Nation & World

All hail partisan politics

long read

Harvard historian looks to the past, using case study method to suggest that dogged disputes can strengthen democracy

Is the Affordable Care Act eroding economic growth? Did the opposition steal a Supreme Court appointment from President Barack Obama? Did President Trump have a record large crowd at his inauguration?

In these divided times when seemingly everything — no matter how minor or how true — gets litigated largely along partisan lines, it’s tempting to see tension and vigorous political disagreement as counterproductive, even harmful, to the smooth functioning of a healthy democracy.

But historian David Moss, the Paul Whiton Cherington Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS), says that while consensus and cooperation certainly seem like national goals worth aspiring toward, in reality democracy has always been “a contact sport,” and that’s all right. It can even be a good thing.

In a new book, “Democracy: A Case Study” (Harvard University Press, 2017), Moss highlights 19 decisive moments in American history when political conflict came to a head, from James Madison’s push for federal veto power over all state laws during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to the Supreme Court’s contentious 2010 decision in the Citizens United case over campaign finance limits. Using the case-study method, the book encourages readers to step into the shoes of stakeholders and grapple with the circumstances and concerns each side faced at the time.

Moss spoke with the Gazette about the book and about a new initiative to bring his case studies into dozens of high school classrooms, where they’re used as an offbeat, interactive teaching tool.

GAZETTE: How did this book come about, and what were you hoping to accomplish?

MOSS: It grew out of a course that I created for undergraduates and M.B.A. students on the history of American democracy. There were two principal goals. One was to explore the intellectual and institutional underpinnings of American democracy in a historical perspective. The other was to introduce a new way of teaching history and civics through the case method. Last year, a piece about the course appeared in the HBS Alumni Bulletin, and the author used a very clever phrase: “history in the present tense.” That sounds about right. Case-method history asks students to put themselves in the shoes of historical decision-makers and to try to wrestle with those decisions looking forward, as if the students were there at the time. And the course seemed to work. In their evaluations, students reported not only that they found the case discussions exciting, but also that they came to view American democracy in a new, more realistic, and fuller way. Many even said that they ended up feeling a stronger sense of civic engagement as a result. My hope is that the book will spark a similar sense of discovery and engagement beyond the classroom.

GAZETTE: You argue that a working democracy is made up of a very complex array of formal and informal institutions that must interact and constantly change and adapt to ward off threats. How so?

MOSS: It’s common in middle school and high school civics or government classes to learn about the formal institutions that safeguard democracy against abuses of various kinds. These include the three branches of government, a bicameral legislature, the checks and balances that occur between and across branches, and so forth. These institutions are obviously extremely important. Yet there’s a lot more to our democracy than these formal structures. If you were trying to understand the human body, you might start by looking at a skeleton. This is obviously the basic structure and we couldn’t survive without it. But studying the skeletal structure, by itself, isn’t nearly enough for you to understand what a living human being is. The truth is that in a working democracy there are all sorts of institutions that matter, formal as well as informal. The informal institutions are not specifically defined or in many cases are not even referenced in the Constitution. But they can and do play a pivotal role. A very familiar example would be the press. The First Amendment protects freedom of the press against government intrusion. But beyond that, the Constitution doesn’t say anything about how the press should be structured, how it should work, what it should look like, what it should do. Yet the press is an absolutely vital institution of democracy because it helps inform the public about politically salient issues. Without an active and independent press, it would be impossible to imagine anything like a working democracy. The press turns out to be crucial.

GAZETTE: You cite regulatory changes in the meat-packing industry, prompted by Upton Sinclair’s muckraking journalism classic “The Jungle” as an example.

MOSS: When Sinclair’s book appeared in 1906 and exposed all sorts of shocking practices in the meat-packing industry, it almost immediately changed the game, fundamentally shifting the political dynamic in Washington. Industrial interests (especially the big meat-packing companies) remained influential, of course, and they helped shape the final legislation in a number of important ways. But after the book appeared and sparked a large public reaction, the best these special interests could do was influence the resulting legislation — the Meat Inspection Act and the Food and Drug Act — not block it. The game had changed, and the press (or, in this case, a book) had played a central role in mobilizing public opinion.

There are many, many other institutions beyond the press that matter, including ones you don’t normally think of as institutions of democracy, such as business corporations or labor unions or social reform movements, but all of them help make democracy work.

GAZETTE: You argue that though democracy is fragile, political conflict at every level of society is vital to a vibrant democracy. That seems counterintuitive. What do you mean?

MOSS: I think political conflict — even intense political conflict — is absolutely essential in a democracy. Conflict is what generates and surfaces good ideas. There’s a competition in the marketplace of ideas just like in the economic marketplace. Competition in the business world is immensely productive because it plays a vital role in generating innovation, new ideas, and new products. The same is true in the policy sphere. Policymakers need to identify problems, and some people are better at doing this than others. Then there’s the need to diagnose the problems and come up with solutions, and of course implement those solutions effectively. All of these things require ideas and creativity. Conflict within the context of political competition is important for this, and conflict is also essential to help keep at bay some fundamental threats to the democracy, from undue special-interest influence to tyranny of the majority.

If you look back, it’s hard to identify a time when American democracy was characterized by everybody holding hands in a circle. There has always been plenty of conflict, rooted in partisan and ideological differences. The question at any given moment is whether this political conflict is constructive or not. Readers can come to their own conclusions, but one thing that seems to emerge across the various case studies is that when Americans have shown a strong common faith in the democracy— when they have sought above all to safeguard the democracy and sustain it and strengthen it — this common faith has been the glue that held them together. This is what rendered political conflict constructive, rather than destructive. In America, we don’t all share a common ethnic heritage or common religious beliefs. We never have. So long as Americans have, deep down, put protection of the democracy first — above their partisan differences — individual citizens and political leaders have been careful not to push political conflict too far. They have been willing to give a little for the sake of the democracy.

