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How to Use Democracy Web

Margaret Mead wrote in 1928, "As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own."

The same is true of politics—the knowledge of another political system should sharpen one's ability to scrutinize and appreciate one's own political system. Democracy Web: Comparative Studies in Freedom is based on the premise that teaching students about the differences between political systems will enhance their understanding of democracy.

If one country holds openly contested elections, yet restricts the right of the press to question the actions of government leaders, should it still be regarded as "free"? Or, if another country has an independent press, a vibrant civil society, and a thriving free market, yet severely restricts the political rights of a sizeable ethnic population, should it still be described as "not free"? Democracy Web can help teachers who want to give their students a deep understanding of the answers to such questions by exposing them to the study of numerous forms of government around the world. And because governments influence virtually every aspect of life, from protecting or violating individual rights to initiating or preventing war, comparative political study is not only about governments, it is also about how the individuals in a given country interact with their governments. By comparing trends in government and civil society, we can reach a better understanding of how polities function and evolve.

Study Guide

Democracy Web is composed of two sections: an interactive map and a 13-chapter online study guide. Freedom in the World, Freedom House's annual comparative survey of political rights and civil liberties around the world, and the Albert Shanker Institute's Education for Democracy report provide the organizational framework for these materials.

The study guide was designed for use by history, social studies, and political science teachers of upper secondary- and lower college-level students. Teachers may build lesson plans around the study guide or encourage their students to use the interactive map, but the materials are intended primarily for the teachers themselves. The materials are suitable for use in classes on world history, American history, comparative politics, civics, and U.S. government. The study guide does not provide concrete, defined lesson plans, but rather presents a wealth of study questions, resources, and activities to help teachers shape lessons that will suit the time constraints, abilities, and interest levels of their students.

The guide begins with an introductory essay, "A Short Historical Sketch on the Idea of Freedom." This is followed by 12 chapters, each of which discusses the history and meaning of a fundamental democratic principle — consent of the governed, elections, constitutional limits, majority rule and minority rights, accountability, multiparty systems, economic freedom, rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of religion. Each of the 12 chapters also provides country studies for three nations—one Free, one Partly Free, and one Not Free, as designated by Freedom in the World — to help illustrate the principle in practice.

For example, the chapter "Free, Fair, and Regular Elections" explains that the right to elect one's own representatives and to influence the political direction of one's government is democracy's "indispensible" foundation. It describes the differences between parliamentary and presidential systems—both of which are democratic when responsive to elections—then points out that everyone involved in genuine elections must agree to accept their results. The country studies that follow offer examples of what happens when this consensus is absent.

Poland, the Free country example, is a former member of the Soviet bloc that developed a strong organized resistance to communist rule in the 1950s. The underground democracy movement continued until the first semidemocratic elections in 1989. Poland's democracy and electoral system have improved and gained strength ever since.

Venezuela, the Partly Free example, had a healthy democracy in the late 1950s, but the spread of corruption into the public sector created the yearning for a leader strong enough to clean things up. In 1998 the country elected Hugo Chavez as president. A career military officer, leader of a failed 1992 coup d'état, and founder of a new left-wing party, Chavez has used his power and influence to slowly assume more and more control over the state, judiciary, economy, and electoral commission. Senior political and civic leaders now face charges of treason and plotting to overthrow the government for documenting human rights and electoral law violations. As a result, the country's democratic future is in doubt.

Azerbaijan, the Not Free country example, declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, went through a brief period of liberalization in 1992, and then began a long slide into rigid authoritarianism, with elections that are held regularly but are neither fair nor free. Disqualification of candidates, ballot-box stuffing, preelection intimidation, press restrictions, and the detention of opposition activists are standard practice in Azerbaijani elections.

A comparison of the electoral systems in these three countries thus provides students with an understanding of what free and fair elections are and are not, and what their place is in democratic political systems.

Interactive Map of Freedom

The Interactive Map of Freedom offers a visual aid to the country profiles included in the study guide, as well as links to further information on every other country in the world. As determined by Freedom House's annual Freedom in the World survey, all countries have been grouped into in one of three categories: countries colored in green have been determined to be Free based on the broad range of political rights and civil liberties enjoyed by their residents; countries in yellow are Partly Free, meaning the rights of inhabitants are somewhat limited; and countries in red are Not Free, meaning even the most basic of rights are violated. These ratings are based on the answers to questions such as:

  • Are the legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
  • Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system open to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
  • Are there free trade unions and peasant organizations or equivalents, and is there effective collective bargaining? Are there free professional and other private organizations?
  • Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free of extensive political indoctrination?
  • Does the rule of law prevail in civil and criminal matters? Is the population treated equally under the law? Are police under direct civilian control?
  • Are property rights secure? Do citizens have the right to establish private businesses? Is private business activity unduly influenced by government officials, the security forces, or organized crime?

For a full explanation of the survey and its methodology, see "About Freedom in the World."

The map presents students with an instant portrait of the state of freedom around the world. Users can click on any country to gain access to basic information, the Freedom in the World analysis of that country, any related study-guide materials, and any additional surveys, country assessments, or special reports published by Freedom House. The idea is to be able to enter the website either through country-based searches or by beginning with the general principles of modern democracy. Teachers and students can reach information and explore connections by going in either direction.

Classroom Resources

Several resources for classroom use have been included, and we hope to develop more over time. Each of the 12 study-guide chapters is accompanied by a list of suggested questions and activities. These may be used to structure a class, or merely offer supplements to other discussion questions or assignments. Some questions may be considered advanced; this is intentional. It is hoped that the users of this study guide will be challenged by its materials and ideas.

For each of the 12 chapters, there are general questions and activities related to the principle being discussed as well as specific questions related to the three countries profiled in that chapter. For example, in the "Free, Fair, and Regular Elections" chapter, there is one sample question and one suggested activity related to Venezuela.

Question: What factors originally helped Venezuela to become a democracy? What types of social and political movements supported democracy?

Activity: What factors led to the election of and consolidation of power by Hugo Chavez? Is Chavez a dictator? Pretend you are a lawyer defending Chavez's behavior and make the argument that he should not be considered a dictator. Allow a classmate to present the opposing side, and have the class vote based on your presentations.

A list of additional resources is also included for each of the 12 chapters and the study guide as a whole. Above all, Democracy Web is intended to offer teachers a unique way to foster or expand upon their students' understanding of democracy. We hope that teachers will find it to be a useful resource that is adaptable to a wide range of class levels, student abilities, and school constraints.

Democracy Web is interested in teacher feedback. To send suggestions or examples of how it has been used in the classroom, please contact us.