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Democracy Works: Protests, debates and the 'meh' election

Democracy Works hosts Michael Berkman, Candis Watts Smith and Chris Beem.
Photos Provided
Democracy Works hosts Michael Berkman, Candis Watts Smith and Chris Beem.

Democracy Works has reached the end of another season. Before the show goes on summer break, Michael Berkman, Chris Beem and Candis Watts Smith reflect on recent events and what's to come this summer. They do this by taking a look back at some of our previous episodes:

The real free speech problem on campus: Penn State's Brad Vivian on the problems with "campus free speech" discourse and media coverage. We discuss how this narrative has been applied to protests about the war in Gaza that happened on some campuses near the end of the spring semester. Follow Vivian's Substackfor his more recent work on the Gaza protests and more.

A different kind of political divide - Yanna Krupnikov from the University of Michigan on the divide between people who follow politics closely and those who don't. We're seeing this divide play out in recent polling that shows support for Donald Trump is higher among people who say they are not politically engaged, while support for Biden is higher among those who follow news and politics more closely.

Debating the future of debates: John Hudak from Brookings talks about the value of presidential debates to democracy. We recorded this episode in 2022 after the RNC announced it would not participate in events organized by the Commission for Presidential Debates. Now that two debates are scheduled for the next few months, we discuss whether they'll actually happen and how much they'll matter.

Please send the Democracy Works team an emailif you have ideas for episode topics or guests to cover when the show returns in the fall.

Episode Transcript
Michael Berkman
From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy on the campus of Penn State University, I'm Michael Berkman.

Chris Beem
I'm Chris Beem.

Candis Watts Smith 
I'm Candis Watts Smith.

Jenna Spinelle
I'm Jenna Spinelle, and welcome to Democracy Works. It's great to be here with all three of you together. And we're going to take a look back at some of what's happened recently, as well as some of what's to come here over the summer, while we'll be away. And we're gonna do that by looking back at some of our previous episodes. The nice thing about having 200 and some odd episodes is that we've talked about a lot of things that continue to be topics in the news, and a lot of our guests have provided useful insights that can help us frame what we're seeing now. And we'll continue to see in the future. So you got a couple of different topics here that we'll go through. And we want to start with a thing that I think was on all of our minds and really dominated the news for much of, you know, the spring, which was protests about the war in Gaza, happening at universities. And, you know, our colleague at Penn State, Brad Vivian has recently written a lot about these protests and how they're portrayed in the media and elsewhere. But before that, we had him on the show to talk about his book, campus misinformation, which I think gets at a deeper issue that these protests may manifest about the idea of free speech on campus and what that means versus how it's portrayed. And so let's as a way to set the stage here, let's take a listen to this clip from Brad,

Brad Vivian
I understand there's a kind of cultural politics, which is attacking universities now. Because universities are supposedly kind of elitist and out of touch, I think there's a, there's a great amount of that that goes on in universities, across social and political perspectives. That's my sort of colloquial take. But I also think that is is misinformation to the extent that if you look at student bodies, and who's going to universities these days, lots of people from many different socio economic classes. So the student body is much more democratic in that respect than it used to be not culturally elite, even at traditionally elite institutions. And I think that's something we should appreciate, and listen to them and consider their experience as part of the process of building more democratic higher education infrastructure.

Jenna Spinelle
Hopefully, that's jogged your memory. And if that is of interest to you, you can go back and listen to that whole episode with Brad, I'll put it in the show notes. But I wonder, for all of you, you know, do you think that the discourse that we saw throughout much of April and May about the Gaza protests fits into this narrative about campus misinformation that campuses are out of control that there's no longer free speech? Or was this perhaps something different? So Candace, why don't why don't we start with you on this one? What did you see at Duke? And and how do you think about that, as it pertains to the argument that that Brad's making?

