Teaching Trump: Why Comparative Politics Makes Students More Optimistic about US Democracy
by Hannah Baron, Brown University Robert A. Blair, Brown University, and Shelby Grossman, University of Memphis
How does learning about democratic erosion in other countries shape opinions about the state of democracy in the US today? We describe lessons learned from a collaborative course on democratic erosion taught at nearly two dozen universities over the 2017-18 academic year. We use survey data, student-written blog posts, exit questionnaires, and interviews with students who did and did not take the course to explore the effects of studying democratic erosion from a comparative perspective. Do comparisons foster optimism about the relative resilience of democracy in the US, or pessimism about its vulnerability to the same risk factors that have damaged other democracies around the world? Somewhat to our surprise, we find that the course increased optimism about US democracy, instilling greater confidence in the relative strength and longevity of American democratic norms and institutions. We also find, however, that the course did not increase civic engagement, and, if anything, appears to have exacerbated skepticism towards activities such as protest. Students who took the course became increasingly sensitive to the possibility that some forms of civic engagement reflect and intensify the same threats to democracy that the course emphasized—especially polarization.