Democracy Web is a project of the Albert Shanker Institute that was developed in conjunction with the human rights organization Freedom House. Initially launched in 2009, it is an extra-curricular on-line resource for teaching democracy as a central theme in American and world history, civics, and social studies classes. Designed for use at an upper-secondary and lower-college level, it has also been found useful at lower-secondary and even middle school levels. Democracy Web was updated in 2016 to reflect the world’s current events and will be updated on a regular basis.

Why Democracy Web?

In 1987, the American Federation of Teachers issued “Education for Democracy: A Statement of Principles.” Signed by a bipartisan group of American educational and political leaders, it asked a series of questions that remain highly relevant today:

Are the ideas and institutions — and above all the worth — of democracy adequately conveyed in American schools? Do our graduates possess . . . what Thomas Jefferson hoped for, an ability to decide for themselves “what will secure or endanger” their freedom? Do they know of democracy’s short and troubled tenure in human history? Do they comprehend its vulnerabilities? Do they recognize and accept their responsibility for preserving and extending their political inheritance?

The signers of the statement were deeply worried that at a time of international challenges American students were not properly educated in the principles and practices on which a free society rests, that American and world history had been de-emphasized in the educational curriculum, and that the teaching of democracy, the system of American governance, was presented in world history and other textbooks in a relative way as one of many equally valid systems or indeed as “ethnocentric.” For a time there was an effort to improve the standards for teaching history and democracy, but it foundered. Thirty years later, at a time of new international and domestic challenges, the same questions quoted above are as valid as then.

To address this problem, Democracy Web set out to provide an extracurricular resource for teachers and students at the upper-secondary and lower-level college levels to study the principles and practices of democracy as they evolved over history and as they developed in a variety of countries. To achieve that goal, Democracy Web has created a resource for “comparative studies in freedom” in order that students may learn fundamental lessons of democracy — and lessons of world history — from the vantage points of where democracy exists, where it exists in part, and where it does not exist at all.

Democracy Web chose the basic methodology of Freedom House’s Annual Survey of Freedom in the World, which measures 12 different aspects of political freedoms and civil liberties of 193 countries and territories and categorizes those countries and territories into free, partly free, and not free status. By comparing how democratic principles are practiced and not practiced in these three types of countries, students may gain greater appreciation for the political system that their forbearers bequested to future generations, the common values on which that system was founded, and the struggle that has existed, both in America and in the world, to achieve, preserve and extend democracy and its exercise of political and human rights.

As the Statement of Principles concluded:

[W]e cannot take [democracy’s] survival or its spread —or its perfection in practice—for granted . . . we are convinced that democracy’s survival depends upon our transmitting to each new generation the political vision of liberty and equality that unites us.

This statement, of course, applies not just in the United States but anywhere democracy has taken root.

Why Democracy?

The first premise of the Education for Democracy Statement of Principles — and of Democracy Web — is:

[D]emocracy is the worthiest form of human governance ever conceived.

This assertion is purposely comparative. Democracy is the “worthiest form of human governance” compared to all its non-democratic or anti-democratic systems alternatives. Democracy by its nature is not a perfect form of governance but rather one that, as the US Constitution conceptualized, seeks always to become “more perfect.” Indeed, it is a central contradiction of history that the core values of liberty and equality as set forth in modern democracy’s founding document, the US Declaration of Independence, did not apply to one-sixth of the inhabitants of the United States who were brought in chains from Africa to be slaves. Nor did political equality or many civil liberties exist for women and those without property. Yet, American democracy has achieved over time a greater and greater adherence to these common democratic values of liberty and equality and to the greater and greater adherence of human and civil rights generally. It is this story that is central to the teaching or discussion of American democracy, and by extension any teaching or discussion of democracy in the world.

The second premise of the Education for Democracy Statement of Principles — and of Democracy Web — is:

[W]e believe that the great central drama of modern history has been and continues to be the struggle to establish, preserve, and extend democracy—at home and abroad.

Describing the imperfections, contradictions, and evolution of democracy is essential. So, too, is the description of non-democratic and anti-democratic systems and their essential characteristics to limit or deny altogether freedom and human rights to both citizens and non-citizens. Democracy Web sets out to compare and contrast democratic and non-democratic systems and also to describe the history and current practices of different types of authoritarian and totalitarian political systems.