Candis Watts Smith 
I guess, one of the things that comes to my mind, generally speaking, is the question of whether there has ever been a time when college students protested anything. And students themselves were not attacked as being outside of the boundaries of the acceptable. And I mean, that could be civil rights. That could be Vietnam, that could be Black Lives Matter, kind of anti war, protests after 911. Even kind of when students were doing, like, protests for labor rights for the folks that are working on their campuses and janitorial or, you know, in the cafeteria, and things like that. So I'm always a little reticent to, I find the kind of pattern striking because, I mean, I, you know, students can protests. I was gonna say climate change, but I guess that's also controversial. I'm trying to think of something that's not controversial that if college students did decide to protest it, if people wouldn't then suggests that they were out of control, or that it was just another signal that universities are indoctrinating students, which I always also find really interesting because we can't even get our students to read our syllabus. So I guess I mean, generally speaking, I find that this response to students, the context is certainly different. But the response it's so familiar. And almost, it's disheartening, because it doesn't feel because the response is so typical, it doesn't feel like we're having an actual critical conversation about the nuances of either what students are doing, and or what they are protesting for or against.

Chris Beem
Protests do not lend themselves to nuance, right? I mean, they are a response. That is that is, you know, by design, black and white, and, you know, anybody who knows anything about this conflict, especially this current iteration, knows that there's nothing but gray hair. And, and so I don't know how possible that is. I think, Brad, you know, Brad is a smart and thoughtful guy. And he and I've had several, you know, discussion slides arguments about this. I do think that, you know, there's pretty good evidence that this is mostly not to say exclusively, but mostly taking place in the most elite colleges on in the United States. And so that does reinforce this argument that there is this kind of privileged elite process that's going on among universities that's detached, disconnected from, you know, the real world and from what most people think about in terms of morality, very similar to the President's is the President's hearing before Congress. But you know, I don't know, do you, do you? It's, I thought Biden's reaction was just right. You know, protest is, is not only legitimates it is, you know, worthy as part of a democratic society. But there are limits, and there are limits that are appropriate. And if if you want to, if you want to go against those, if you want to break the law, you have that right, as well. But if you're going to do that, you know, Martin Luther King said, you know, you break the law lovingly, you accept the consequences

Michael Berkman
To take Brad's concerns seriously. You know, his argument, I think colds really quite well here. He's saying that there's a sort of narrative out there that campuses are out of control that things are widespread, that free speech is really threatened. And it has attracted a great deal of attention in the national media. Obviously, Republicans in the House have climbed all over it as a way for them to quite opportunistically attack universities. But you know, building on what Chris said, I've seen a quantitative analysis of this as well from data that Harvard's collected, these encampments are almost exclusively at the most elite schools, defined by schools that have the most selective acceptance rates that have the fewest number of students on Pell grants that have the highest tuition. This is very much occurring at a small number of schools, among quite privileged students, in media capitals in New York and Washington and Los Angeles, and attracting an enormous amount of attention. I also do think, though, that we ought to take seriously the form of the protests, and I think there is something different about them. And I thought the president of the University of Chicago nailed it quite well. And I mean, it's Chicago really being the place that everyone looks to, to understand how a campus best approaches free speech. And what he said very clearly was, you know, you have the perfect right to do this. And I'm not saying that you don't have the right to do it, but consider what it is that you're doing. You are consider he said that an encampment with all its etymological connections to the word of the word to military origins, is a way of using force of a kind, rather than reason to persuade others. And there has been something extremely threatening and intimidating about many of these protests. What I look at is not necessarily the encampments, which is what he was looking at, I find the masking to be extremely unsettling and intimidating on campus. I don't really know were hiding your identity on campus, you know, other than for medical reasons, but this isn't for medical reasons. were hiding, you're hiding your identity in the community of the university is suddenly an acceptable thing to do. It is an intimidating feeling to see that and the encampments themselves. And you know, I do think also that this is pushing up against some of the free speech issues that Brad has talked about, because they it's clear that universities have had a very difficult time because these are very difficult questions about figuring out what's acceptable and what's not. And for that matter who gets to define anti semitism, and they saw a lot of Jews on campus, and that's anti semitic when you talk about global and photogra, or when you talk about from river to the sea, but people that say it, I'll say I don't mean any of the anti semitic by that at all, you know, keep in mind, these are small numbers of students. And I even on the campuses where it's currently it's small numbers of students. But, you know, as Brad will points out, that gets blown away out of proportion to what's really going on.

