The Hope and Fragility of Democracy in the United States

Last Updated: January 15, 2021

The events of the week of January 18, 2021, highlight both the resilience and the fragility of American democracy. On Monday, we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day and commemorate King's inspirational vision for a more just country. We will also observe a democratic transfer of power and witness Kamala Harris assume the vice presidency, as the first woman, Black person, and South Asian person to hold that office. At the same time, efforts to hold accountable those responsible for the January 6th insurrection, as well as ongoing threats of violence, cast a shadow over these events.

In her book Our Time Is Now, Stacey Abrams writes: “Our nation’s core narrative can be summed up in the disconnect between the Constitution’s pledge of equality and the rampant disregard for that ambition that has plagued the United States of America ever since.”1 Throughout US history—from the abolitionist movement, to civil rights movements, to the current movement for Black lives—activists have held up the democratic ideals enshrined in the Constitution and used them to expand civil and political rights. However, the history of the United States is not a simple story of steady progress toward a more perfect democracy. As Stacey Abrams reminds us, from our founding, there have been those who have violently resisted equality and have used their power to restrict rights and participation.

This present moment offers evidence of the ongoing struggle to establish a truly inclusive democracy. On January 6, 2021, the country witnessed the historic election of Reverend Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s first Black senator, and of Jon Ossoff, Georgia’s first Jewish senator. A few hours later, insurrectionists—many bearing white nationalist symbols—stormed the Capitol building and sought to overturn the results of a free and fair election. 

In this Teaching Idea, students learn about the history of democratic and anti-democratic efforts in the United States and examine a series of sources that illuminate this tension from Reconstruction to today. 

This Teaching Idea uses the following materials:

  • Handout 1: Sources, which contains sources that can help students explore the history of democratic and anti-democratic efforts in the United States.
  • Handout 2: Say, Mean, Matter, which contains a graphic organizer that helps students analyze key quotes from the sources in Handout 1.
  1. What Are the Conflicting Strands in US History?

    In this activity, students analyze an excerpt of an interview with historian Eric Foner who discusses the importance of recognizing and understanding both the democratic and the anti-democratic strands that run through US history. If your students have not already explored the meaning of the term democracy, we recommend you first use our Teaching Idea Assessing the Strength of Democracy.

    Ask students to read Source 1 from Handout 1: Sources, which is an excerpt from an interview with historian Eric Foner.

    Then, ask your students to share their answer to the following question using the Wraparound teaching strategy:

    What is the most valuable idea in the text?

    Distribute Handout 2: Say, Mean, Matter and explain the instructions. Ask students to read the model answers under Source 1 and then complete the analysis of the second quote under Source 1.

    Note: Depending on the social-distancing requirements in your classroom, you may choose to ask students to work individually or in pairs.

    Remote Learning Note: Share Handout 1: Sources with your students. During a synchronous session, ask your students to read and discuss the first source. You can ask students to share their answers using the Wraparound (Remote Learning) strategy. Then, ask them to reread Source 1. This time, they should highlight the sentences that relate to the anti-democratic strand of US history using one color and the sentences that relate to the democratic strand using a different color.

    Next, assign your students to virtual breakout rooms with small groups. Share a copy of Handout 2: Say, Mean, Matter with each group. Ask your students to read the model answers under Source 1 on the handout and then to work together with their groups to complete the analysis of the second quote under Source 1.

  2. How Do the Democratic and Anti-Democratic Strands Appear During the Reconstruction Era?

    In this activity, students analyze primary sources from the Reconstruction era and consider how the democratic and anti-democratic strands of US history were present during this period. 

    Note: At the beginning of this activity, let your students know that Source 4 describes offensive stereotypes and racially-motivated violence. (Our lesson Sterotypes and "Single Stories" can help to unpack the nature and consequences of stereotyping.) Additionally, some of these sources use the term “Negro.” You may wish to point out the use of this word to your students. In earlier times, this was an acceptable term for referring to African Americans. While not offensive in the past, today the term “Negro” is outdated and inappropriate.