It is through comparison of democracy (and its various types) with different forms of political oppression that students may understand how so many people in so many different countries came to struggle and fight against dictatorship to seek democracy.  It is also only through the study of anti-democratic systems and countries that students may understand the evolution over time of liberal democratic standards and the greater expansion of democratic freedoms through the 19th, 20th, and now the 21st centuries.

Where Democracy Stands

Around the time the Statement of Principles was written, democracy was experiencing a surge: what political scientist Samuel Huntington called a “third wave” of democracy. From Spain to Chile and from the Philippines to South Africa, people rose up in citizens movements to overthrew dictatorship and demand and achieve free elections and human rights. In the world’s most spectacular expansion of democracy of the time (involving 27 countries all told), people rose up throughout Eastern Europe to overthrow Soviet communism, bringing an end to both the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact and its significant challenge to the Transatlantic Alliance of democratic countries.

All told, the number of electoral democracies increased from [54] in 1973 to 125 in 2006 and the number of countries counted as free in the Freedom House annual Survey of Freedom in the World rose to [84].

Since then, however, democracy in the world has experienced what some political scientists are calling a “recession.” While the number of electoral democracies has not declined significantly, the political rights and civil liberties necessary for democracy have declined precipitously.  Indeed, Freedom House has reported the 11th straight year of declines in its rankings of political rights and civil liberties in its 2016 survey. In “not free” and “partly free” countries, political repression has worsened. Indeed, even in established democracies, including in the United States, Freedom House reports declines in both political rights and civil liberties.

The difficulties democracy is experiencing in the world, however, do not negate the basic premise that democracy remains, as the Education for Democracy Statement of Principles asserted, “the worthiest form of governance ever conceived.” Its expansion over time from its modern birthplace in America and the more current struggles around the world for human rights and free elections is testament to the aspirations of people for democracy. These challenges, however, have given a new urgency to Democracy Web’s purpose.

The Specific Approach

Democracy Web chose for its framework the original methodology of Freedom House’s annual Survey of Freedom in the World, which measures 12 categories of freedom as a framework for analyzing the state of political rights and civil liberties in each country.  These categories form the study guide’s 12 units, or sections. They are: consent of the governed, free elections, constitutional limits, majority rule/minority rights, accountability and transparency, multiparty systems, economic freedom, rule of law, human rights and freedom from state tyranny, and freedoms of expression, association, and religion. Together, these categories offer a comprehensive architecture for describing democracy’s essential principles and history — each unit begins with these two sections.

Freedom House uses its analysis to designate the 193 countries and territories it examines as “free,” “partially free” and “not free.” It is this designation that forms the basis of its Map of Freedom in the World. For its comparative studies of freedom, Democracy Web has chose one free, one partly free, and one not free country for each of the 12 units to examine how each of the democratic principles is practiced or not practiced in the selected countries — 36 country studies overall. (Two countries, the Netherlands and China, are used for two unit categories, so there are a total of 34 countries selected. There have been two changes in a country’s designation since Democracy Web first chose its countries of study, but they remain generally valid for the unit’s comparative study.) Within each country study, Democracy Web provides a summary, a brief history, and an examination of the essential principle within the context of that country.

Through this comparative studies format, students are challenged to think critically about the foundations of democracy, the arc of freedom in history, and the reasons for the ebb and flow of democracy in different eras, different regions, and within different countries (see also How to Use Democracy Web). By comparing countries, one can examine many topics:  the different elements that make up democracy; the different ways democratic principles are practiced or not practiced; how democracy is preserved and expanded; the ways in which democracy has been threatened; how democratic movements try to achieve freedom from authoritarian rule; and also how all of these issues may relate to conditions in the US.  Democracy Web can help teachers who want to give their students a deep understanding of the answers to such issues by exposing them to the study of numerous forms of government around the world. And because governance influences virtually every aspect of life, comparative political study is not only about governments, it is also about how the individuals in a given country interact with their governments and can act to make a difference.


June 23, 2016