When faith in the democracy has faltered, however, that’s when things have run into trouble. In the lead up to the Civil War, many in the South saw Abraham Lincoln as illegitimate because he opposed the expansion of slavery. When he was elected president, the question wasn’t whether he won a plurality of the popular vote or a majority in the Electoral College. He clearly had. Those who favored secession were questioning something even more fundamental. They were questioning the system of national democracy itself. In their view, they couldn’t subscribe to a system that could elect a president who opposed the expansion of slavery. Of course, once common faith in the democracy disappears, then political conflict inevitably becomes destructive. And that’s exactly what happened as the nation broke apart in 1861.

So today, for those who worry about the health of our democracy, what I think we need to be looking at most carefully is our “culture of democracy,” including our commitment to democratic values and processes. We need to ask ourselves as honestly as we can whether our commitment to the democracy stands above our particular partisan and policy preferences. To the extent that the answer is yes, then I think we can handle the intense conflict that we’re seeing in our political system these days. To the extent the answer tilts toward no or even leans in that direction, then I think we need to be extraordinarily vigilant because that’s when we can get into real trouble. The right question is not “How do we tamp down the conflict?” Instead, it’s “How do we make sure that what we share in common is rock solid and ultimately stronger than our differences?” Historically, when Americans have been at their best, it’s always been faith in the democracy that has held us together and ensured that our conflict, that our differences, remained constructive rather than destructive.

GAZETTE: What distinguishes constructive political conflict from destructive political conflict? For example, the Republican effort to prevent President Obama from naming a Supreme Court justice was seen by many as a destructive precedent — destructive to the functioning of the court, a destructive convolution of the Senate’s advise-and-consent role — and yet, from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s point of view, it was constructive because it successfully prevented something he and the party didn’t want to happen. Isn’t it subjective?

MOSS: I have my views on that, and I’m sure you do as well. However, whether you agree or disagree with the outcome, the critical question is whether our lawmakers have put the democracy at risk in any meaningful way. That’s what American voters will have to decide. Often, it’s tempting to see an outcome we don’t like — a particular bill passed or rejected — and to conclude that the democracy must not be working very well because we don’t like the outcome. But democracy inevitably generates outcomes that large numbers of individuals don’t like. The challenge is to be able to recognize when the pursuit of a particular outcome actually comes at the expense of our democracy, when it threatens core institutions of democracy in some significant way.

GAZETTE: Why did you use the case-study method? What’s missing in the way we teach history that this methodology addresses?

MOSS: I first started thinking about creating a new case-based history course around 2005-2006. My focus was on financial history, including the history of financial crises, and I worked with an extraordinary group of research associates and co-authors to develop about two dozen case studies on key episodes in financial history. I wanted to teach the course by the case method and see how that would go, and it ended up being an extraordinary experience. The global financial crisis began to unfold almost exactly as I started teaching the course for the first time in the spring of ’08. As students got into the cases and wrestled with the questions I was asking every day in class, they became incredibly engaged, and my sense is that most students were thinking far more carefully about the problems than they would have if I had lectured on the same topics. Retention seemed better as well, perhaps because the cases are basically stories, and it’s easier to remember stories.

Given this experience, I decided in 2012 to try to create another case-based history course, this one on the history of American democracy. The goal here was to develop a class for both undergraduates and M.B.A. students. Once again, I found it to be an incredible experience developing the cases and facilitating the class discussions on critical moments in the history of the nation’s democracy.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’ve come to see the case method as a very effective way to teach history. There has long been a successful business history course at the School, taught by the case method, and now there are several other case-based history courses as well. In any history course, it’s important that students learn key facts about what happened when, and they certainly do this using the case method. But it’s just as important, and arguably more important, that they learn to make sense of those facts, and for that the case method is especially helpful.

GAZETTE: You’re now testing a pilot program to bring this material and teaching style to high school students in the Boston area and beyond. How did that come about?

MOSS: It was clear there was a lot of excitement around the Harvard course, and that led me to think it would be great if we could get this case-based approach to the history of American democracy into other classrooms. Fortuitously, a number of undergraduates went back to their former high school history and government teachers and suggested they should try the cases and the case method in their own classes. A few teachers got in touch with me in 2014 and asked if they could use some of the course materials. So I gave them the cases they requested and the associated teaching plans, and it seemed to work in their classrooms. I asked Dean [Nitin] Nohria if I could launch a little pilot and try this in a few more schools. Everyone was so generous and encouraging at HBS. We created a small pilot and brought in about 20 teachers, and that seemed to work very well too. We now have expanded the pilot, based on a generous donation, and we are working with about 70 teachers in 40 schools across the country to test the cases. We’re learning an enormous amount, and it’s great working with these teachers. They’re fantastic.

Based on the evaluations we’re receiving from both teachers and students, it all looks very positive so far. The expanded pilot, which we’re expecting to grow further, is scheduled to run for three years. We’re trying to learn what works and what doesn’t. Our hope is that over the three years we can make an assessment: Is the case method an effective way to teach history and civics in a high school context? Does our “History of American Democracy” curriculum resonate with both students and teachers? And do we have enough evidence to move beyond the pilot stage? The early signs are positive, but we still have a lot of work to do.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.