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Chasing a Dream: A History of Democracy  

Steve Harris If each of us is imperfect as an individual, it can be no wonder that “we” are imperfect as a society. The efforts to come together, to organize ourselves, and to jointly strike a balance between “order” and “liberty” have been among the central challenges for America and the world. Over the past 250 years, the word “democracy” has come to be used to describe what we are aiming at. In facing these challenges, we have been haunted by a dream; an idyllic democracy which we call ancient Athens (perhaps with a touch of the Roman Senate), a dream now 2300 years old. That the meaning and significance of that word — democracy — have undergone radical changes since then should come as no surprise. In the “modern” world, there have been many efforts to realize this dream: Philadelphia in 1787, Paris in 1791, St. Petersburg in 1918, Weimar in 1920, New Delhi in 1948, Peking in 1949, Johannesburg in 1994, just to name a few. Each of these ‘real-world’ efforts to realize the dream have, inevitably, fallen short in one way or another; what can we learn from them? The current political environment presents new problems and new opportunities for democracy. This course provides historical and global contexts for thinking about how “we” are “organized” as a “political society.” The first session will discuss the nature and definitions of democracy. We will then see how these ideas played out in four historical sessions covering the pre-modern period, and the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, respectively. We will conclude with a review of what faces democracy—in America and in the World—in the 21st century. It’s a mix of history, political/moral philosophy, comparative government, and some speculation. Along the way, we will look at suffrage, allocation of power, and the relations between democracy on the one hand and republics, the rule of law, justice, minorities, the past, and the future, on the other. We will consider the problems of citizenship and civic virtue, representation, and knowledgeable decision-making. While we likely won’t come to any epiphanies; perhaps we can improve the level of debate. Week 1. Introduction - Overview of Course U is Democracy? What democracy is NOT. How does democracy come about? What is the purpose of democracy? Central problems of Democracy Week 2. Pre-Modern Democracy Athens; Roman Republic; Medieval Italian City-States; Dutch Republic; English Tradition: Magna Carta, Levelers, and the Commonwealth Week 3. 18th Century Enlightenment context; Rise of the Public Sphere; American Ideas; American practice; French ideas; French Revolutionary models Week 4.19th Century Legacies of US/French revolutions; Latin America; French evolution; British evolution; American evolution; New Ideas: Marxist, Liberal Week 5. 20th Century New democracies after WWI Challenges of Communism and Fascism; Other revolutions New Democracies after WWII - in Europe, Decolonization; End of Communism/Color Revolutions Cultural developments - Women suffrage, Mass media, Changing nature of the state Week 6. 21st Century Global Challenges -- Mass Modernity, Social incoherence, Permanent emergency –ie, the complexity of modernity, Supranationalism; American Challenges -- Media and money, Inertia/disconnect Steve Harris is a former lawyer and business executive who returned to academia in his 50s and recently completed his Ph.D. in Modern European History at UC Davis, where he focuses on international relations and international law in the 19th century. Steve teaches at Davis and S.F. State. He and his wife live in San Francisco. IF YOU SIGN UP FOR THIS COURSE AFTER MONDAY 8/21, EMAIL TO BE SURE YOU RECEIVE EMAILS WITH COURSE DETAILS.


  • Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at San Francisco State University
    835 Market Street, Sixth Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103
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