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.

Sinan Aral
MIT

Sinan Aral has spent two decades studying how social media impacts our lives, from how we think about politics to how we find a romantic partner. He argues that we're now at the crossroads of a decade of techno-utopianism followed by a decade of techno-dystopianism. How to reconcile the promise and peril of social media is one of the biggest questions facing democracy today.

Kidada Williams
Virginia Public Media

We commemorate Black History Month and celebrate a new podcast from Virginia Public Media that talks about Reconstruction from the perspective of African Americans who fought for freedom and the right to be citizens of American democracy.

Michael Kimmage
German Marshall Fund

Alexei Navalny has been a figure in Russian opposition for years, but garnered international attention recently though social media and what's widely believed to be an assassination attempt by the Russian government in the fall. This week, we unpack the complicated nature of Russian democracy and how the U.S. and other countries should respond — or not —  to what's happening there now.

Joshua Dyck and Ted Lascher
Photos provided

From gerrymandering to ranked-choice voting to expanding voting rights, the ballot initiative has been essential to expanding and reforming democracy in recent years. However, the initiative has also been used to constrain minority rights and push the public to act on polarizing issues like the death penalty and immigration.

David Daley
Photo provided

Despite ongoing threats of violence, the wheels of democracy continue to turn, and in 2021, that means redistricting. States will draw new electoral maps this year using data from the 2020 Census. 

Our guest this week has spent the past decade covering attempts by politicians to draw those maps to their advantage in a practice known as gerrymandering. He's also covered the groups of citizens across the country who pushed back against them to win some major reforms that will make the process look different now than it did in 2010.

This episode was recorded on Friday, January 8, 2021.

Democracy Works hosts Michael Berkman, Chris Beem, and Candis Watts Smith reflect on the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and what it says about the condition of American democracy.

They also discuss whether it's possible to learn from this moment and what guideposts they'll be looking for to determine whether all the talk about protecting and restoring democracy we've heard since the attack will translate into action.   

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this episode are soley those of the Democracy Works hosts.

This episode was recorded on December 15, 2020, the day after the Electoral College voted to confirm Joe Biden as the next United States President. However, some Republicans refuse to accept the result and vow to continue fighting the result until Inauguration Day. Michael Berkman, Chris Beem, and Candis Watts Smith discuss what these challenges mean for the long-term health and legitimacy of American elections and American democracy.

At a time when the United States seems more polarized than ever, marijuana legalization might be one of the few issues that can receive bipartisan support, passing in red and blue states alike through direct democracy initiatives. Our guests this week explain what's happening and where things might go moving forward.

John Hibbing
University of Nebraska

Many, many articles, books, documentaries — and even podcasts — have been produced over the past four years to try and explain who Donald Trump's base is and what motivates people to vote for and otherwise support him. Our guest this week offers answers to these questions that are grounded in social science and political psychology.

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.

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