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The U.S. has veered toward — and away from — democracy over time

Our textbook suggests teaching about the Jan. 6 insurrection with this framing.

How should political science professors discuss the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection with our students, who are among the newest members of our electorate? As authors of the recently completed ninth edition of “Approaching Democracy: American Government in Times of Challenge,” we approached this historic event by putting it in the context of how American democracy has expanded, constricted, failed, and succeeded throughout history.

Our book’s theme is that the American democratic experiment is evolutionary and ultimately positive — something we still maintain, more than a year after the assault on the Capitol.

It’s true that 64 percent of Americans believe that U.S. democracy is in peril. But as college professors, our job is to teach students the fundamentals of American government while also acknowledging the fragility of our political system. Below, we reflect on the lessons we learned while writing this textbook in a time of a global pandemic, historic protests over racial injustice and a violent attack that attempted to disrupt congressional certification of a presidential election.

Dilemmas of teaching American democracy

As we wrote about Stop the Steal in our introductory chapter, we discussed how to characterize the Jan. 6 events. Was it a coup, an insurrection, a protest or Capitol tourism? The news media, political scientists and other analysts were discussing and debating these terms as we wrote; that language continues to be debated today. We recognized that our wording choices help shape our own and our students’ understandings of the U.S. democratic experiment. The fact that these choices are highly fraught exposes the increasingly political nature of teaching these subjects. Words are partisan. Terminology is political.

However, the facts pointed us toward classifying the actions of President Donald Trump’s supporters as an insurrection rather than a riot or coup. News reports led us to believe that those that breached the Capitol were attempting to block the lawful transition of power. Furthermore, the federal government and the District of Columbia began to prosecute individuals who unlawfully entered the U.S. Capitol building, charging them with destruction of property and assaulting law enforcement and media personnel — which reinforced the conclusion that these events were not protected freedom of speech protests, but rather harmful actions that can be regulated by the state.

Surveys find that Americans remain divided about the meaning of what happened on Jan. 6. So perhaps it’s not surprising that some students have argued about our characterization of Jan. 6 as an insurrection. Colleagues who have adopted our textbook recommended that we add the word to our glossary to give students a communal understanding of this term. Given this feedback, in the 10th edition, we will explain why we classify Jan. 6 as an insurrection, what that word refers to, and how it may be distinguished from other events.

As with other politically charged issues, these challenging discussions help give students the analytic tools they need to consider the contemporary political landscape on their own and a better understanding of the U.S. political system. And it gives them an immediate example of the fragility of U.S. democracy, showing that not only has democracy expanded and constricted over its history, but that cycles of voting expansions and restrictions recur.

For instance, since the Framers first conceptualized U.S. democracy, the nation has repeatedly broadened who can vote. And yet state legislatures have repeatedly enacted legislation that can restrict voters’ abilities to exercise the franchise — one reason Congress is attempting to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Instructing the U.S.’s newest voters

College students are coming of age as Americans are openly discussing the possibility of a new “civil war.” The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance now classifies the United States as a “backsliding” democracy, revealing that even a system once considered a beacon of global democracy has its fault lines.

In such a climate, giving American students the tools and skills to become informed participants in U.S. democracy is crucial. This generation is politically engaged and voting at higher rates than those seen in recent decades, voicing concerns about headline-dominating topics such as climate change, racial unrest and polarization.

To speak to these concerns, we tried to write a book that includes experiences as diverse as are Americans. Trying to leverage the recent moment of reckoning with injustice was difficult for a traditionally structured textbook. To do so, we expanded our author team and created “Diversity and Democracy” boxes that give examples of how issues of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion are incorporated within or challenge the U.S. status quo. For example, we discuss the filibuster in the traditional sense, and also note how it has historically been used to thwart civil rights legislation. In doing so, we married the traditional information-packed form of an American politics textbook while also introducing students to how governing procedures can produce unequal outcomes.

Seeing the United States as “approaching democracy”

While political scientist professors cannot solve the growing partisan divide or counter democratic backsliding, we can encourage generations of students to think critically about the American political project. Our method has been to organize our textbook around the metaphor of “approaching democracy,” analyzing each new political event to see whether it moves the nation closer to — or further away from — the goal of achieving a fully representative governmental system. By learning to see through that analytical lens, students can envision how they themselves can participate in promoting and backing the democratic experiment.

That’s why we started the textbook with the words of former Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel in 1990, who addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He argued that America was a model for the world’s democracies because:

Larry Berman is professor emeritus at the University of California at Davis and former founding dean of the Honors College at Georgia State University.

Bruce Murphy is the Fred Morgan Kirby professor of civil rights at Lafayette College and author of “Scalia: A Court of One” (Simon & Schuster, 2021).

Sarah Allen Gershon is a professor of political science at Georgia State University.

Nadia E. Brown (@BrownPhDGirl), professor of government and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Georgetown University, is co-author of “Sister Style: The Politics of Appearance for Black Women Elected Officials” (Oxford University Press, 2021).

Note: Updated Sept. 25, 2023.