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.

Rachel Franklin Photography/Draw the Lines PA

One of the things we heard in our listener survey (which there's still time to take, by the way) is that we should have more young people on the show as guests. It was a great suggestion and, after having this conversation, we're so glad to have received it.

Hedrick Smith

Hedrick Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of bestselling books The RussiansWho Stole the American Dream? and many others. Over the course of his nearly 60 years in journalism, he's interviewed some of the biggest politicians and power brokers on the national and international stage. Now, his reporter's curiosity has led him to places like Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Hartford, Connecticut to report on efforts to end gerrymandering, remove money from politics, and fight corruption through grassroots organizing.

The Politics Guys

This week's episode is a conversation between Michael Berkman, Chris Beem, and Michael Baranowski of The Politics Guys, a podcast that looks at political issues in the news through a bipartisan, academic lens.

Baranowski is an associate professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University. His focus is American political institutions, public policy, and media — which makes him a great match for our own Michael and Chris.

Burt Monroe
Penn State Department of Political Science

Ranked-choice voting has been in the news a lot lately. It was adopted in New York City's November 2019 election, used for the first time in U.S. Congressional elections last year, and will be the method by which at least a few states choose a Democratic primary candidate in 2020.

But, what is it? How does it work? And, is it more democratic than the single-vote method we're used to? This week's guest has answers to all of those questions.

A.K. Sandoval-Strausz
Penn State Latina/o Studies

We’ve talked about immigration several times on this show with good reason. The role that people coming to the United States play in our democracy is an important question and something states, cities, and towns across the country will continue to grapple with as demographics shift.

Vineeta Yadav
Penn State Department of Political Science

More than 600 million people voted in India's most recent election, but that does not mean all is well with democracy there. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP recently won re-election on a platform based on Hindu nationalism. As we've seen with other countries experiencing democratic erosion, the people and parties coming to power do not value the liberalism that's essential to liberal democracy.

Davidson College

Climate change one of the most pressing issues of our time, but it's so big that it can be difficult to imagine how you as an individual can make an impact — or even know how to talk about it with other people in a meaningful way. This episode offers a few creative suggestions for addressing both of those things.

Our guest is Graham Bullock, associate professor of political science and environmental studies at Davidson College. His work covers everything from public policy to deliberative democracy, and the ways those things interact when it comes to climate and sustainability.

Last week, we heard from Andrew Sullivan about the challenges facing the future of democracy in the United States and around the world. This week's episode offers a glimpse into what can happen when a country emerges from a political crisis with stronger democratic practices in place.

Andrew Sullivan
Royce Carlton

This is by far one of the most pessimistic episodes we've done, but it's worth hearing. Andrew Sullivan, New York magazine contributor and former editor of The New Republic, is a longtime observer of American politics who does not shy away from controversial opinions. In this episode, we discuss the tension between liberalism and democracy, and how that tension manifests itself around the world.

Stanford University

We've wanted to do an episode on China for a long time and we are very excited to have Larry Diamond with us to discuss it. China plays an integral role in Larry Diamond's new book, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, and he's studied the region for decades.

Lee Ann Banaszak
Penn State Political Science Department

Pennsylvania is one of several states in the midst of a battle to ensure fair congressional maps are drawn after the 2020 Census. As we say in the episode, redistricting is one of democracy's thorniest problems. It's easy to say you want a map that's fair, but far more difficult to determine what that actually looks like.

Penn State Harrisburg

Last week, we heard from Aaron Maybin about the ways visual art relates to his conception and practice of democracy. This week, we are going to look at the relationship between art and democracy through the lens of music. Music has always been political, but what that looks like changes based on the culture.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Maybin

You might remember Aaron Maybin from his time on the football field at Penn State or in the NFL. These days, he's doing something much different. He's an artist, activist, and educator in his hometown of Baltimore and talked with us about the way that those things intersect.

From Pizzagate to Jeffrey Epstein, conspiracies seem to be more prominent than ever in American political discourse. What was once confined to the pages of supermarket tabloids is now all over our media landscape. Unlike the 9/11 truthers or those who questioned the moon landing, these conspiracies are designed solely to delegitimize a political opponent — rather than in service of finding the truth. As you might imagine, this is problematic for democracy.

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.

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