Stylized flat icon illustration with diverse figures voting

We searched NYU’s course catalog for courses exploring government by the people. We hit the jackpot. (Illustration by Jing Wei)

Lessons in Democracy

Studies in Government by the Will of Its Citizens

According to a January 2021 Quinnipiac University national poll conducted in the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol, 74 percent of registered voters viewed democracy in the United States as under threat. Perhaps that figure was temporarily spiked by the emotions evoked from the horrific scenes broadcast from the Capitol? Not so, according to an October 2022 New York Times–Siena College poll, which reported the number at 71 percent more than two years later. Americans, it seems clear, are worried about their system of governance.

NYU is focused on the issue as well, exploring, analyzing, and interrogating the concept of government by the people. This creates a learning environment where students are taught to leverage their critical thinking skills to find meaningful solutions to real-world challenges. Otherwise, isn’t a diploma just another piece of paper? As civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman said, “Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.”

A course search using this institution’s Albert system yields literally dozens of offerings from 11 schools with the word “democracy,” “democracies,” or “democratic” in the title. Below, we highlight a few recent, current, or future classes that have been pulled—and abridged—from the course catalog. At what many consider a critical juncture for our country and the future of our democratic practices, we asked some of the professors who teach these courses to tell us what drew them to the subject and their ideas on how democracy can best be preserved.

Capitalism & Democracy
SOC-UA 388 / Arts and Science
How do markets interact with democracy? It has long been a pillar of modern political thought that there is a deep mutuality between capitalism and liberal democracy. Equally, critics have pointed to myriad ways in which market institutions and their effects are corrosive to both the culture and the practice of democratic politics. We will assess the arguments for and against the positive view [and] examine the historical record of the capitalism-democracy relationship, as well as its current dynamics, with a special focus on the United States.

Comparative Politics of Industrialized Democracies
POLSC-UH 2426 / NYU Abu Dhabi
This course is designed to help students develop an appreciation of what it takes to generate high-quality research and writing in a particular area of comparative politics: the politics of representative government in advanced industrialized democracies. To facilitate this, we will read and discuss published work in four categories, beginning with voters and their preferences, then moving to electoral systems and their effects, legislatures and how they function, and factors influencing governance.

Constitutional Adjudication and Democracy Seminar
LAW-LW.10518.001 / School of Law
Constitutional democracy is the dominant form of representative government in the world. Characteristically, [it] includes judicial organs exercising power through constitutional adjudication, alongside the political institutions of a representative democracy. Giving judges the power to cancel or modify legislation or other governmental actions poses questions both at the level of political theory and practicality. The institution that we will spend the most time studying is the Constitutional Court, invented in Austria following World War I and revised after World War II in Germany and Italy; it has been copied widely in the ex-Soviet states, Latin America, and Asia. There are also older traditions of constitutional adjudication which locate the power to conduct constitutional review in a supreme court as is done in the United States and Canada. We will also examine the experience of some countries that have tried to restrict the power of constitutional judges to cancel laws in various ways in the attempt to preserve some kind of parliamentary “sovereignty.”

Crisis in Democracy Seminar
LAW-LW.12742.001 / School of Law
There is a great deal of journalistic and scholarly writing about the democratic “crisis” around the world. More recently, both the United States and the United Kingdom have become of concern, not because of new parties, but because older parties have been taken over by populist or illiberal elements. This seminar aims to assess this extensive literature starting from a variety of normative and positive theories of popular government.

A toy figurine  of a person in a green long sleeved top — cropped tightly on the chest, arms, and hands which hold a statue of a bald eagle.

Illustration by Nicolás Ortega

It has long been a pillar of modern political thought that there is a deep mutuality between capitalism and liberal democracy.

Creative Democracy: The Pragmatist Tradition
IDSEM-UG 1381 / Gallatin School of Individualized Study
Taught by
William Caspary
“My inspiration for the course, and for my entire career in political science, is the participatory democratic movement of the 1960s in which I actively participated.
    “ ‘Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us’ is the title of a 1939 essay by [American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer] John Dewey, written when he was 80 years old. It was his response to the rising threat of fascism, but also an expression of the democratic philosophy he had been working out throughout his life. In it he wrote: ‘Democracy is a way of personal life controlled . . . by faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are furnished . . . [conditions] of [free inquiry] of consultation, of conference, of persuasion, of discussion, in formation of public opinion, which in the long run is self-corrective.’
    “The essay sounds the Emersonian theme of creativity as openness to learning and change. For Dewey, this requires political dialogue among citizens, founded on mutual respect. Therefore, Dewey emphasizes a democratic ‘way of life,’ not just democratic institutions. Democracy is creative also in the sense of innovation, invention, experimentation, imagination, and discovery—which Dewey sees as implications of the pragmatist understanding of the natural sciences, and of the requirements of a changing world—and also as essential to democracy.
    “Following this theme of experimentation, the latter part of the course explores such ‘social inventions/experiments’ as conflict resolution, civic journalism, progressive education, participatory budgeting, and workers’ cooperatives—worker-owned and democratically managed businesses.”

