UChicago students join peers from across the country to code student-generated case studies for global policy makers to track democracy’s decline.

By Sarah Fister Gale

A group of UChicago undergraduates who participated in the Democratic Erosion political science course last year, can now say their final projects are being used by policy makers around the world to understand trends in democracy.

The course, which is taught collaboratively by professors from dozens of universities, teaches students to critically evaluate risks to democracy, and to identify signs of democratic erosion happening today. Because it’s a cross-university collaboration, students have the chance to interact with students at other universities, work together on projects, and critique each other’s work.

It’s already a groundbreaking model for education that benefits faculty and students by allowing them to share their syllabus, lessons, and insights. It also takes the students outside of the realm of academia through a final project, in which their work is shared with a public policy organization.

“It gives them a sense that what they are doing is about more than their own learning,” says Susan Stokes, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Political Science.

Stokes, who teaches the course at UChicago, and is the faculty director of the Chicago Center on Democracy, adds “It is of real use to people on the ground in real policy-making policy decisions.”

Writing for the real world

Instead of writing a term paper, students end the course by researching and writing a country case study, detailing an example of democratic erosion and how it played out. Those case studies are then shared with a specific public policy partner for the semester.

Several organizations have shown interest in the data compiled by the students because it is unlike any other databases on the quality of democracy, says Professor Rob Blair who teaches Democratic Erosion at Brown University and leads the consortium of faculty.

Where most databases monitor rates of democratic erosion, the students’ work “provides insights into specific incidents that drive democratic erosion forward, or beat it back,” he says. That allows policy makers to compare events, and identify patterns or triggers that could predict future outcomes.

In 2018, the faculty partnered with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is responsible for administering civilian foreign aid, as the first policy partner for the course.

“The issue of democratic erosion was at the forefront of the work they were doing,” says Professor Jessica Gottlieb, assistant professor at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government & Public Service, where she teaches the course as a capstone to graduate students.  The capstone class with its mandate to produce research for a policy client offers the mechanism through which case study evidence produced by DE students gets analyzed and translated for the policy partners.

USAID staff found the data to be useful in their research and programming, and offered valuable feedback on how to improve the output for future partners. In response, the faculty improved the case study templates requiring, for example, that students include precise information about the sources of their evidence so that users of the data could have greater confidence in the output.

In 2019, the policy partner for the course was a group of seven NGOs connected to the State Department’s Fundamental Freedom Fund, which is the funding mechanism for their work on combatting threats to democratic freedoms around the world. The theme focused on resistance to democratic erosion and authoritative tendencies, with students examining precursors to erosion, and what indicators suggest that a country is likely to tip into erosion versus resolving the issue.

For the final project, faculty identified 80 countries to research, and collected almost 300 student papers discussing roughly 900 relevant political events. “Multiple students wrote about each country to triangulate the sources, and to enable collaboration and shared resources,” Blair says.

Cracking the code

Once the first year of case studies were completed by DE students, a team of Texas A&M graduate students cleaned and translated them into raw data. After the second year of case studies expanded the years and countries in the original sample, a cohort of two Brown students and three UChicago students were hired as interns to revise the codebook and dataset from the democratic erosion event database (DEED) to be shared with the NGOs. Each case study would be coded by year, country, description of event, and whether the events were precursors, symptoms, or acts of resistance. In response to advice from policy partners, new codes were established to indicate the source of the information, and whether the source was biased toward one side of the other.

“The codebook was our tool for coding erosion events before they went into our dataset,” explains Charlotte Bairey, a rising fourth year UChicago College students majoring in political science. “It was a wonderful opportunity to develop research skills.” She says the experience allowed her to leverage the skills she’s learned at UChicago. “The work made me a much more capable researcher and worker.”

Presenting to the State Department

On Thursday, August 28, the interns and faculty presented the findings of the project at the second annual Democratic Erosion conference at American University, which was attended by students, faculty and policy makers from the State Department and NGOs. “The conference was an opportunity to show what the students can do, and for them to engage in the process of supporting democracy,” Blair says.

“The presentation felt like the perfect culmination of the work we did,” Bairey added. “It was the best part of the project.”

Blair is now working with participating faculty on this year’s theme: democratic erosion at the state level to track discrete events across states as a tools to monitor how our country is changing over time. 

“This phenomenon (of democratic erosion) is happening around the world and we don’t know as much about it as we’d like,” Gottlieb says. “That is why this deep coding of qualitative data is so beneficial.”