Institutions of Democracy

What factors and institutions - of government, business, civil society, and beyond - are most central to the functioning of American democracy?

Citizens in the United States seem increasingly frustrated with a political system that appears unresponsive to their preferences and too often incapable of addressing major national challenges and crises. Understanding these concerns – and the changes that lay behind them –requires fresh and innovative research. The Tobin Project is responding to these concerns by examining factors that have shaped democracies in the past, with the hope that history may offer important lessons for strengthening democratic governance in the future. Though scholars have carefully studied aspects of contemporary democracies, they have focused less on historical patterns. Similarly, while scholars have made much progress in understanding the central role of elections in democracy – the Tobin Project’s past work in democracy played a part – contemporary crises suggest that formal institutions are only one aspect of successful self-governance.

The Tobin Project’s new work in the field of democracy seeks to examine a broader set of factors – ranging from formal state structures to corporations to social norms – that influence democratic practices. The hope is that a better understanding of these issues can help disentangle cause from effect, and symptom from underlying problem, steering scholars toward the most important problems in contemporary democracies and reformers toward the most promising solutions.

The next phase of the Tobin Project’s work on democracy is driven by two related projects:

Corporations and American Democracy: How has the corporation been conceived of as a political actor over the course of American history, and what role has the corporation played in strengthening or weakening American democracy?

New History of American Democracy: What are the major institutions, practices, and patterns that have influenced the functioning of American democracy over time?