Democracy Works

Building and sustaining a democracy is hard work. It’s not glamorous and often goes unnoticed in the daily news cycle. On the Democracy Works podcast, we talk to people who are out there making it happen and discuss why that work is so important. We aim to rise above partisan bickering and hot takes on the news to have informed, intelligent, and thought-provoking discussions about issues related to democracy.

The show features interviews with leading experts by Jenna Spinelle and commentary and opinion from hosts Michael Berkman and Christopher Beem of The McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. It's a collaborative project between The McCourtney Institute and WPSU.

Democracy Works won the 2018 People's Choice Podcast Award in the Government and Organizations category. 

For more information and additional episodes, visit democracyworkspodcast.com or subscribe to Democracy Works wherever you listen to podcasts.

Earl Wilson

The First Amendment and a strong Fourth Estate are essential to a healthy democracy. David McCraw, deputy general counsel of the New York Times, spends his days making sure that the journalists can do their work in the United States and around the world. This includes responding to libel suits and legal threats, reviewing stories that are likely to be the subject of a lawsuit, helping reporters who run into trouble abroad, filing Freedom of Information Act requests, and much more. 

Climate scientist Michael Mann
Bill Arden / Bill Arden

This episode is not about climate change. Well, not directly, anyway. Instead, we talk with Nobel Prize winner and Penn State Distinguished Professor of Meteorology Michael E. Mann about his journey through the climate wars over the past two decades and the role that experts have to play in moving out of the lab and into the spotlight to defend the scientific process.

On Democracy Works, we've had the opportunity to speak with several organizers, from Joyce Ladner in the Civil Rights movement to Srdja Popovic in Serbia to the students involved with the March for Our Lives. Today, we think of protests as a pillar of democratic dissent, but things didn't necessarily start out that way.

Penn State World in Conversation

This episode seeks to answer one simple, but very important, question: Why is it so hard for people to talk to each other? There are a lot of easy answers we can point to, like social media and political polarization, but there's another explanation that goes a bit deeper.

How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt
Harvard University

The Democracy Works summer break continues this week with a rebroadcast of one of our very first episodes, a conversation with How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt. Daniel spoke at Penn State in March 2018. Both the book and the conversation are worth revisiting, or checking out for the first time if the episode is new to you.

If you’ve been to a book store or the library lately, then you’ve probably seen at least a few books on democracy on the shelves. The 2016 presidential election spurred a lot of conversation about the current state of our democracy and where things go from here. These books are not what most people would call beach reading, but they are important to understanding what’s happening in the U.S. and around the world right now.

We know you probably don’t have time to read all of them this summer. Hopefully this episode will help you choose one or two to tackle.

Michael Berkman, Chris Beem, and Jenna Spinelle in the studio.
Kristine Allen / WPSU

Is the United States really a democracy? What will the EU look like in 50 years? What should 2020 candidates be doing to demonstrate civility? Those are just a few of the questions we received from Democracy Works listeners around the country and around the world. This week, the Democracy Works team answers some of those questions about democracy and the topics we've covered on the show.

 

We tend to think about congressional oversight in very academic terms — checks and balances, the Framers, etc. But what does it actually look like on the ground in Congress? To find out, we're talking this week with Charlie Dent, who served Congress for more than a decade until his retirement in 2018. He argues that amid all the talk about subpoenas, impeachment, and what Congress is not able to do, we're losing sight of the things they can do to hold the executive branch accountable.

Some political scientists and democracy scholars think that it might. The thinking goes something like this: inequality will rise as jobs continue to be automated, which will cause distrust in the government and create fertile ground for authoritarianism.

Jay Yonamine is uniquely qualified to weigh in on this issue. He is a data scientist at Google and has a Ph.D. in political science. He has a unique perspective on the relationship between automation and democracy, and the role that algorithms and platforms play in the spread of misinformation online.  

Lindsay Lloyd
Photo by Grant. Miller

If Alexis de Tocqueville visited America today, what would he have to say about the condition of our democracy?

We hear a lot in the news and on Twitter about how support for democracy is waning. We're perhaps even a little guilty of it on this show. But, what do everyday Americans think? Some of the biggest names in politics from across the ideological spectrum teamed up to find out.

Much like our conversation on demagoguery with Patricia Roberts-Miller last week, neoliberalism is one of those fuzzy words that can mean something different to everyone. Wendy Brown is one of the world's leading scholars on neoliberalism and argue that a generation of neoliberal worldview among political, business, and intellectual leaders led to the populism we're seeing throughout the world today. But is it mutually exclusive to democracy? Not necessarily.

When you think of the word "demagogue," what comes to mind? Probably someone like Hitler or another bombastic leader, right? Patricia Roberts-Miller is a rhetoric scholar and has spent years tracing the term and its uses. She joins us this week to explain a new way of thinking about demagoguery and how that view relates to democracy. She also explains what she's learned from what she describes as years of "crawling around the Internet with extremists."

By now, you've no doubt heard all about the report issued by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But, if you only focus on the information about collusion and obstruction in the Trump administration, you are missing a whole other part of the story about Russian interference in democracy leading up to the 2016 election. Laura Rosenberger and her colleagues at the bipartisan Alliance for Securing Democracy have been working to raise awareness about this threat since the 2016 election.

