History of American Democracy

Concern for the health and stability of American democracy has been growing. Observers have warned that polarization, paralysis, and distrust in government threaten to undermine the democratic process. Yet, the actual implications of recent events for the enduring health of American democracy remain difficult to assess. Do they indicate that democracy is in crisis, or are these anxieties part of the inevitable frictions that have defined America’s political system from its earliest days? Despite considerable scholarly interest in American democracy, we lack a working understanding of how democratic outcomes are achieved and the factors that contribute to the strength and vibrancy of our democracy. 

To build this understanding, the Tobin Project seeks to launch a new field of study, the History of American Democracy, focused on rigorously investigating how American democracy has functioned and evolved over time. By convening scholars from a range of disciplines, the History of American Democracy aims to inspire deeper, more nuanced research on how democracy actually works, providing scholars, policymakers, and the public with the necessary tools to diagnose contemporary problems and design effective solutions.

The Tobin Project’s recent volume on Corporations and American Democracy represents an important early step in this initiative and charts the evolving role of corporations in American democracy from their origins in the Founding Era to the large, multinational corporations of today. Following the publication of this volume, Tobin hosted our first conference on the History of American Democracy in June 2017. The meeting convened prominent historians, political scientists, and legal scholars to discuss how a broad array of institutions, both formal and informal, have shaped American democracy. Building on the excitement generated by both the volume and the conference, Tobin is exploring potential new research projects—including a series of working papers—that we hope will generate interest in the different institutions that have influenced collective decision making in the U.S.

Tobin is also interested in supporting new and innovative approaches to teaching American democracy and its history. In 2013, Tobin helped to develop David Moss's course on the History of American Democracy at Harvard University. The course, which uses the case method to engage students in analyzing crucial moments in American history, has been successful with Harvard Business School students and undergraduates. Following its success at Harvard, Moss and a team at HBS adapted the course for high schools across the country. The program has expanded to over seventy-five schools since its introduction in 2015, and Tobin hopes to pursue additional teaching projects in conjunction with our research on the History of American Democracy.