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, Christopher Beem and Candis Watts Smith 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.

Geraldo Cadava
Northwestern University

he 2020 election left many pundits and pollsters scratching their heads about the increased support for Donald Trump among Latino voters. While these conversations seem new every election cycle, our guest this week argues they are part of a much larger story that goes all the way back to the post-WWII era.

Will Friedman
Public Agenda

Despite increasing partisan polarization, voters in the 2020 election agreed on ballot initiatives on a $15 minimum wage in Florida and marijuana legalization in several states. Our guest this week would say this is an example of the hidden common ground that exists among everyday citizens but is obscured by political parties and media pundits.

Robert Lieberman
Johns Hopkins University

We hear a lot these days about how democracy is under attack, but what does that really mean? Robert Lieberman is the perfect guest to help us unpack that question and discuss what we can do about it.

Lieberman is co-author with Suzanne Mettler of the book "Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy." He is the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.

Wynton Marsalis
Jazz at Lincoln Center

Democracy takes center stage on Wynton Marsalis's latest album, The Ever Fonky Lowdown and his forthcoming work, the Democracy Suite. However, he's been thinking about the connection between jazz and democracy for his entire career. We are thrilled that he took a few minutes to talk with us about it this week. Listen to this episode while you wait in line to vote or for something to take your mind off the election while you're waiting for the results to come in.

Jennifer Lawless
Photo provided

More than 2,000 local newspapers have closed over the past 20 years, leaving some parts of the country in what's known as a "news desert." This week, we examine what impact that's had on civic engagement and democratic participation — and look at ways people are trying to make local news great again.

Rachel Shelden
Penn State

The Supreme Court has always been political, despite what recent history may lead us to believe. However, things may feel different now because the Court is more powerful now. Historian Rachel Shelden takes on a trip back to the Civil War era and we discuss the lessons from that era the might apply today.  

Lawrence Douglas
Amherst College

COVID-19, partisan gridlock and Donald Trump have joined forces to create the potential for in this year's election. This week, the author of "Will He Go? Trump and the Looming Electoral Meltdown in 2020" joins us to explain why and what we might be able to do about it.

Candis Watts Smith
Image Provided

In this crossover episode with WPSU's Take Note, Anne Danahy interviews Michael Berkman and Candis Watts Smith about several factors impacting the 2020 election — including polls, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and even the prevalence of yard signs this fall.

This interview was recorded on Tuesday, September 30, 2020, before the first presidential debate and President Trump's diagnosis with COVID-19.    

On-cho Ng
Penn State

In some ways, the fight for democracy in Hong Kong is unique to the region and its relationship with China. However, the protests also feel familiar to anyone who's been watching the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. or what's happening in countries like Hungary and Brazil.  

This week, we examine what's driving Hong Kongers into the streets, the generational divides that are emerging over issues like universal suffrage and income inequality, and what Hong Kong's relationship with China might look like moving forward.

Mirya R. Holman
Tulane University

Have you ever walked into a voting booth and seen a sheriff's race on the ballot and not known who the candidates were, or even what they do once elected? You're not alone, which is why we wanted to make this episode.

Our guest is Mirya R. Holman is an associate professor of political science at Tulane University. She was drawn to researching sheriffs after growing up in rural Oregon, where sheriffs were the only type of law enforcement, and identifying a lack of research about them once she got to graduate school.

Nancy Thomas
Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

National Voter Registration Day is September 22. In a normal election year on a college campus, that would mean lots of canvassers with clipboards and pizza parties to encourage students to register. Those activities can't happen the same way this fall, but our guest this week argues that the pandemic should not detract colleges and universities from their civic mission.

Virginia Eubanks
Photo provided

The phrase "laboratories of democracy," coined by former U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, is typically used to describe experiments with new social and economic policies that occur at the state level — things like voting systems and public financing of elections. This week's episode explores a different side of that approach when state and local systems are used to disadvantage poor communities and prevent people from accessing social services.

Candis Watts Smith joins Democracy Works as a cohost this season.
Candis Watts Smith

We are excited to begin a new school year with a new cohost, Candis Watts Smith, who you may remember from an episode earlier this summer on her book Stay Woke, or from a roundtable discussion on Black politics back in February.

In this episode, Michael, Chris, and Candis discuss:

Peter K. Enns
Cornell University

We're digging into the archives this week for another episode on race and criminal justice. Peter K. Enns, associate professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University, Executive Director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, and author of "Incarceration Nation: How the U.S. Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World."

Frank Baumgartner
University of North Carolina

This week marks the beginning of our summer break here on Democracy Works. We are going to be rebroadcasting a few episodes from our back catalog — with a twist.

In fall 2018, we did two episodes on police, criminal justice, and race that are directly relevant to what's happening today. We caught up with those guests to talk about what's changed in the past two years and how they think about the research in our current moment.

