How does learning about democratic erosion in other countries shape opinions about the state of democracy in the United States today? We describe lessons learned from a collaborative course on democratic erosion taught at nearly two dozen universities during the 2017–18 academic year. We use survey data, student-written blog posts, exit questionnaires, and interviews with students who did and did not take the course to explore the effects of studying democratic erosion from a comparative perspective. Do comparisons foster optimism about the relative resilience of American democracy or pessimism about its vulnerability to the same risk factors that have damaged other democracies around the world? Somewhat to our surprise, we find that the course increased optimism about US democracy, instilling greater confidence in the relative strength and longevity of American democratic norms and institutions. We also find, however, that the course did not increase civic engagement and, if anything, appears to have exacerbated skepticism toward activities such as protest. Students who took the course became increasingly sensitive to the possibility that some forms of civic engagement reflect and intensify the same threats to democracy that the course emphasized—especially polarization.
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