The first meeting of Chris Beem’s spring seminar took place on Jan. 19, the day before the presidential inauguration. It seemed as good a time as any to kick off a class discussing the health and stability of global democracy.
I had emailed Beem a few weeks earlier about sitting in on PLSC 297: Democratic Erosion, a one-credit undergraduate seminar built around Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s 2018 book How Democracies Die. The subject seemed even more timely in the wake of the upheaval and misinformation around the 2020 presidential election; we were barely into that first Zoom session when Beem, an associate professor of political science and managing director of Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy, emphasized the heightened relevance for the 18 undergrads on the call. “I’m a lot older than you all, and I can tell you I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “This is a crazy time for democracy—scary, and unpredictable.”
There’s plenty of data to back up his concerns. Just 22 of 167 countries globally were ranked as “full democracies” in the 2020 Democracy Index published by The Economist; at No. 25, the U.S. wasn’t one of them, and that was before the 2020 election and its unsettling aftermath.
For all the uncertainty over the present and future of democracy, I take some solace in the people—particularly the Penn Staters—who are working in various ways to maintain it. That includes Francisco Sagasti ’70 MS Eng, whose unlikely rise to the presidency of Peru you can read about on page 46. Closer to home, it also includes photojournalist Tom Williams ’99 Lib, who captured some of the most compelling images from inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6; you can find a few of those shots on page 73. And Robert Glover ’93 Lib is the veteran Metropolitan D.C. police commander whose cool head amid that day’s chaos was credited with keeping an already deadly insurrection from taking a far more destructive turn. As a fellow officer told the Washington Post, “If it wasn’t for Inspector Glover, we would probably have had a complete overtaking of the building.”
Like most Americans, I grew up taking democracy for granted; our forebears had fought for it, and it was clearly the best system, so why would we ever choose anything else? Turns out complacency is pretty common: Even Jack Spielvogel admitted when I interviewed him a few years ago that he’d been “naïve.” It was Spielvogel whose long-running class on Nazism and fascism revealed the warning signs—emotional appeals to nationalism, attacks on the free press, and a growing openness to authoritarian solutions, among others—to me and so many other Penn State undergrads. “I thought we had reached a point where everybody would rejoice that we’ve had democracy,” he said at the time. “You always have to be aware.”
I took that to mean all of us.