Jenna Spinelle
So, you know, Michael, you hit on something there about the pressure that universities are facing from Congress, you know, you've seen the presidents of several Ivy League universities either step down or be forced to step down or kind of on the verge of having to resign in part because of pressure from Congress, which is fueled by the media, it's this sort of vicious cycle that that Brad talks about. And his Brad's counter to that is, do we universities should be doing more to communicate the democratic work that they do at all kinds of places, both inside and outside of the classroom. And I wonder if if any of you have thoughts about it, how much more easier said than done that is, I guess might be the best way to phrase it. Or if there are ways that universities can be pushing back against some of the the media narratives that are out there about the you know, air quotes, what's happening on on campus is not certainly about about protests. But maybe also more broadly,

Michael Berkman
I have one quick thought on that. And then I watched the hearings, when the when they brought in the superintendents and principals of public schools around the country. And they were brilliant, absolutely brilliant. And part of it is because they really know how to work with conflict. And they, I thought they did a beautiful job of talking about how they, for example, try to work with students who say, things that are inappropriate and hurtful to others, and how they try to navigate these conflicts within their schools. And they didn't take anything from members of Congress who were trying to demagogue them, it was like, we know, we've been in the public, we've been in the public eye for a long time, they say, the superintendent of the Los Angeles schools or a superintendent at the New York schools, but these but these college presidents I don't know, I was really struck by quite just how bad they were at, at making the case for what their universities are doing well. So I don't know.

Candis Watts Smith 
But I would say generally speaking, and maybe I'm speaking at this point, as a college administrator, is that I find that universities are largely in a defensive crouch, and it's actually quite annoying. You know, universities are very, they're great targets and their targets of the left and the right, you know, institutions that produce debt, that don't have good ROIs that aren't paying their fair share in proportion to their endowments that are places of indoctrination, on and on, right. And I find it really fascinating that universities aren't university leaders aren't being more upfront about, about their potential for democracy, in educating citizens to think critically, that we train the next leaders and you know, I'm at a elite place where many of my students, you know, they hang out at the Supreme Court for internships, and they are in the White House, and they're on the hill, and they're in their state legislators, and they're gonna be the CEOs of, you know, all of the things. And they're also going to be scientists who discover the next important cure for cancer or climate change, or whatever. And so I find it really, I find it fascinating that that universities aren't taking a kind of more proactive stance, and saying, we understand what we owe to democracy. And that we also do the work of enhancing democracy through the way that we train critical thinking that we make sure that when people say that they want to do their own research, that they actually know what they're doing, and that they're not just kind of people who are following along, but are thinking critically about what it is that we should be doing, that they're paying attention to the news and the fact that we have a sitting president who's being you know, that is making you know, excuse me, a former president that is you know, sitting in a courtroom because you know, he paid off you know his mistress right I mean, and sexually harass people and you know, lied about what is all of the things, right? Like the idea here is that we universities, do the work of making sure that the people that they graduate are at least being able to ask questions whether they be in politics, you know, in economics and science, right with a goal of, you know, shifting us towards, like it least potentially shifting us toward discovering truer truths. Yeah.

Jenna Spinelle
Well, you know, speaking of people, maybe not following the news, as as closely as they showed are teaching students the value of being engaged and informed citizens and our democracy. We have seen some polling recently to suggest that Donald Trump has a lead among voters who self described do not closely follow politics. And there's been some writing writing about this as well. I'll link to some articles from the New York Times in the show notes. But this is the divide that at the beginning of this season, we kicked off with an interview with Yanna Krupnikov. Yanna John Barry Ryan are two scholars at the University of Michigan who have a book called The other divide, which is all about this idea of, you know, how closely people follow politics. And I think at the time, we all maybe struggled a little bit to get our, our minds around that argument was maybe just a little, a little ahead of its time, or we're seeing it play out here. Now, just to refresh your memory. Let's, let's take a quick listen to this clip.