    If your students are not familiar with the Reconstruction era, you may want to begin by providing them with a few bullet points, such as:

    • The Reconstruction era (1865-1877) was the period of US history immediately following the Civil War. During this era, Black Americans argued that they should be granted the full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.
    • During Reconstruction, millions of Black Americans supported the Republican Party, which formed in the 1850s in opposition to slavery, while the Democratic Party supported the re-establishment of white supremacist governments in southern states. 
    • Laws passed by Congress mandated that the states of the former Confederacy allow all Black American men to vote. Later, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified and forbade any state from refusing the vote to a person because of their race or past enslavement.  
    • Buoyed by the votes of millions of Black voters, about 2,000 Black Americans were elected to political offices at all levels of government. South Carolina and Mississippi elected legislatures that were majority Black.
    • By 1877, a violent reassertion of white supremacy led to the overthrow of the Republican-run governments of Southern states supported by Black voters.  

    To give your students an overview of the Reconstruction era, play an excerpt of our video Introduction: A Contested History (from 3:20-4:57). Note: This film includes a variety of illustrations, engravings, and political cartoons that were created during the Reconstruction era. Some of them portray individual people according to racial stereotypes that were common at the time.

    Ask your students:

    What information in the video did you find surprising, interesting, or troubling?

    Students can share their answer to one part of the question with the class using the Wraparound strategy.

    Then, ask your students to view or read Sources 2, 3, and 4 on Handout 1: Sources and to complete the chart on Handout 2: Say, Mean, Matter for these sources. 

    Remote Learning Note: During a synchronous session, share your screen to play the video Introduction: A Contested History (from 3:20-4:57). You can also ask students to watch the video independently before class. Students can share a response to the video using the Wraparound (Remote Learning) strategy. Then, assign your students to virtual breakout rooms with small groups. Ask them to view or read Sources 2, 3, and 4 on Handout 1: Sources and to work together with their groups to complete the chart on Handout 2: Say, Mean, Matter for these sources. 

  3. How Do the Democratic and Anti-Democratic Strands Appear in the US Today?

    In this activity, students learn about the historic election of Georgia’s first Black senator, analyze two sources that discuss the election and voting rights in Georgia, and consider how democratic and anti-democratic strands of US history are at play in the present. This activity references voter suppression in Georgia. You can use our Teaching Idea, Voting Right in the United States, to help your students learn more about the history of voting rights and issues around voting today.

    Explain to your students that Georgia recently elected Reverend Raphael Warnock, who will be the first African American to represent the state in the US Senate. Then, play the video Warnock Honors His Mother in Senate Victory Speech from the Washington Post2. Ask your students:

    • What has changed in Georgia since Reverend Warnock’s parents were young?
    • What is the significance of Reverend Warnock’s election?

    Next, ask your students to read Sources 5 and 6 on Handout 1: Sources and to complete the chart on Handout 2: Say, Mean, Matter for these sources.

    Finally, ask your students to complete the following reflection (which also appears on Handout 2: Say, Mean, Matter):

    Final Reflection: Eric Foner believes: "We teach history, but history is not determinism [fate]. We don’t have to just relive our history over and over again. It’s possible to move beyond it."3 In light of this quote, and what I have learned about the democratic and anti-democratic strands of US history, I believe:

    1. It's my responsibility to learn . . . 
    2. It's my responsibility to reflect on . . . 
    3. It's my responsibility to act by . . . 

    Remote Learning Note: During a synchronous session, share your screen to play the video Warnock Honors His Mother in Senate Victory Speech. You can also ask students to watch the video independently before class. After you watch and discuss the video, assign your students to virtual breakout rooms with small groups. Ask them to view or read Sources 5 and 6 on Handout 1: Sources and to work together with their groups to complete the chart on Handout 2: Say, Mean, Matter for these sources. Finally, ask your students to complete the last reflection, either during class or independently as homework.

Citations

  • 1 : Stacey Abrams, Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2020).
  • 2Note: Without a Washington Post subscription, you and your students will have access to a limited number of free articles per month.
  • 3 : Isaac Chotiner, “Learning from the Failure of Reconstruction,” the New Yorker, January 13, 2021. Emphasis added.

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