‘Democracy Is Worth Defending’ The 2023 Spring Term course "Threats to Democracy" examined the form of government and explored the current challenges it faces.
Given recent events, should our country be pessimistic about the future of democracy? That is one of many questions that “Threats to Democracy,” a 2023 Spring Term course, posed to W&L students.
Co-taught by Bob Strong, William Lyne Wilson Professor in Political Economy, and Ken Ruscio ’76, W&L president emeritus, the class examined democracy by reviewing current critiques, key historical periods in its development, and central philosophical principles.
Strong said that he and Ruscio had wanted to teach a class together since their time working side-by-side at W&L. Ruscio retired from W&L in 2017, but the two remained close friends and kept in touch over the years.
Ruscio, who recently stepped down from his distinguished lecturer position at the University of Richmond (UR), had been teaching a class called The Democratic Prospect for the past few years. Spring Term 2023 turned out to be the perfect opportunity for Ruscio and Strong to team up and bring an adapted version of the UR class to W&L.
“Ken had shared with me that he was teaching some very interesting material about the nature of leadership at the American founding, essential characteristics for effective leadership, and threats to democracy,” Strong said. “He was doing that both with traditional versions of that subject that you get from Tocqueville, and from analysts of the American constitution — but, like everyone else in the country, doing it with a heightened sensitivity given the election of Donald Trump and all that followed.”
They modified Ruscio’s full-semester course to the four-week Spring Term format, largely focusing on the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and the hearings that followed. The class also delved into the complexity of democratic theory and practice, evaluated the social and political forces currently putting stress on democratic governments, and assessed the future of U.S. and global democracy. Assigned readings included the book “Twilight of Democracy” by Anne Applebaum, along with 21st-century essays and historical documents, such as George Washington’s Farewell Address, which highlights the timely topic of bipartisanship.
Strong said the 15-person class attracted an engaged group of students, ranging in years and majors. When Sarah Stockton ’26, who is currently undeclared, saw “Threats to Democracy” on the list of Spring Term classes, it immediately grabbed her attention.
“I personally feel like we are in an age where democracy is consistently under attack, so I felt like this course would help me further examine those attacks,” Stockton said. “The course description also mentioned readings on the foundations of modern democracy, political philosophy, and democratic governance around the world, which seemed interesting to me since it combined several topics in politics that I had already taken classes on.”
A key element of the course was outside speakers, who Strong and Ruscio invited to share their expertise with W&L students. Among them was the Honorable Judge Michael Luttig ’76, who played a key role in the events of January 6. Luttig, a conservative judge, helped convince Vice President Mike Pence not to follow the advice of President Donald Trump to reject legitimate electoral votes and overturn the 2020 election. Subsequently, Luttig gave compelling testimony to the House Select Committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
To prepare for Judge Luttig’s arrival, including crafting thoughtful questions, the class read and reviewed the major findings of the congressional committee, and shared what they had found with one another in a series of presentations.
“The course drew my attention to the severity of January 6, 2021,” said Zachary Goodwin ’25. “In the wake of 2020’s many chaotic events, I had mostly breezed over it. But reading and discussing the January 6 report in class deepened my concern about the corruption that still persists among some of our politicians.”
Luttig’s visit, which helped students understand the magnitude and complexities of January 6, and its critical impact on the future of democracy, was a highlight for many of the students.
“The January 6 hearings and general discussions about democracy often seem nebulous to most people — having Judge Luttig lead a classroom seminar and discussion humanized this topic,” said Tom Morel ’23.
Along with his class visit, Luttig participated in a public talk at the University Chapel on May 9. The format was a conversation between him and Ruscio, who despite their different political leanings, have remained close friends since meeting as W&L first-year students. (A recorded livestream of the event is available to watch at livestream.com/wlu/ruscio-luttig.)
Topics included his career, time at W&L, January 6 involvement, and views on the current political state of America. When asked about his thoughts on democracy, Luttig expressed that individuals must be guided by their values to defend our constitution and hold politicians accountable.
“Democracy is worth defending, because it is the greatest method of self-governance … it’s almost an understatement to call it genius, but the genius of democracy is that all power — all of it — comes from we the people,” Luttig said at the event.
“We must now come to the aid of our struggling America,” he added. “The fact that politicians have failed us is a failure not of democracy, but failure of our elected officials to put the interests of the United States ahead of their own personal partisan interests.”
Following Luttig’s campus visit, Mike Missal ’78, W&L trustee emeritus and Inspector General for the Veterans Administration; and W&L Law Professor Brian Murchison, also spoke to the Spring Term class, focusing on accountability.
“As a pre-law student, I gleaned a lot from hearing the speakers talk about the relationship between law and politics and the importance of the rule of law for democracy,” Goodwin said. “They each discussed how practical steps — like individuals’ affirmations of democracy, disinformation lawsuits, or OIG audits — are important to our democracy’s flourishing.”
Strong, who is retiring at the end of Fall Term 2023, noted that the course was a wonderful note to close out his last Spring Term at W&L.
“I’m really pleased with how it turned out,” he said. “I was worried about this course, because the topic is so big, how can you possibly do it? And we didn’t do it all — we just raised questions about threats to democracy and then introduced students to some of the people who have thought carefully about them. I think it does a good job of giving students access to those important ideas and individuals, so that their own thinking about those threats is more sophisticated after those four weeks.”
Morel, who has taken multiple classes with Strong, noted that the professor’s lessons were one of the highlights of his time at W&L.
“Professor Strong’s engaging lecture style, thoughtful feedback, and sincerity epitomize the liberal arts environment that every W&L student hopes for,” Morel said. “He instilled in me — and the rest of his students — a passion for objective analysis, careful writing, and thoughtful curiosity.”
Ruscio noted that reconnecting with faculty like Strong through the Spring Term Course was a wonderful reminder of the strength of the university. While he was thrilled to return to his alma mater and former workplace, he added that the rationale for bringing this specific class to W&L was deeply intentional and went beyond personal reasons.
“This is such an important time for this student generation — it is their political coming of age.” Ruscio said. “It’s the time in their lives when they’re creating the prism through which they’re going to view politics for the rest of their lives. So, I wanted to be sure that they were doing so with a deep appreciation of what democracy is, and how fragile — and strong — it can be.”