental power – in “the state”?
- What kind of despotism do democratic nations ultimately have to fear above all else? What are the prospects for resisting it?
- Equality is less elevated than freedom “but it is more just”: Why?
constitutionalism, slavery, and the principle of equality
- Lincoln, “Lyceum Address,” “On Slavery,” “On the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise,” Letter to Joshua Speed, “On Equality,” “On Dred Scott,” “On the Declaration,” “The Principle…For All”
- Harry Jaffa, Crisis of The House Divided, Chs. II, XIII
- What does Lincoln identify as the great threats to the prospects for the perpetuation of our political institutions?
- How are these very threats directly related to the advance of democracy in America?
- Why does the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” seem so attractive? What happens to the sense of the whole, and of the interests of the minority, once a majority begins to exercise its will without restraint, or outside the rule of law?
popular sovereignty and the democratic threat to republican government
- Lincoln, “House Divided,” “On Democracy,” Sixth & Seventh Debates, Letter to Pierce
- Harry Jaffa, Crisis of The House Divided, Ch. XVI
- How does Lincoln’s fragment on democracy – which is stated as a kind of conclusion – seem to exhibit the qualities of a Euclidean proof? What are the missing steps (or enthymemes) that correspond to this conclusion’s unstated argument (major and minor premises)? (Lincoln’s rhetoric in this period often seems to show the influence of his private study of Euclid.)
- What are the similarities between Tocqueville’s account of a dangerous omnipotence of the majority and Douglas’ celebration of the doctrine of popular sovereignty?
- How does Lincoln offer a strong critique of Douglas’ doctrine of popular sovereignty – “the sacred right of self-government” – which reveals an underlying intention align his views with the Dred Scott decision of Taney’s Supreme Court, thereby establishing slavery permanently on American soil through democratic means?
- Lincoln, “Cooper Union Address,” Gettysburg Address, Second Inaugural
- What is distinctively democratic about Lincoln’s rhetoric in the Gettysburg Address?
- How does Lincoln tie the aspirations of a genuinely democratic government – “of the people, by the people, for the people” – to the principles of the original Declaration of Independence?
- Why does Lincoln invoke a providential God in his Second Inaugural? Why must the will of a majority of the people, which necessarily rules in a democracy, be reasonable in order to be rightful? (Consider how this question relates to Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural: “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possesses their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”)
Second Essay due
III – Contemporary Prospects for Democratization
After two World Wars and with the end of the Cold War, the late twentieth century witnessed the rapid spread of democracy around the globe in successive “waves” of democratization, as modern nations transitioned (with varying degrees of success) away from residual forms of authoritarian or colonial rule. In the wake of these developments, studies of democratic theory have also proliferated as democracy itself came to be defined and re-defined by an array of modifying or qualifying adjectives: classical, direct,radical, sortition, moderate, restrained, constitutional, representative, indirect, parliamentary, modern, liberal, electoral, procedural, participatory, strong, deliberative. The prospects for democracy remain a matter of serious consideration. To understand the grounds for the claim that democracy is indeed a just and desirable form of politics, and thus to defend the virtues of democracy and improve its actual practice, at home and around the world, we must take seriously the thoughtful critics of democracy – both ancient and modern – who have called our attention as well to its inherent and/or accidental limitations.
democratic progress in the twentieth century
- Amendments to the United States Constitution
- Woodrow Wilson, “The Meaning of Democracy” (1912)
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, Annual Message to Congress (1941)
- Robert Dahl, On Democracy, Chs. 13-14
- Robert Dahl, How Democratic…?, Ch. 2, App. B
- In what sense do the Amendments to the Constitution, taken as incremental change as well as taken in the aggregate, amount to a fundamental democratization of American national government?
- What is the “meaning” of democracy, according to Wilson? How does his view of democracy reflect the fundamental presuppositions of Progressivism?
- How does FDR link his “Four Freedoms” to the progress of democracy, not only at home but also abroad?
- Is Dahl correct to see that the evolution of democracy in America has thus far occurred through the intervention especially of the Executive? What aspects of an energetic and active Presidency does Dahl, on the other hand, see as a threat to democracy?
contemporary theorists of deliberative democracy
- David Schaefer, “Transformation of a Political Concept”
- Amy Gutmann & Dennis Thompson, “What Deliberative Democracy Means”
- Jürgen Habermas, “Three Normative Models of Democracy”
- Joshua Cohen, “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy”
- What does “deliberative democracy” mean? What is the origin of the phrase, and how has that phrase evolved in our political vocabulary?
- How do theorists propose to make democracy more deliberative, without eliminating the basic characteristics of democracy (such as direct participation and majority rule)?
- Are the theoretical criteria that legitimize democracy in themselves un- or even anti-democratic? What is the real difference between Madison’s argument for refining and enlarging the popular will and the aim of deliberative democracy theories?
prospects for democracy today, in america and abroad
- Ronald Reagan, Address to British Parliament (1982)
- Strobe Talbott, “Democracy and the National Interest” (1996)
- George W. Bush, “National Endowment for Democracy, 20thAnniversary” (2003)
- Robert Dahl, On Democracy, Ch. 15
- What is the greatest “national interest” at stake in promoting democracy abroad?
- In what sense is realpolitik an adequate justification for promoting democracy?
- Why do we seek to promote democracy, when the vast majority of democratic nations other than America have not constructed their democracies in imitation of our own?
illiberal democracy and the prospects for democratization
- Samuel Huntington, “After Twenty Years: The Future of the Third Wave” (1997)
- Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” (1997)
- Larry Diamond, “Is the Third Wave Over” (1996) & “The Democratic Rollback” (2008)
- What are the real prospects for democratization in regions of the world resistant to the tenets of modern liberalism? Is liberal democracy the only acceptable form of popular government?
- How are we to assess the prospects for democratization if the countries which have so recently adopted democratic forms prove unable to consolidate and perpetuate them?
- What are the underlying cultural, geographical, or philosophical conditions that allow for democracy to take root, thrive, and flourish? Can these conditions be constructed from scratch after the arrival of democracy, or must they already exist?