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Democratic Theory and Practice

Meta Mendel-Reyes, Professor of Political Science
Swarthmore College

This course is designed for undergraduate students. It is structured around one 14 week semester, with class meeting twice a week for 75 minutes.

Course Description

"In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it; consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to one meaning."—George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language."

"What we call today democracy is a form of government where the few rule, at least supposedly, in the interests of the many."—Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

The root meaning of the word democracy is "rule of the people." This seems like a simple, straightforward idea. Today, nearly everyone agrees that political power belongs in the hands of the people. But the appearance is deceptive: democracy in the United States raises a host of complex questions, both practical and theoretical. What explains the gap between the nearly universal commitment to democracy, and the fact that most people barely participate in ruling themselves? Can people wield power effectively in a large, bureaucratic, nation-state? Is democracy simply about the institutions of government? Power is surely also exercised, for example, in the economy, families, and educational institutions. What does democracy entail in these contexts? Can political democracy occur in a country in which there are tremendous economic and social equalities? Does democracy require absolute equality? And what does it mean for "the people" to "have" power, anyway? Must political decisions be made by consensus to be considered truly democratic? When and how do political movements arise, in which people attempt to empower themselves and to reclaim democracy?

In this class we will explore these and other questions by comparing a wide range of democratic political theory to the practice of American politics. Because the questions are big and difficult, we can pursue them only in a preliminary way. The aim of our work together is not to reach definitive conclusions, but to challenge your preconceptions, raise some basic problems, introduce you to some of the most important attempts at answers, and to give you opportunities to engage in the activity of theorizing about democracy, which is, in my experience, essential yet often missing from democratic practice.

Course Format and Assignments

This class emphasizes discussion and brief lectures, but there will also be classroom exercises, videos, one or more outside speakers, and a theory in practice experience which will take place in the community. Your participation is indispensable, because the most important political thinking occurs in public discourse about common problems or divisive differences. Although a classroom has different purposes and standards from those of a town meeting or a campaign debate, this course should still be a forum for genuinely political conversation. Together, we will try to create a class environment in which we all try to express our views AND to listen to the views of others. This requires a degree of courage and trust; it is sometimes very hard to take a different stand on a controversial or sensitive issue, or to open ourselves to a very different viewpoint. But if we can't do it in the class, how will we ever be able to do so in public life?

Class participation. Class participation is a large percentage of the final grade: 25%. You will be graded on your daily participation in class discussion, and in other class activities, including helping to lead discussion, a debate, and a town meeting. On the first day, I will collect information about the kind of class participation that helps each of you learn the best (small group discussion, large group discussion, debate, lecture), and I will try to accommodate you as much as possible. There is no midterm or final, so your participation in class will be the only way to demonstrate your overall knowledge of the subject matter of this course. So, I expect you to come to class each day, having read the materials and thought carefully about them. I will let you know what your class participation grade is at mid-semester.

Written work. There will be several, very short writing assignments (25% of the grade), which will ask you to do different kinds of written work appropriate to democratic theory or practice, including a theory in practice report. There will be an essay grade (50%), based on one 5-7 page essay and one 10-12 page essay. Writing about and doing political theory will likely be new to many of you, and challenging to all of us. In the first paper, you will critically analyze political theories about an issue raised in the first part of the course. The second paper will give you an opportunity to theorize politically yourself about a problem in democratic theory and practice, in light of texts from the last part of the course. NOTE that no late papers will be accepted, and all assignments must be completed to pass the course.

Electronic updates. Additional information about assignments will be given in class. The assignments are indicated in the course outline below (subject to change). There will be a folder for this class on the classes server, which includes a folder for you to talk with each other about democratic theory and practice, and the class. Another internal folder will contain this syllabus and all assignments, reading and discussion guides, the video dates, and all changes and updates, etc. (This is an experiment—I want to be able to communicate with you more efficiently, and conserve paper. You may also submit written work to me electronically). The video classroom has been reserved for Wednesdays 4-11 (to make it easier for everyone to see the films, we will schedule two showings); a schedule will be posted in the class folder. IMPORTANT: please get in the habit of checking the classes server the day after each class, and checking email from time to time.

Readings. The following required books are available for purchase in the bookstore; they are also on reserve in McCabe library. Readings marked with an asterisk are in Green, ed., Democracy; readings marked with a @ will be distributed.

  • John Gaventa, Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley.
  • Phillip Green, ed., Democracy: Key Concepts in Critical Theory.
  • Melissa F. Greene, Praying for Sheetrock.
  • Daniel C. Kemmis, Community and The Politics of Place.
  • Abraham Lincoln, ed. and introduced by Cuomo and Holzer, .Lincoln on Democracy.
  • James Miller, "Democracy Is In the Streets": From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago.

Course Outline and Schedule of Assignments


T 1/17

A. What is democracy?

Th 1/19
Green, Williams (intro & selection 1)*
Personal experience in democracy due (1/2 page)

B. Democratic Theory and Practice I: The Civil Rights Movement

T 1/24 Greene, Praying for Sheetrock, Parts One and Two
Th 1/26 Greene, Part Three

C. The Classical Theory of Democracy

T 1/31
Rousseau, Mill, Tocqueville (sels. 2-4)*
Abstract due (1 page)

D. Representative Democracy

Th 2/2 Madison, Mill, Dahl (5-7)*

E. Democratic Theory and Practice III: Lincoln, Slavery, the Civil War

T 2/7 Lincoln,tba

Th 2/9
Lincoln, tba
Class debate: Lincoln-Douglass
Debate statement due (1 page)

T 2/14 Lincoln, tba—Happy Valentine's Day!

Th 2/16
King, "Letter From a Birmingham Jail"*
Theory in practice proposal due

F. Inequality and Democracy

T 2/21 Freidman, Macpherson, Parenti, Green (17-20)*
Th 2/23 Bowles & Gintis, Elkin, Parenti, Phillips (21-24)*

G. Democratic Theory and Practice IV: Appalachian Miners

T 2/28 Gaventa, Power and Powerlessness, Part I (1.1-1.3), Part II (all)
Th 3/2 Gaventa, 5, 6 (intro, 6.3), 7 (intro, 7.4, 7.5), Part IV (all), 10

BREAK: Be sure to theorize and practice democracy regularly!

H. Democratic Elitism

T 3/14 Michels, Weber, Schumpeter, Berelson, Crozie et al, Dahl (8-13)*
Th 3/16 Dewey, Bachrach, Prewitt & Stone (14-16)*

I. Democratic Theory and Practice V: SDS During the Sixties

T 3/21 Miller "Democracy Is In the Streets", tba

Th 3/23
Miller, tba
First essay due

J. Action

T 3/28 Luxembourg, Arendt, Carter, Walzer (25-28)*

K. Participation and Representation

Th 3/30
Gould, Green, Barber (29-30)*
Theory in practice report due

L. Community and Democracy

T 4/4 Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place, Chs. One-Five
Th 4/6 Kemmis, Chs. Six-Eight

M. Town Meeting

T 4/11
no readings
Citizen statement due (1 page)

Th 4/13 no readings

N. Democratic Rights

T 4/18 Rousseau, Mill, Bay, Kateb, Young (intro, 32-36)

O. Democratic Theory and Practice VI: Contemporary Rights Issues

Th 4/20
Immigration: guest speaker
readings to be assigned

T 4/25
Issue of class's choice
readings to be assigned


Th 4/27

May 3, 5 pm—Final essay due