A stylized Greek vase, painted with different faces and two figures, each holding a paper ballot,  in front of a building with pillars

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

“Democracy is a way of personal life controlled … by faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are furnished … [conditions] of [free inquiry] of consultation, of conference, of persuasion, of discussion, in formation of public opinion, which in the long run is self-corrective.”
—John Dewey

Democracy and Design: Imagining New Public Realms
IDSEM-UG 1994 / Gallatin School of Individualized Study
What does it mean to design democratically? This course explores some of the many ways of answering this question by crossing boundaries between architecture and urbanism, social science research, public realm process, and technology. We begin by considering the network of public spaces—from the streets to power supplies—in New York City as a system of functional and aesthetic interactions and a social reality. We turn, then, to the possibilities of design to intervene in this network. What does it mean for an urban space to reflect “democraticness”? How should we, as democratically minded designers, think about the sometimes conflicting demands of civility and the pressures of a well-functioning city?

Democracy and Science in the Year of the Pandemic
FYSEM-UA 814 / Arts and Science
This seminar explores the complex interactions between science, politics, and our quality of life. Many examinations of these interactions highlight the positive and skip the political by looking at examples where a new scientific insight seems to improve the quality of life, but without any intervention by policymakers or the voters they represent. The events we lived through during 2020 give us a unique opportunity to step back and ask the hard but essential question: How can a society take advantage of scientific expertise without ceding the control that voters have to exert, through the politicians they elect, over the course that the nation will follow?

Democracy and the City
CUSP-GX 8009 / Tandon School of Engineering
We live in a world beset with increasingly complex urban and global challenges where learning how to combine big data and collective intelligence is a must to create public value. Only by learning how to properly mix data analytics and the use of collaborative and participatory strategies will we be able to secure citizens’ rights, expand the provision of public services, and improve their quality. This course reviews big ideas, key debates, policies, and innovative/disruptive tools around the combination of these two sources of knowledge that, properly blended, have the capacity to transform how we govern the city and the world. Students will also learn how we can promote big data democratization, adding a bottom-up approach in its creation, capture, curation, analysis, visualization, and data ethics.


What does it mean for an urban space to reflect “democraticness”?
Illustration of 5 rows of 4 white Ionic columns, in a view from above; they are superimposed over an abstract representation of a head filled with swirling bright colors that evoke a dizzying pinwheel.

Illustration by Tyler Comrie

Democratic Theory Seminar
LAW-LW.10534 / School of Law
Cotaught by
Jeremy Waldron
“Democracy and the themes associated with it are crucial in all the work I do in legal and political philosophy, so the course is an opportunity to communicate to students the centrality of democratic institutions in our study of the theory of politics and the rule of law. It is also a wonderful opportunity to work with and learn from my much-admired colleague, John Ferejohn [with whom Waldron teaches the course].
    “I hope students will come to understand: 1. how complex democracy is and the way it opens up a whole array of other issues such as accountability, constitutionalism, judicial power, majoritarianism, and representation; and 2. the historical roots of democracy in ancient Athenian practice as well as early modern discussions, like England’s Putney Debates in 1647, and Enlightenment issues a century later than that.”

Democratic Transitions
GLOB1-GC 2060 / School of Professional Studies
Taught by Barbara Borst
“What inspired me to develop the course in 2010 was the rapid expansion of democratic ideals in countries under authoritarian rule. The excitement about these movements was often unrealistic about the ease of establishing democratic systems where none had flourished before. My earlier career in international journalism had given me a close look at the challenges each country must address. I wanted students to understand those challenges. By 2018, it included the rise of populism, nationalism, and other movements that threatened democracy both in newly democratic states and established democracies.”

