Democracy and Its Alternatives
Ethan Hollander is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Wabash College. He earned a PhD in Political Science from the University of California, San Diego, where he was also a faculty fellow. He has received the McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Research Scholar distinction and The Story Collider podcast’s Artistic Director’s Pick award. He is the author of Hegemony and the Holocaust: State Power and Jewish Survival in Occupied Europe, and he has published research on authoritarian rule in Eastern Europe and democratization in the Middle East.
01: Is Democracy Built to Last?
In the course’s inaugural lesson, define politics and political science. Dive into democratic backsliding across the world, as well as the confluence of geopolitical and economic factors that led to this crisis point. And evaluate the strength of democracy in light of populism, radicalism, polarization, and paralysis.
02: Politics and Personal Sacrifice
How does a group fractured by competing interests come to a decision, and when does it make sense to sacrifice one’s personal freedoms for the collective good? Examine how public goods are provisioned and distributed. See how governments square diffuse and concentrated interests. And survey three strategies for political decision-making.
03: Government and the Invention of Law
What is law? When was it invented and why? How do governments enforce the laws that they create? And how do constitutions—foundational laws that determine how all other laws are made—differ around the world?
04: The Rise of the Modern State
The overwhelming majority of us live in what are called sovereign states, the fundamental unit of political organization. Dive into the history of the modern state, traversing medieval and early modern Europe from feudalism to the Treaty of Westphalia, and examine the religious, cultural, and economic changes that reoriented political authority in the West.
05: States, Nations, and Nationalism
Nationalism and ethnic conflict are centuries old. Coupled with high-tech weaponry, however, they can be extraordinarily deadly. Investigate nationalism through a handful of case studies, exploring how ethnic, religious, or linguistic conflict has unfolded in places like Iraq and Turkey, how it is mitigated in Switzerland and Belgium, and the threat it poses in Catalonia and Scotland.
06: Why Care about Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau?
Put on your philosopher’s hat to explore some classical political theory. Dive into the arguments and ideas of famous political theorists Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Determine what states are legitimately and morally capable of from all three viewpoints. And finish the lesson by evaluating social contract theory in European and American contexts.
07: Who Gets to Vote?
What are the three fundamental characteristics of democracy? And what limitations on the right to vote are compatible with democratic government? Explore the advantages and disadvantages of direct and indirect democracy. Finish by examining illiberal democracies and what they look like.
08: Voters and the Dangers of Too Much Democracy
Continue your dive into democracy by zooming in on its most glaring flaws. Move from issues like voter apathy to the chilling specter of mob rule, evaluating these real-world threats to democracy, as well as the potential for democracy to overcome them.
09: Should Presidents or Parliaments Lead?
What is the difference between a president and a prime minister? How much power should the chief executive wield? And which is more stable, presidential or parliamentary democracy?
10: The Vote Counter Decides Everything
Voting is a defining feature of any democracy. But how are votes tabulated? And what even counts as a majority? Well, when it comes to tabulating election results, there is no single formula; there are many. Survey three voting systems—plurality voting, two-round system, and ranked-choice voting.
11: Do Political Parties Help or Hurt?
Political parties, detested by the likes of George Washington and John Adams, are nevertheless key features of modern democracies. What role do they play when it comes to elections and policymaking? How do they differ across the world? And are multi-party systems better than two-party systems? Examine these questions and more.
12: The Problems with Federalism
In 1790, a federation was born in the United States. But states remained distinct and powerful political entities, and separatism remains a potent threat to federal governments across the world. At the course’s halfway point, turn your attention to federations comparatively, legally, and in practice, evaluating how they function from Canada to Nigeria.
13: Are Courts and Constitutions Democratic?
Healthy democracies must have constitutions and courts, but constitutions are usually old, and judges are often unelected. How do we make sense of this strange paradox? From the United States to Japan, explore constitutions and courts around the world, and see how democracy fits into the mix—if at all.
14: The Controversial Politics of Central Banks
Central banks, powerful custodians of currency and the economy, deserve our attention. Explore how these banks work, as well as the powers they wield. Understand why central bank administrators and politicians so often clash. And evaluate the benefits and shortcomings of independent central banks, using contemporary examples.
15: Who Backs Authoritarians?
The truth of the matter is that authoritarianism can make for an appealing alternative to democracy. Explore this notorious form of government by evaluating how dictatorships work and how they differ around the world.
16: The Dictator’s Playbook
How does authoritarianism emerge in a country? And can we predict when and whether a dictator will come to power? From violent revolution in Cuba to a military coup in Egypt and democratic elections in Nazi Germany, you will investigate the origins of dictatorships along with how strongmen gain and maintain power.
17: When States Fail, What Comes Next?
Believe it or not, whole states can fail—and this includes dictatorships as well as democracies. What is state failure? Why do states fail? And what threats do failed states pose to the rest of us?
18: Partition, Peacekeeping, and Human Crisis
What is humanitarian intervention? And should the international community intervene to prevent a genocide or to keep the peace between warring factions? If not, what alternatives exist to avert humanitarian catastrophe? Closely examine and analyze these questions through a diverse array of global case studies.
19: What Really Causes Wealth and Poverty?
Why are some nations rich and others poor? Examine concepts like GDP, the resource curse, colonialism, and the economy of trust to see how they affect economic development. And consider whether econmic development is always a desireable goal in the first place.
20: The Global Fault Lines of Trade
Why is international trade so controversial? And why does protectionism find support from both sides of the political spectrum? Delve into the global battle between free trade and protectionism, moving from Bill Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement to the US-China trade wars.
21: Is the European Union a Success or Failure?
The European Union is a unique and mysterious institution. But what is it? How is it organized? And how has it fared in the face of a sovereign debt crisis, a refugee crisis, and Brexit?
22: When the Balance of Power Breaks Down
When balances of power break down, disaster can strike. How can a powerful institution—like a government—be forced to keep its promises? And what is the essential role of government in the management of risk?
23: Why It’s So Hard to Work Together
Politics requires collective action. But that is much easier said than done. How does the government enable collective action? And when can collective action problems solve themselves?
24: Gridlock and Democracy
Conclude the course with an overview of modern democracy, in America and abroad. Survey political history from the rise of agricultural societies to the technological revolution of today. Review the merits and pitfalls of democracy and its alternatives. And close by examining the role international agreements play in global governance.