Lesson plan; How Much Faith Do You Have in the U.S. Political System?

Do you worry that political divisions are too deep, the government is too dysfunctional, or civic norms are too challenged? Or are you confident that American democracy is still strong? This lesson plan is from The New York Times. 

Objective: To help students understand the concept of political norms and how they affect democracy.



  • Analyze the role of citizens in the U.S. political system, with attention to the definition of who is a citizen, the expansion of suffrage, civil rights and civil liberties, and the balance between majority rule and minority rights.
  • Explain how the U.S. Constitution establishes a system of government that has powers, responsibilities, and limits that have changed over time and that are still contested.

Imagine if you were a foreign leader surveying the political chaos in the United States:

For the first time in history, a party has just fired its own speaker of the House in the middle of a term. In the Senate, one of the two party leaders, who’s 81 years old, has twice recently frozen in public, unable to speak. A Supreme Court justice has allowed wealthy political donors to finance a lavish lifestyle for him and his wife (and that same justice’s wife urged officials to overturn the 2020 presidential election result based on lies). A likely nominee in the upcoming presidential election is facing four criminal trials and regularly speaks in apocalyptic terms about the country’s future. That nominee is essentially tied in the polls with an 80-year-old president whom many voters worry is too old to serve a second term.

If you were an ally of the U.S., you would have to be worried. If you were an enemy, you would have to be pleased.

That’s how David Leonhardt begins Thursday’s The Morning newsletter.

When my colleagues and I asked democracy experts this week how to make sense of the country’s political turmoil, they emphasized that the central explanation was the Republican Party:

  • “The democratic system needs two viable parties,” Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University, said. “You need a set of leaders on both sides that have the confidence of their followers and have some understanding of the rules of the road.”

  • “In my lifetime, this is the greatest challenge that I’ve seen coming at us,” said Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.

  • Daniel Ziblatt, a co-author of the recent book “Tyranny of the Minority,” told me that the structure of the American political system was partly to blame: The Electoral College, the Senate and gerrymandering have allowed Republicans to wield power without appealing to most Americans. “Our constitution in this way is one of several factors radicalizing the Republican Party, leading it to turn away from democracy itself,” Ziblatt said.

  • “I think the country’s political class is aging and underperforming in many ways — I’m a longtime critic of gerontocracy. But that’s a second-order problem,” Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College said. “The first-order problems by far are the state of the G.O.P. and the electoral rules and institutions that make the threat it poses so significant.”

Even with all these problems, there are reasons for optimism. The Republican caucus in the Senate is more functional than in the House. Federal judges and election officials, from both parties, blocked Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Candidates who endorsed his lies fared poorly in the 2022 midterms. It’s possible that a more functional Republican Party, committed to both conservatism and American democracy, will emerge in coming years.

But it is not assured. “Events of recent weeks have reminded us that the authoritarian threat isn’t going away,” Nyhan said.

The expansion of suffrage refers to the process of granting the right to vote, or suffrage, to more members of a society. Initially, most countries required voters to meet certain qualifications, often related to property ownership or wealth1. However, during the 19th and 20th centuries, many countries expanded suffrage to include more citizens1. In the United States, for example, voting rights were gradually extended to all white men during the early 19th century2This expansion was part of a broader shift towards more democratic forms of government2. However, it’s important to note that while suffrage was expanded for some groups, it was often restricted for others. For instance, at the same time that suffrage was being expanded for white men in the United States, it was being restricted for women and free African Americans2.


  • The article Democracy Is More Than Just Holding Elections by Amanda Taub. Open society foundation 
  • A video clip of President Biden’s speech on democracy at the United Nations General Assembly
  • Worksheet with questions to guide students reading and comprehension of the article. Click here. 
  • Use this rubric to assess students’ participation in a class discussion or a written reflection on the topic. rubric


  • Activate prior knowledge by asking students to brainstorm what they think democracy means and what makes a country democratic. Record their responses on the board or a chart paper.
  • Distribute the worksheet and the article to the students and instruct them to read the article carefully and answer the questions on the worksheet.
  • Review the answers to the worksheet as a class and clarify any misunderstandings or misconceptions. You could also show the video clip of President Biden’s speech and ask students to identify some of the political norms he mentions or implies in his address.
  • Have each group share their findings with the class and discuss how political norms vary across contexts and cultures. You could also ask students to compare and contrast their political norms with those of other countries or regions.
  • Conclude the lesson by asking students to reflect on their learning and write a paragraph or a short essay on one of the following prompts:
    • How do political norms shape our understanding and practice of democracy?
    • How can we uphold or challenge political norms that affect our democracy?
    • How can we learn from other countries’ experiences with political norms and democracy?

More info

The U.S. Constitution establishes a system of government with three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial1. This separation of powers is designed to prevent despotism by ensuring that no branch would grab too much power1. Each branch exercises certain powers that can be checked by the powers given to the other two branches1. For example, the president (head of the executive branch) serves as commander in chief of the military forces, but Congress (legislative branch) appropriates funds for the military and votes to declare war1.

Over time, these powers, responsibilities, and limits have changed and are still contested. The Supreme Court has used both the Commerce Clause and the Tenth Amendment to enhance and limit federal power over time2. The Constitution also provides guarantees for fundamental citizens’ rights and sets out the government’s basic operating procedures3. There have been 27 amendments to the constitution which guarantee specific personal freedoms and rights3.

The Constitution is considered the supreme law of the land, and all citizens are subject to its provisions3. It establishes the authority of the Federal government3 and although the Supremacy Clause states that the Constitution, federal laws, and treaties are the “supreme law of the land,” it is clear that the Constitution created a federal government of limited powers4. This balance of power between the federal and state governments is a key feature of federalism5.

In conclusion, the U.S. Constitution establishes a system of government with checks and balances designed to prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful. Over time, interpretations of these powers have changed and continue to be contested.

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