Is democracy the rule of the people, by the people, and for the people? Or is it a form of government in which selected elites rule, leaving individuals to pursue their private interests? What is the role of a constitution in preserving individual rights and enabling the will of the majority? To answer these questions we analyze both ancient Athenian democracy and our current form of representative democracy, identifying the core features of democratic politics and the kinds of liberty they foster.
To review the origins of democracy and identify its basic principles and institutions, students engage with the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle. To understand the complexities of modern representative democracy, we examine the establishment of the first modern democracy, that of the United States, through the theories that most influenced the Founding Fathers (Locke, Montesquieu, Madison). We then engage with current debates on political participation, representative government, and the threat of oligarchy.
Classes combine lectures focused on the legal development of political institutions and voting procedures with group debates in which students represent and defend various philosophical positions. Debates, which are prepared in class so as to foster discussion and social interactions in the classroom, are meant as dynamic exercises for engaging with the foundational ideas of democracy. The first of these debates is Herodotus and Thucydides vs. Plato on the value and desirability of democracy. Through this exercise students internalize the philosophers’ points of view while answering questions from their classmates “in character.” Participants also write short reaction papers so as to further build upon what they have learned in class.
Camila Vergara is a Ph.D. candidate in Columbia’s Department of Political Science, where she focuses on constitutional and political theory. Her dissertation seeks to put forth an alternative constitutional design aimed at giving institutional form and power to democratic authority based on the works of republican thinkers Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Condorcet. At Columbia she has served as a teaching assistant in courses on justice, political theory, and the theoretical foundations of political economy. She has also served as an adjunct lecturer in political theory at New York University. She holds M.A.’s in political science from Columbia and The New School for Social Research as well as an M.A. in Latin American Studies from New York University.