First-Year Studies: Democracy, Diversity, and (In)equality


From ancient times through the major modern democratic revolutions, democracy’s advocates—as well as its critics—believed that it requires and tends to bring about political equality. Often, democratic equality has been understood to entail important limits on social inequality. It has also been long presupposed and sometimes argued that democracy only works in fairly homogeneous societies. Only in such societies, it has long been maintained, can a people be sufficiently similar and equal to form shared political understandings and projects. Absent considerable commonality—religious, linguistic, ethnic, racial, and cultural—as well as political and perhaps social equality, it is feared that democracy deteriorates into the tyranny of the majority or a war of all against all or a shallow contest of competing interests. At the outset of the 21st century, however, we are witness to two dramatic shifts in the character of society that increasingly seem to challenge the viability of democracy, at least if these long-held views about its necessary social presuppositions are correct. On the one hand, democratic societies have become increasingly unequal over the last 30 years as a result of globalization, changes in the nature and remuneration of work, new policies, and new political conditions. On the other hand, democratic societies are increasingly diverse and their citizens less willing to “forget” their many differences to melt into a dominant national culture. These developments raise some basic questions. Can the character of democracy be reconceived so that it is suited to and/or better able to modify these new social conditions? If not, is democracy doomed? Or might it be possible to reform democracy to render it compatible with conditions of deep diversity while also making it capable of securing the requisite degrees of political and social equality? This course will explore these questions in a number of ways. We will study exemplary historical statements of the ideal of democracy, drawing on traditional works in political philosophy. We will also draw upon contemporary work in sociology, anthropology, cultural and legal studies, and political science to examine the nature of social and cultural diversity, including religion, class, gender, sexuality, and race. We will draw upon a similar range of disciplines to seek to comprehend the causes and consequence of the widening inequality characteristic of almost all economically-advanced democratic societies. Finally, we will explore works that bring these themes together by examining current scholars’ efforts to (re)articulate the ideal and practice of democracy in light of increased diversity and inequality. By the end of the course, students will have been introduced to a variety of different disciplines in the social sciences, with a special focus on contemporary political philosophy, and will have surveyed a number of different proposals for deepening democracy in 21st-century social conditions. Educational objectives include acquiring, developing, and perfecting the skills necessary to: read demanding texts with care and rigor; participate in focused analytic discussion of these texts; write, edit, and revise interpretive and argumentative academic essays; and conduct original, independent research projects.