Michael Berkman, Jenna Spinelle, and Chris Beem in the WPSU studios in summer 2019.
Andy Grant

Before Democracy Works takes a short summer break, hosts Michael Berkman and Chris Beem answer listener questions about democracy in our current moment. We talk about protests, masks, voting by mail, federalism and much more. Thank you to everyone who sent in questions; they were excellent!

For the next few weeks, we'll be revisiting some of the episodes in our back catalogue (with a twist) and bringing you episodes from other podcasts that we think you'll enjoy. We'll be back with new episodes before the end of August.

Lee Drutman
New America

As we bring this season of Democracy Works to a close, we're going to end in a place similar to where we began — discussing the role of political parties in American democracy. We started the season discussing the Tea Party and the Resistance with Theda Skocpol and Dana Fisher, then discussed presidential primaries with David Karol and the role of parties in Congress with Frances Lee.

This week, we are bringing you another interview that we hope will give some context to the discussions about racism and inequality that are happening in the U.S. right now.

Our guests are Tehama Lopez Bunyasi, Assistant Professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and Candis Watts Smith, associate professor of political science and African American Studies here at Penn State. She was recently named the Brown-McCourtney Early Career Professor in the McCourtney Institute for Democracy.

Clarence Lang
Penn State College of the Liberal Arts

As protests continue throughout the U.S. in the wake of George Floyd's death, we've been thinking a lot about comparisons to the Civil Rights era and whether the models for demonstrations created during that era are still relevant today. As we've discussed on the show before, public memory is a fuzzy thing and we're seeing that play out here amid discussions of how peaceful protests should be.

Stephen D. Solomon
NYU Journalism

This is another episode that we recorded in our final days together in the office before COVID-19. However, the topic is just as relevant — if not more so — in our new reality.

The topic is free speech and our guest is Stephen D. Solomon, Marjorie Deane Professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University and founding editor of First Amendment Watch. He is the author of Revolutionary Dissent: How the Founding Generation Created the Freedom of Speech.

Taylor Scott
Research-to-Policy Collaborative

These days, it can feel like some politicians are working against experts in public health and other fields when it comes to actions surrounding COVID-19. There's always been a tension between populism and expertise, but our media landscape and strong partisan polarization are pushing that tension to its breaking point — or so it seems, anyway.

Jessica Brandt
Alliance for Securing Democracy

As if the COVID-19 pandemic wasn't enough to deal with, the World Health Organization says we're now in an infodemic alongside it. We've seen this play out as misinformation and conspiracy theories move from digital to mainstream media and cast a shadow of doubt about information coming from the government and public health experts.

K. Sabeel Rahman
Demos

COVID-19 has exposed longstanding racial and economic inequalities in American life, which is evident in the fact that communities of color are being hit the hardest by both the medical and the economic impacts of the virus. Our guest this week argues that now is the time to empower those communities to have a stake in building a better future for themselves and making our democracy stronger in the process.

Pew Research Center

This episode was recorded before COVID-19 changed everything, but many of the themes we discuss about public opinion polling and the importance of trust and facts to a democracy are more relevant now than ever before.

We spoke with Michael Dimock, president of the Pew Research Center, about how the organization approaches polling in a world that increasingly presents competing partisan visions of reality. Trust in the media and government has been declining for years, if not longer, and may be exacerbated by COVID-19.

Chris Fitzsimon
States Newsroom

From Maine to California, people across the country have gathered at their state capitols over the past few weeks to protest stay at home orders issued by their governors in response to COVID-19. Protest is a hallmark of any democracy, but what happens when doing so comes with health risks? What is motivating people to take to the streets? How should media organizations cover the protests, and how do the people protesting feel about the media?

Charles Barrilleaux
Florida State University

With each passing day, the relationship between states and the federal government seems to grow more complicated. States are forming coalitions and working together to chart a path out of COVID-19, while sometimes competing with one another for resources. This situation is unique in many ways, but brings to light the complexities of American federalism — our topic of discussion this week.

John Sides
John Sides

The general election is going to happen in November, and candidates still need to figure out ways to get their messages out to voters. COVID-19 has changed everything about the way candidates communicate with potential voters and how they position themselves in relationship to the virus.

Jenny Van Hook
Penn State

The COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. intensified just as the 2020 Census was getting underway in earnest. As Americans fill their days with news about the new coronavirus, the Census Bureau is doing everything it can to spread the word about completing the Census online while grappling with how to do critical in-person follow up during a time of social distancing. As our guest this week explains, the consequences of an undercount directly impact public health in significant ways.

Nita Bharti
Penn State

As we've seen over the past weeks and months, democracies and authoritarian countries respond to pandemics very differently. There are balances to be struck — liberty and community, human rights and disease mitigation — that every country's government and culture handle a little differently. We dive into that this week with our first ever all-remote episode as we adjust to the new normal of life during COVID-19.

Vineeta Yadav
Penn State Department of Political Science

We've talked a lot on this show about the rise of authoritarian leaders around the world — from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. We sometimes tend to paint these countries with same brush, often referring to the book How Democracies Die. While the book remains of our favorites, this week's episode is a reminder that populism does not look the same everywhere.

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