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.

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.

This episode of Democracy Works originally aired in May 2018.

The next census is still a few years away in 2020, but the U.S. Census Bureau is already hard at work on preparing to count the more than 325 million people in the United States. The census is one of the few democratic norms that's required by the Constitution, and the data collected has wide-ranging uses.

It seems like every few weeks, we see headlines about states banding together to block actions taken by the federal government. You might even remember former Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott quipping that he goes to the office, sues the federal government, then goes home.

How do those lawsuits take shape? How does a state decide whether to join or not? How does that impact the balance of power between federal and state governments? This week's guest is uniquely qualified to answer all of those questions.

As a piece in The Atlantic recently noted, democracy is not natural. Becoming a democratic citizen involves a set of behaviors that need to be learned and practiced over time. One of the first places for that conditioning to happen is in the classroom. Beyond reading, writing, and STEM skills, students have an opportunity to engage in dialogue and debate facilitated by their teachers and learn what it means to be part of a democracy.

McCourtney Institute / McCourtney Institute

From gerrymandering to record voter turnout, it's been a busy year for democracy. This doesn't mean that everything has been positive, but there's certainly plenty to reflect on. This week, Michael Berkman and Chris Beem take a look a look back at some of the biggest democracy-related stories of the year and look at what's in store for next year.

In the United States, voting is a very private act. You step into the booth alone and, for a lot of people, it's considered taboo to tell someone who you voted for. Campaign donations, however, are a different story. 

The Federal Election Commission, an independent regulatory agency established after Watergate, collects donor information from candidates, makes it available to the public, and enforces federal campaign finance laws. Anyone can go online and look up records to see who gave money to a particular candidate — to a point, anyway. 

Norman Eisen

There are a lot of books about democracy filling book store and library shelves right now. Norman Eisen could have written one of those books, but chose to go in a different direction.

It's not the Powerball or the Mega Millions, but this democracy lottery does give people the chance to directly impact information that appears on the ballot in their state. Like a lot of things we talk about on this show, the Citizens Initiative Review (CIR) is not easy, but as you'll hear from this week's guests, is work worth doing.

This episode is being released on Veterans Day, a time when people across the United States remember and thank those who have served in the military. While the military remains one of the most respected institutions in the U.S., it's also one of the most misunderstood.

With the midterms this week, all eyes are on the threat of election hacking and foreign interference. Electoral integrity is important, but as you'll hear in this week's Democracy Works episode, the threats to American democracy go much deeper than that — to the very basis of the information we consume and the ways we communicate with each other. Laura Rosenberger has been one of the most important voices in the efforts to combat this interference and ensure that democracy becomes stronger and more resilient. 

From cooking to shopping to getting around town, disruption is the name of the game for Millennials. Will they do the same thing to democracy?

Millennials, or those born between 1981 and 1996, are now largest generational group in the United States. There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether these 20 and 30-somethings will vote in the 2018 midterms. This episode touches on that, but also explores some of the reasons why Millennials feel disengaged from voting and other traditional forms of political engagement.