Democracy Has Always Been a Contact Sport Interview by Julia Hanna

Mar 10th, 2017 | By | Category: OTHER NEWS

In the wake of a rancorous presidential election and the early, tumultuous days of the Trump administration, a new book by HBS professor David Moss—Democracy: A Case Study—serves as a reminder of that one word’s living, breathing origins.

In a collection of 19 case studies, Moss examines key institutions and decision points of American democracy that range from the drafting of the United States Constitution to a consideration of campaign spending through the Citizens United court case decided by the Supreme Court.


Underlying it all is the recognition that conflict is a constant and necessary force in maintaining a healthy democracy. Less clear, says Moss, is when conflict tips from productive to destructive—yet it’s necessary to worry about how and when that might happen.

“What struck me in working on these cases is that in nearly every moment of American history, people thought democracy was about to break,” Moss says. “In one instance—the Civil War—they were right.” But most of the time they were wrong, Moss continues, in part because they acted, became more engaged, and worked for reforms. “Their hypochondria, if I can call it that—their repeated fear that democracy was sick—was ultimately good for the political system because it promoted action and engagement.”

The battle between federal and state governments

The book opens with a turning point in the country’s history, after America had won its War of Independence with Great Britain but before the adoption of the US Constitution. Governed by the Articles of Confederation, the young country was wrestling with the balance of power between federal and state governments.

Moss sets the scene: “Under the Articles, the federal government was very weak—there was no president or Supreme Court. Congress had very little power and couldn’t even levy taxes. Each state had one vote, and a supermajority was required for most important decisions. Unanimity among the states was required to amend the Articles themselves.” The states, he continues, had most of the power, which worked well enough when the colonists were rebelling against Britain. Now, in the mid-1780s, it felt as if the country was coming apart.

“There was a real concern the country could fail,” Moss says. James Madison retired to his estate—a slave plantation—and asked Thomas Jefferson for books about confederacies and republics since ancient Greece. “He came to the conclusion that weak confederacies rarely succeeded and that the most fundamental challenge of a representative democracy was how to navigate between empowering the majority on the one hand and limiting the majority, so as to protect the rights of the minority, on the other.”

Believing that tyranny of the majority was more likely in a smaller democracy, Madison and several other delegates argued for a “federal negative” at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that would give Congress veto power over state laws.

The case provides contextual detail for the debate, outlining why some—having just defeated a monarchy—might be leery of empowering a central government. And, in classic case method style, it concludes on a decision point: Will Congress have veto power over state laws? And more broadly, how much power should the federal government have over individual states?

It’s a question that would continue to play out throughout the country’s history (and on into today’s headlines) under a wide variety of circumstances.

“By debating that relatively narrow proposal for a federal negative, students are forced not only to deal with the fundamental tension between majority rule and tyranny of the majority, but also to focus on the essential balance of power between the states and the federal government—and to actively consider what that balance should look like in practice,” says Moss.

Lincoln debates a national democracy

The answer isn’t always as obvious as it seems. In another case, a newly-elected President Lincoln must decide whether or not to resupply Fort Sumter, located in South Carolina, a state that seceded from the Union shortly before Lincoln took office. South Carolina will not allow the resupply; should Lincoln use force to make them comply?

“The larger question is, should he allow South Carolina and other rebellious states to secede?” asks Moss. “At first the students say no, of course not. But then many students start having second thoughts when they begin to consider how costly the war could be in both lives and money and when they remember that Lincoln wasn’t proposing the abolition of slavery at that time. Before long, there’s a real debate about what Lincoln should do—should he resist secession or just accept it and move on? Ultimately, it raises the question of what it means to have a national democracy—can pieces of it depart, or not?”


Readers of Democracy grapple with the same questions; an appendix provides a follow-up of what happened. However, Moss encourages readers to discuss the cases in groups (including local book groups) whenever possible—ideally with at least some people who don’t share your political beliefs.

“These cases remind us of how much we can disagree on an issue, but also how much we had, and continue to have, in common,” he says. “Sometimes I think we get so wrapped up in the details of a current debate—whether it concerns health care or taxes or the size of government—that we lose track of what we most have in common, which are the democratic values and principles that make our system of government work. In the end, it’s what we have in common that makes productive conflict possible.”

“Obviously there are many challenges and anxieties right now,” says Moss, “but it’s precisely by acting on those anxieties in a constructive way that our democracy will be safeguarded and strengthened.” Democracy offers plentiful evidence of how that work happened in the past, while bringing the system’s struggles and fragility into bold, compelling relief.

Moss developed the case studies in Democracy for a course open to Harvard undergraduates and MBA students. First taught in the fall of 2013, it has been oversubscribed ever since; students even took the cases back to their high school history teachers, urging them to try out the approach in their own classrooms. That grassroots effort led to the creation of a pilot to make the teaching materials, and a two-day training program in the case method, available to interested high school educators. (The program has engaged 40 schools in eleven states to date.)

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