Bright, stylized flat icon figures, many with a hand raised in the air as if to ask a question, stand behind a woman with a megaphone

Illustration by Marta Monteiro

Free Speech and Democracy
IDSEM-UG 1144 / Gallatin School of Individualized Study
The tension between free expression and social control has shadowed the “Great American Conversation” since the birth of this country. The constitutional ideal that our government “shall make no law” abridging free speech has given way, in fact, to laws that limit discussion, ostensibly for the public good. Likewise, new media technologies advance our ability to access and exchange ideas and information but raise new questions as to the limits of such dialogue. This course addresses the delicate balance between free speech and democracy.

Laboratories for Democracy: Making American Cities Better
FYSEM-UA 456 / Arts and Science
This course examines the intersection of ideas, politics, and action. We study best practices from around the country (and the world), evaluate their effectiveness, and determine whether and how successful programs can be replicated.

Mathematics and Democracy
POL-GA 2175 / Graduate School of Arts and Science
Taught by
Steven Brams
“I have long been interested in democracy—and using mathematics to elucidate it. Because my book
Mathematics and Democracy (2008, Princeton University Press) had the same title as the course, I thought the topics would be of research interest and also be provocative to teach when democracy is so much under siege today. The two parts of both my book and the course, ‘Voting Procedures’ and ‘Fair-Division Procedures’ (each part of the book contains seven chapters), capture, in my opinion, the two essential features of democracy.
    “My hope is that the students will gain an appreciation of how mathematical models—using game theory, social choice theory, and algorithms for fair division—not only illuminate the two aforementioned features of democracy, but also show how reforms, such as of voting systems and methods of redistricting after a decennial census to obviate gerrymandering, can ameliorate current problems in elections and the allocation of public goods.
    “The fact that one of the voting systems studied, approval voting [a single-winner voting method that allows voters to approve of any number of candidates, with the candidate most often approved of becoming the winner], has been adopted in two US cities, numerous academic societies, and college and university departments—including the Economics and Politics departments at NYU—is testimony to its practical significance above and beyond its intellectual justification.”

Media Activism and Democracy
ITAL-UA 9513 / Arts and Science & NYU Florence
MCC-UE 9452 / Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development & NYU Florence
The course aims at providing students with a closer understanding of the civil society activism-media-politics conundrums at the national and global levels. First, it introduces the complex and fascinating topic of civil society activism; second, it illustrates the linkages between activism and media; third, it shows the impact of civil society’s advocacy on contemporary political systems.


The constitutional ideal that our government “shall make no law” abridging free speech has given way, in fact, to laws that limit discussion, ostensibly for the public good.
Abstract shapes and forms in reds and blues evoke a waving American flag

Illustration by Molly Snee

Multiethnic Democracy
CCOL-UH 1042 / NYU Abu Dhabi
Most democracies in the world are multiethnic, but the jury is still out on the question of what ethnic diversity means for democratic stability and governance. This course combines materials from across many disciplines, including political science, political philosophy, economics, mathematics, anthropology, history, and the humanities to address questions including: Does ethnic diversity—based on race, color, nationality, language, tribe, caste, religion, sect, and region—constitute an obstacle or an asset for successful democracy? What are the goals of individuals who mobilize politically on the basis of one or more of these identities? What are the principles that democratic systems should employ in responding to identity-based claims? And how should we evaluate public policies designed to respond to such claims, including affirmative action, federalism, cultural rights, educational policies, and electoral systems? The aim is to train students to think critically and comparatively about the global and local challenges faced by multiethnic democracies.

Nativism, Walls, and Democracy
HSED-UE 175 / Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development
POLS1-UC 6663 / School of Professional Studies
This course explores the metamorphosis of the United States into a country of immigrants and of intense nativism, suspicion, and hostility to outsiders of certain stripes. We highlight how stakeholders in the American political project have used means both democratic and suprademocratic to impact the question of who can and cannot enter the country, pushing on one end to erect sturdier barriers to entry and on the other, to welcome migrants with more open arms.

Many figures in black over a green background form a shape of a right-pointing arrow. Some hold signs which look like white arrows … and the signs either point left or right.

Illustration by Bill Bragg

“We live in a moment where journalism and its practitioners are too often attacked or discredited; a moment where ongoing wars involve the state control of media and scripting of narratives; a moment when political divisiveness feels more characteristic of the United States than not.”

Photojournalism and Democracy
IDSEM-UG 2189 / Gallatin School of Individualized Study 
Taught by
Lauren Walsh
“We live in a moment where journalism and its practitioners are too often attacked or discredited; a moment where ongoing wars involve the state control of media and scripting of narratives; a moment when political divisiveness feels more characteristic of the United States than not.

