American Democracy under Stress: Contemporary Threats in Historical Perspective

Political Science/American Politics/American History

The United States, throughout its history, has endured numerous political crises that have imperiled democracy. It has also confronted some dangers to democracy that owe to how its institutional arrangements—those governing representation and/or electoral processes—have interacted with politics at different points in time. I will be working on three interrelated projects on these themes. I will be completing a book project (with Robert Lieberman) that investigates what earlier democratic crises—in the 1790s, the 1850s, the 1890s, the 1930s, and during Watergate—can tell us about dangers to democracy today and how they can be mitigated. I will also be starting a project investigating historical trends in political polarization, considering both the mass and elite levels and the relationship between them, and the impact these have for democracy. Finally, I will commence an analysis of the relationship between rural and urban power in American politics over time. I will probe the changing extent of the rural-urban divide and its political significance, with attention to how US institutional features have influenced it.

The research partner will be asked to engage in a variety of activities related to these projects, such as: researching specific topics, writing short summaries, and preparing annotated bibliographies of relevant literature; collecting and compiling historical data; and conducting some quantitative data analysis and preparation of tables and figures.

The student will learn about conditions that make democracy vulnerable—political polarization, economic inequality, racism and nativism, and executive aggrandizement—and how they were manifest in the American past compared to the present. The student will also learn about how changes in features such as the 3/5 compromise, poll taxes, and literacy tests, as well as the persistence of the structure of the Senate and Electoral College, have influenced US politics over time.