Sophomore Seminars

Democracy in Crisis: Learning from the Past


The 2016 election and its aftermath were particularly low moments in American politics. Bitter and differing views of what constitutes truth have resulted in a deeply polarized electoral process.  Current research indicates that the significant increase in partisanship has interfered with our ability as a nation to address and resolve the complex issues facing us.  In short, American democracy is in crisis. 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 should 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 plan to ask graduate students preparing to be high-school teachers in American history or government to consider using your case studies in their classes.  These graduate students will be in the one-year STEP program at the Graduate School of Education.  I will learn what topics might be of most interest to them, and convey that information to you.  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

Thomas Ehrlich

"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 ensuring the sound functioning of our democracy. Right now, I think it is in trouble. My perspective is shaped by my own times in our federal government. 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, reporting 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—and in these roles I experienced first-hand the value of education in democracy. I've also written about civic and political education in higher education, most recently Civic Work, Civic Lessons: Two Generations Reflect on Public Service, authored with a Stanford undergraduate."