Institutions of Democracy

What factors and institutions - of government, business, civil society, and beyond - are most central to the functioning of American democracy?

The state of American politics has caused many to express concern that our democracy is in crisis. Yet the United States has long grappled with the tensions inherent to democracy. Americans seem increasingly frustrated with their political system, which too often appears unresponsive to their needs and incapable of addressing national challenges and crises. Do contemporary concerns indicate that American democracy is in fact in serious jeopardy, or do they reflect the tensions inherent to America’s political system?

To address this question, the Tobin Project is investigating the factors that have shaped democracies in the past, with the hope that history may offer important lessons that will enable us to improve democratic governance in the future. While scholars have conducted extensive work on contemporary democracies, less attention has been paid to the functioning of democratic mechanisms over time. Similarly, while scholars have furthered our understanding of the central role of formal institutions in democracy, contemporary developments suggest that these institutions are only one aspect of successful self-governance.

The Tobin Project’s new work on democracy seeks to examine a broader set of factors – ranging from formal state structures to corporations to social norms – that influence democratic practices and outcomes. This work will equip us to disentangle symptoms from their causes, allowing us to diagnose the problems affecting our democracy. We hope that this research will contribute to our understanding of the institutions, practices, and social values that have shaped American democracy over time and better equip both policymakers and the public to effectively address the challenges facing our country today.

Questions within this initiative include:

Corporations and American Democracy: How has the corporation been viewed as a political actor over the course of American history, and what role has the corporation played in strengthening or weakening American democracy?

History of American Democracy: How have different formal and informal institutions shaped American democracy over time?