Sophomore Seminars

Democracy in Crisis: Learning from the Past


This January, an armed insurrection assaulted the U.S. Capital, trying to block the Electoral College affirmation of President Biden’s election. For the past four years, American democracy has been in continual crisis. Bitter and differing views of what constitutes truth have resulted in a deeply polarized electoral process. The sharp increase in partisanship has crippled our ability as a nation to address and resolve the complex issues facing us.

There are reasons to hope the current challenges will be overcome and the path of our democracy will be reset on a sound basis. But that will require a shift to constructive—rather than destructive—political conflict.

This seminar will focus on U.S. democracy and will use a series of case studies of major events in our national history to explore what happened and why to American democracy at key pressure points. This historical exploration will shed light on how the current challenges facing American democracy should be handled.

Our basic text is “Democracy: A Case Study” by David A. Moss (Harvard, 2017), which examines situations when American democracy grappled with tough public-policy issues. Each case study raises questions facing key decision makers. In the process, the case studies explore the development of the institutions of our democracy and how they operate in practice.

You will write short reflections on some of these case studies. As a final project, working alone or in teams of two, you will research and write your own case study on an issue of contemporary public policy or a prior one in American history.

I have asked some high-school teachers in American history or government to consider using your case studies in their classes. I will let you know what topics might be of most interest to them. You will not be obligated to choose one of the topics they suggest, and they will not be obligated to use your case studies in their teaching.

The seminar will include a series of outside speakers from both political life and Stanford who will give us perspectives on issues of democracy that will help enrich our knowledge.

When you have completed this seminar, you will:

  • Gain insights into the workings of American democracy and the inherent tensions in democratic practices;
  • Be adept at analyzing major public-policy controversies, understanding competing claims, and developing reasoned judgments on how best to resolve them;       
  • Be able to examine contemporary and future crises in American democracy through experienced lenses, and then to engage in active participation in the public policy-issues involved.

(This Sophomore Introductory Seminar is a Cardinal Course certified by the Haas Center.)

Meet the Instructor(s)

Thomas Ehrlich

"As has often been said, democracy is not a spectator sport. I am eager to teach this seminar because I believe deeply that Stanford University students should be actively engaged, for the rest of their lives, in helping to ensure the sound functioning of our democracy. Right now, our democracy is in serious trouble. It needs the knowledgeable involvement of our citizenry.

"My perspective is shaped by my own times in our federal government during the administrations of five presidents. I was the first president of the Legal Services Corporation, which provides civil legal help to the disadvantaged, and the first director of the International Development Cooperation Agency, in charge of foreign-aid policies and reporting directly to President Carter. I've also spent much of my life in universities—as faculty member and dean at Stanford Law School, provost at the University of Pennsylvania, and president of Indiana University.

In these roles I experienced first-hand the value of education in democracy. I've also written about the importance of civic and political education in higher education, most recently Civic Work, Civic Lessons: Two Generations Reflect on Public Service, authored with a Stanford undergraduate."