Yanna Krupnikov
You see on the news, and you see these really, really political voices, you start to think to yourself, oh, this is what engaging in politics looks like. Those voices also often happen to care a lot about their particular political position. And so politics becomes overwhelming, it becomes something that's uncomfortable, and it'd become something that over time you don't necessarily want to engage with. But for people who aren't deeply involved, there's a tremendous amount of skepticism. They think that people are just posting about politics and just talking about politics, because they want to be right, because they want to share their political opinion, because they want to persuade someone. And I think that kind of emulates this idea of people disengaging from politics, in part because they don't necessarily think there's space for them there. o

Jenna Spinelle
As we think about this, this divide, maybe we'll we'll start with you on this one. Michael, is this the first time that we're seeing something like this manifest where support for candidates is different based on how closely they're following politics? And what does that say to you about the health of our democracy more broadly, if people feel like they can't see themselves or can't see a place for themselves in what they're following or not?

Michael Berkman
So I mean, the takeaway from what we're seeing in some of these polls, which is not exactly the question you asked me, but I'm hoping maybe Kansas knows about this, having shown up in the past a lot, but that, you know, this is what gives Biden hope. Because these people who are largely disengaged are the least likely people to vote. And so getting them out is that's going to be Donald Trump's challenge. But clearly, I mean, there are a lot of people out there who are just not paying any attention to anything. I mean, it comes up a lot with the trial, that today is entered into deliberations where, you know, I know what's going on and try pay quite a bit of attention to it. Actually, I I love trials and potential for lots of different trials. But I'm struck by how many people I know who don't know a thing about what's going on with that trial, what it's about, like, how far along it is, or you know, what it means for for Donald Trump. And more generally, I think about my students a bit sometimes my younger students in particular, who have no nothing in politics, except Trump. And, you know, like Trump defines what it means to be a president for them. And then Biden was just old, but Trump is still out there kind of still a president actually, in its own sort of weird kind of warped way then in Mar Lago. And disengagement seems like, almost the reasonable adaptation to what's really a kind of ugly, and uninspiring space right now, which which is our politics.

Candis Watts Smith 
Well, I mean, to your last point, I think that this is the kind of election that gives democracy a bad name. And I think that's what young people are perceiving like, is this, what people fought for? This why, like, beautifully drawn Kids got hosed down by fire hoses and police dogs so that we can read litigate something that happened four years ago and that the other guy who lost who refuses to say that he did is still looming large. I just, I think you're right. I think how do I mean? I, maybe I wouldn't use the word reasonable, but I would use the word understandable. Yeah, I think that even you know, the Yeah, I as the kids say, like, this is very mid, right. It's very mad. And it's like, what is there to get excited about? And what new like, what information can we get the fact that you know, the Democratic primaries were really non existent. And like, maybe you want to learn about RFK. Like, I don't know, if this is what people fought for. I can see why people are unengaged, are disengaged. And the fact of the matter is, What worries me is that this is this kind of sentiment is very hard to dig out of, right, like, disengagement and mistrust of our systems are very hard, right? Those are or no say engagement and trust are like currency. You have a debt, right? How long does it take for you to fill up that piggy bank where you know, people want to get engaged in future where I think this this situation is very bad? I mean, I do think that Trump as a candidate is not good. But also, I think that there is something to be said that Biden said that he would be a transitional president. And he lied. And he and now here we are. And so I think that there's something to be said about, you said that you would do with thing and you did it, do it. And now here we are. And so I guess that's the other part about the mistrust, right? Like, we have the issues with the Electoral College, and we have the issues about turnout, and we have the issues about voting rights. And now we have also a person who said that they would step aside and they did not.

Chris Beem
I can certainly understand that feeling. And, you know, if you're looking for some kind of high moral standard in politics, you're going to have a long wait. But if you are going to call this a myth election, I'm going to tell you, I think you're out of your mind. This is what I just quoted. This is from Steve Bannon a few days ago, talking about heritage heritage Foundation's 2025 plan, said the DOJ is completely corrupt from top to bottom is going to have to be purged. And the FBI is American Gestapo as a as institutions not worthy of going forward, they're going to have to be totally restructured. Now, what do we think the chances are that he will that the if Trump is reelected, he'll follow through with that - 5% 10%?