    “My specialty is photojournalism, but I believe broadly in journalism and its role to serve the governed, not the governing; as many writers and thinkers have said before me, it’s fundamental to a functioning democracy. 
    “I hope students gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the vital role that a free press serves in society. In particular, I hope they develop greater visual literacy and knowledge around the role that images play in shaping our understanding of the world.”

Religion, Conflict Transformation, and the Future of Democracy
UPADM-GP.249 / Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
Cotaught by
Melissa Carter (STEINHARDT ’24)
“I’m excited to launch this new Wagner class as a part of the Center for Global Spiritual Life’s minor in Multifaith and Spiritual Leadership. Our society is in desperate need of change, discourse, and healing, and this class presents a powerful opportunity. Our student body is yearning to have difficult discussions and acquire the tools to work across lines of disagreement. My desire is for students to leave this class with a practice of cultivated curiosity about themselves and others. I want them empowered to respond with curiosity in moments of political, religious, social, interpersonal, and inner conflict, modeling the restorative practices that inclusive democracy requires.”

Cotaught by Chelsea Garbell (STEINHARDT ’13, WAG ’19)
“I have a deep, abiding interest in the role religion plays in national myth-making and public policy, and in the stories we tell ourselves about the roots of conflict. I’m thrilled to build these conversations into the Multifaith and Spiritual Leadership minor, of which this course is an exciting new part.”

Technology, Media, and Democracy: Addressing the Threats to an Informed Electorate
ITPG-GT 2184 / Tisch School of the Arts 
With the rise of misinformation and fake news, with rampant online abuse and harassment, and with the decline of news media, the quality of online information has been rapidly deteriorating. This course seeks to understand the impact of our information ecosystem on democracy and our society, and create technologies that address the balance between tech, media, and democracy. It brings together journalism, design, media studies, and technical disciplines to understand the threats posed by the information ecosystem to our democracy and attempts to address these challenges using technical and computational methods and techniques.

Technology vs. Democracy: Can the American Experiment Survive American Innovation?
FYSEM-UA 788 / Arts and Science 
From the founders to the Facebook generation, Americans have regarded technological progress as an existential threat to American democracy. In this seminar, we explore a range of texts—written by scientists, novelists, and religious and civic leaders—questioning whether the American experiment can survive American innovation and whether its institutions can, or even should, evolve with its technologies.


The Law of Democracy
LAW-LW.10170.001 / School of Law  
Cotaught by
Samuel Issacharoff
“I began my legal career as a voting rights lawyer and have never strayed too far from the relation of law and litigation to the aims of democracy.

    “Students need to appreciate how complex the laws and institutional byways of democratic government prove to be. They generally enter the course with deep intuitions about politically salient controversies but do not know the extent they reflect the way in which our system is set up, how the rules constrain and inform the choices voters have, and how difficult efforts at reform are in light of the many interlocking pieces of our government structure.”

Cotaught by Rick Pildes
“I recognized in law school that issues about democracy were always in the background of many courses involving public law, such as constitutional law, but there was never any specific focus on these issues. That struck me as a huge gap in legal education, and I was lucky enough to find two extremely talented colleagues at other universities who thought the same way; we then [collaborated to create] this as a field of study in the law schools.

    “[The goal is for students] to understand how the design of institutions and the legal framework for elections shape the kind of democracy we experience. To recognize the historical development of our political institutions and processes, and the way that history shape the present. To understand democracy in a grounded, concrete way that relies on empirical knowledge, rather than abstract debate, about how various laws and policies actually play out. To become sophisticated about the likely consequences of various proposed reforms. And to develop an intellectually deep and honest understanding of the competing perspectives and debates over these issues today.”

The Theory and Practice of Radical Democracy
ELEC-GG 2719 / Gallatin School of Individualized Study
This course explores scholarly debates about communities and justice. Course material covers longstanding themes such as state-society relations, democracy and political participation, emergence of political identities, grassroots and netroots, community organizing and urban governance, as well as social movements. Students will acquire critical literacy in social studies, including the bodies of literature that draw on anthropology, political theory, geography, and sociology.

Democracy-evoking marble Ionic column to illustrate that treating democracy as a party game (the goal of which is total destruction) results in a pillar unable to support anything

This virtual marble Ionic column, created for our magazine cover by Pablo Delcan, illustrates that treating democracy as a party game (the goal of which is total destruction) results in a pillar unable to support anything—not to mention a mess.