By now, you've no doubt heard all about the report issued by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But, if you only focus on the information about collusion and obstruction in the Trump administration, you are missing a whole other part of the story about Russian interference in democracy leading up to the 2016 election. Laura Rosenberger and her colleagues at the bipartisan Alliance for Securing Democracy have been working to raise awareness about this threat since the 2016 election.

It's been 65 years since the Brown v. Board of Education changed public schooling throughout a large portion of the United States. In his opinion, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that public education was important to democratic society and the "very foundation of good citizenship." Integrated schools, the Court argued, would expose children to new cultures and prepare them for an increasingly diverse world.

Sarah Koenig spent a year inside Cleveland's criminal justice system for season three of the Serial podcast. Along the way, she met some interesting people and had a birds-eye view of what justice (and injustice) look like for lawyers, judges, defendants, police officers, and the countless others who pass through the building's courtrooms each day.

Koenig recently participated in an on-stage conversation with Michael Berkman, director of the McCourtney Institue for Democracy and one of the hosts of Democracy Works.

There are a lot of calls these days to "revive civility" in politics. While there are plenty of examples of uncivil behavior, there's far less agreement about what civility should look like in 2019. Timothy Shaffer joins us this week to talk about work being done to create a new definition of civility and a playbook to put that definition into practice.

E.J. Dionne has the unique perspective of studying the horse race and the big picture of American politics. He writes a twice-weekly column for the Washington Post and appears regularly on NPR, but he's also a senior fellow at Brookings and professor in Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University.

Joyce Ladner was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was mentored by Medgar Evers, expelled from Jackson State University for participating in a sit-in, and failed Mississippi's voter literacy test three times. She discusses those experiences with us, along with the disconnect between learning the principles of civics education knowing that some of them didn't apply to her.

 

From Brexit to Hungary to the U.S. border wall, many of today's political conflicts rest on the idea of immigration. Moving people from one place to another is easier said than done, and as we've seen around world, there are inherent tensions between people who want to enter a country and the people who are already there. On top of that, climate change will continue to create situations where people are displaced from their homes.

20 years ago, Srdja Popovic was part of a revolution — literally. He was a founding member of the Otpor! movement that ousted Serbia Slobodan Milsovic from power in 1999. It's easy to characterize social movements as a bunch of people rallying in the streets, but successful movements require a lot of planning and a unified vision around a singular goal — things that are often easier said than done.

We say on this show all the time that democracy is hard work. But what does that really mean? What it is about our dispositions that makes it so hard to see eye to eye and come together for the greater good? And why, despite all that, do we feel compelled to do it anyway? Jonathan Haidt is the perfect person to help us unpack those questions.

We're just a few weeks away from the deadline for the UK to reach an agreement on its plan to leave the European Union. Nearly three years after the infamous Brexit vote, things appear to be as murky as ever.

Rather than trying to predict the future, we invited Penn State's Sons Golder to join us for a conversation about how Brexit originated, and the pros and cons of putting the decision directly in the people's hands. Sona is a comparative politics scholar and co-editor of the British Journal on Political Science.

To say Brazil has had a complicated history with democracy is a understatement. The country has bounced in and out authoritarian regimes for hundreds of years, with democracy never having quite enough time to really take hold. Following the election of Jair Bolsonaro in October 2018, many are wondering whether the cycle is about to repeat itself again.

This episode is the second in our series looking at democracy around the world. France is the focus this week, and our guest is Cole Stangler, an independent journalist based in Paris.

The yellow vest movement, named for the safety vest that all drivers are required to carry in their cars, began in lat 2018 over rising gas prices. The movement succeeded in having the gas tax repealed, but the protestors still took to the streets around the country every weekend. Why? Like a lot of social movements, it's complicated.

This episode is the first in a series examining the state of democracy around the world. First up is Hungary, a country that's often referred to in a group of countries in central and Eastern Europe that are seeing authoritarian leaders rise to power. You might have heard of Viktor Orbán or know that the country is in some way associated with George Soros, but beyond that, it's not a place many of us spend a lot of time thinking about.

In his book "Can Democracy Work? A Short History of A Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World," James Miller encapsulates 2500 years of democracy history into about 250 pages — making the case that “people power” will always need to be at the heart of any successful democracy.

No matter where you live, chances are that your local government is filled with things like feasibility studies, property tax assessments, and endless meetings governed by Robert's Rules of Order. It's difficult to keep track of, but yet could fundamentally impact your day-to-day life in ways that few state or national-level decisions do. This week's guest says that citizens and the governments themselves have a role to play in changing the conversation.

 

Democracy and inequality have been at odds for as long as democracy as has existed. As the gap between rich and poor widens, so too does trust in political institutions and faith in democracy itself.

We begin a new season of Democracy Works with a fundamental question: What is democracy?

Astra Taylor grapples with this question in her film and forthcoming book of the same name. She traveled the world and interviewed people from all walks of life. We talk with her this week about what she learned from making the film and talking with people from all walks of life. As you'll hear, she did not set out to make a documentary about democracy, but kept coming back to that question.

Pages