Candis Watts Smith 
I do not disagree that the outcome of this election is absolutely critical. What I'm saying is that for people who are looking at what's going on in the world, as unengaged as they already are, and that they don't feel like they're like, they feel like they're getting this old guy who said he would do a thing and that they are under the impression that you know that things are going poorly in part because we didn't have primary debates where people could talk about all of the good things that are happening. At least on the Republican side. You had Rama Swanee and Nikki Haley and DeSantis saying all of these things and completely misinforming people, but at least people were engaged. And now they're like using that misinformation to galvanize behind Trump. I mean, the there is a role in which the parties themselves have a role in engaging the public and informing the public about the ramifications of going one way or the other. And we didn't get that and that's where I think people are I can understand where people are coming from whether Trump or Biden gets elected will make a huge difference for the future of everybody and everything. And I don't feel like I'm being over over exaggerating on that point. But what I'm saying is is that this run up here feels very like that, like people don't actually matter and bringing like real choice from you know, from which to elect someone that you are excited about.

Chris Beem
I could stipulate Candis, everything you said. And then just say and then Therefore, what, you have a choice to join one or the other. And and if you have to take all that, which is absolutely true, and say that therefore, you know, it's, you know, it's just not speaking to me, or, you know, I'm, I'm disheartened and, you know, disaffected by all this, then I think that is deeply irresponsible. And, and I don't have any patience for it, we cannot escape history, and that's a choice in front of us, suck it up and do the right thing.

Michael Berkman
You know, I also think this idea that the economy is tremendous, and everybody should just realize that it's not, and young people in particular, are really feeling it, okay, they, they can't buy houses, they can't buy cars, you know, finding jobs, even though there seems to be very low unemployment does not seem to be as easy as it's been explained to be. And there's a general feeling of you know, and I think this is how the super elevation of the campus protests just play into this idea of a country and disorder and distress, which I think is BS. But that's what helps to play into all of that sense. But I don't know, I think Biden makes a mistake, because he's always gone around the country, though we have the best economy in the world. Yes, are we've pulled out of COVID better than any of the other g7 countries have, that's clearly the case. But interest rates are high. And inflation for things that really hit certain people, you know, inflation for services is still high. Inflation for hotel rooms is still high, inflation on travel is still high, and people feel it, and they're not happy about it. Not at all.

Jenna Spinelle
So one more point I want to get to here and it touches on something you were talking about earlier candidates about the value that debates have to bring attention and awareness to what's going on and maybe get people who are marginally engaged, a little bit more tuned in to what's happening, at least, historically, they have been the one thing that kind of breaks through to the mainstream, or breaks through to different media silos, as it were. And we will have two presidential debates one in June and the other one is in September, I believe, so earlier than they had been. And we actually did an episode about this back in 2022, either right before or right after the midterms, when, at the time, Rhonda McDaniel, the head of the RNC said that the party would not commit to presidential debates in the next cycle that has since changed, of course, Ronna McDaniel is is is no longer there. But at the time, we talked with it with John Hudak, at Brookings, who wrote about this and the value of debates for democracy. So let's just take a quick step back to what things look like at that time.

