Teaching about elections & democracy

On September 27th, 2009, Angela Merkel was re-elected chancellor of Germany, with her Christian Democratic party winning 33% of the vote. August elections in Japan swept the Democratic Party of Japan into office, under the leadership of Yukio Hatoyama as the new Prime Minister, after over 50 years of rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. Other recent elections, such as those in Iran and Afghanistan, have been more tumultuous and potentially fraudulent (see past blog posts on Afghanistan and Iran). Each of these elections, however, highlight a number of interesting distinctions to democracy in the United States, and pose interesting comparison points for teachers currently in the midst of teaching students about the American democratic process.

To start with the example of Germany, one could ask: what is the role of Germany’s Chancellor in comparison to the President of the United States? And why are Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first steps after re-election to form a coalition with the Free Democratic Party, who garnered just under 15% of the popular vote in Germany’s elections? Why does the United States have two main political parties, but Germany has more? With all these differences, is one country more democratic than the other?

All these questions lead to an overarching essential question for students: what makes up a democracy? Elections are some of the most visible aspects of a healthy democracy, and thus aspects on which the media and those in the international community focus a great amount of attention. But what else makes a healthy democracy? World Savvy described the elements of democracy that political and academic experts believe makes up a democracy in the August 2008 edition of the World Savvy Monitor. An electoral democracy is made up of a system of governance in which people choose their leaders by casting votes. Yet simply electing leaders does not make for a healthy democracy, as recent news clearly indicates. Elections should be accompanied by the rule of law and the protection of civil liberties for its citizens, sometimes referred to as liberal democracy. Thomas Jefferson has noted that electoral democracy, without liberal democracy, is “nothing more than mob rule where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49.”

Explore the “What is Democracy?” section of the Democracy edition of the Monitor with students to investigate the elements of democracy. Have students work in groups to develop a checklist of the elements of democracy they think are most important. Evaluate the United States in comparison to this checklist, and then have students choose another country to research and evaluate based on their checklist.

What innovative strategies and lessons do you use to teach students the elements of democracy? How do you teach students the differences between American democracy and other forms of democracy around the world? We invite you to post your strategies, lesson ideas, comments or questions below.

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