John Hudak
The vast majority of Americans do not make up their mind about who to vote for for President based on a presidential debate. That said, I think, I think some people's minds are changed, I think, you know, it's hard for me, is someone who I think most people would accuse as being a political elite, to look at a choice like Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, or Donald Trump, and Joe Biden, or Joe Biden. And, you know, name any of the Republic, Ted Cruz, and not immediately know who you like, like, who's closer to you politically? I mean, they're, they're just such, obviously, different choices. For me, it's hard to imagine. But for some people, that's the case, maybe I don't love Donald Trump, maybe I also don't love Joe Biden, but I know one of these guys is going to have to leave the country. So let me hear what they have to say. And then I'll make up my mind and when you, you know, you look at the presidential election in 2016. Where if you, you know, if you change is it, like 48,000 votes in three states, Hillary Clinton wins the Electoral College in 2020. If you change like 70, something, 1000 votes, 76,000 votes across three states. Donald Trump wins the Electoral College in 2020. So, you know, presidential elections are decided very much at the margins. And could I believe that a presidential debate changes the minds of 77,000 voters out of you know, 150 million cast 260 million cast? Absolutely, I do. And so, the debates aren't there for you or me, who probably have very entrenched firm political views and views of candidates. It's there for those marginal voters who, you know, think about politics 24 hours a day. who don't get committed to a candidate early on, and who legitimately wants to hear what those views are. And most importantly, I think, see what that person is like, in a situation like that. And not as I wrote in my piece, in this protected bubble that presidential candidates and presidents operate in at all times during a presidential campaign, except those three nights, they're on the debate stage with their opponent.

Jenna Spinelle
You know, guys, when we recorded this episode with John, it seemed pretty certain that the debates weren't going to happen. I guess maybe, Chris, we'll start with you on this one. Given where we were two years ago, are you surprised that we're having debates in the first place, given the stance that the RNC had taken as little as a year or two ago?

Chris Beem
Well, I'm not at all confident that we're going to have those debates. I'm actually, you know, if I was going to bet, I would say that Trump is going to find a reason to, you know, bow out, you know, a, you know, he is not good in places where he cannot control the narrative. And, you know, he lost those debates to Biden, and, and so I would be, I would not be shocked if it doesn't happen at all. If, you know, I, I am deeply anxious about how this is yet another norm of American democracy that is being manipulated and denigrated by, you know, especially those on the right. And I think that has consequences that extend long, long beyond whether these debates happen. You know, it's just I mean, reestablishing norms and standards, for elections and for politics in general, is extremely difficult to do. And we seem to be not only letting it happen, but we're letting Donald Trump who is indifferent at best, indifferent to norms, drive that train. And so I think it is a a bad thing. And if those debates were to happen, I think that would be better for American democracy.

Michael Berkman
Like, Chris, I don't actually think these are going to happen. I think it's all sort of a game. But I also, you know, I tried a little bit carefully about this being a great norm of our democracy. These debates in this form have been around I think, since like, the Debate Commission is 1974. Maybe. So yeah, they weren't the same. And they certainly weren't with this kind of visibility, and they weren't on TV. And they didn't have and they weren't structured by this Debate Commission, which, you know, the Republicans have pretty much eliminated and that Biden apparently is not operating under either.

Candis Watts Smith 
Well, one thing that John said, that really just kind of was just a good reminder, is that, you know, if 50,000 People had made a different choice in 2016, or 77,020 20, that's like, point oh, 3%. Right, you know, 5% of the total votes cast in those years, and that if indeed, finally getting these two, if they happen, or if there's just news around why one didn't show up, gets people engaged. And if it influences how they're going to decide then they, I don't know, I just, that statistic just stands out to me just so poignantly. But it could also mean that people decide that they don't want to vote either. And so and those people deciding that they're not going to turn out also makes a big difference. And so I think there's something to be said about. I don't know, I sure if we talked about this tomorrow, I would give a different answer. But I do think that there's something to giving semblance to the idea that this is an actual election. And that moving even just through the motions of the norms of how we're supposed to behave in a democracy, where we're supposed to see candidates, talk about their ideas and their policies, or at least show the public, who they are and what they think I think all of those things do matter.

Jenna Spinelle
Well, we are going to leave things there. If you have thoughts on episodes or people you'd like to hear us talk to in the next season. Please get In Touch the summer is my time to plan a lot of the episodes and guests that we have for the next coming fall. So please send us an email or drop us a line if you have suggestions or thoughts. Just wanted to say thank you again to Michael canvas and Chris and to our partners at WPS you for making Democracy Works happen. And for the entire team. I'm Jenna Spinelle. Thanks for listening.