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.

The Democracy Works team recording the season finale.
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 We end this season the way it began, with a roundtable discussion on the state of American democracy. In this episode, Democracy Works hosts Michael Berkman, Chris Beem and Candis Watts Smith reflect on the January 6 insurrection, the one-year anniversary of George Floyd's death, and the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre.

Ashley Nickels
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This week, we explore the questions of who governs in a democracy and what happens when the power is taken away from the people. Ashley Nickels, associate professor of political science at Kent Sate University, examines these questions through the lens of a municipal takeover in Flint, Michigan in 2011 that replaced elected city officials with an emergency manager appointed by the state. Nickels also challenges the notion that policy can be removed from politics and treating it as such has implications for democracy.

Shaylyn Romney Garrett
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From economic inequality to racial injustice and political polarization, the deck seems to be stacked against rebuilding America's social fabric. Our guest this week draws from history to offer the motivation necessary todo the hard work of democracy.

Peter Pomerantsev
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Misinformation, disinformation, propaganda — the terms are thrown around a lot but often used to describe the same general trend toward conspiratorial thinking that spread from the post-Soviet world to the West over the past two decades. Peter Pomerantsev had a front seat to this shift and is one of the people trying to figure out how to make the Internet more democratic and combat disinformation from both the supply side and the demand side. 

Amanda Hollis-Brusky
Pomona College

The Federalist Society began as a way for libertarian and conservative intellectuals to share and advance legal and policy ideas. Over the past 40 years, our guest this week argued that they've "bottled lightning" and transformed into something that's altered the very fabric of American democracy.    

Gabrielle Foreman
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For nearly 100 years, African Americans gathered in cities across the United States to participate in state and national-level political meetings that went far beyond slavery and conventional racial narratives to discuss education, labor, and what true equal citizenship would look like. This rich history went largely unnoticed for decades until P. Gabrielle Foreman and her colleagues formed the Colored Conventions Project to collect and categorize convention records and associated documents.

Srdja Popovic
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At a time when democracy is in retreat around the world, it can be difficult to find the motivation to keep movements going. Our guests this week offer a framework for effective nonviolent organizing by trapping authority figures between a rock and a hard place.

Srjda Popovic and Sophia A. McClennen have appeared on our show separately and are now joining forces to apply a research framework to dilemma actions, a nonviolent organizing tactic that works by capitalizing on a belief that's commonly held by the public but not supported by those in power. 

Derek W. Black
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The Trump administration infamously referred to public schools as "failing government schools," illustrating how education has been caught up in the broader attack on the roots of American democracy. While the language is new, Derek W. Black argues the sentiment very much is not.

Larry Krasner
Philadelphia District Attorney's Office

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner joins us to discuss the promise and peril of institutional reform and how he built a coalition of voters who are traditionally overlooked in politics. He spent his career as a civil rights attorney, not a as a prosecutor like his predecessors. He's part of a growing movement of progressive district attorneys who focus on ending mass incarceration, not solely on enforcing law and order. 

Chris Fitzsimon
States Newsroom

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, legislators in 43 states have introduced more than 250 bills aimed at restricting access to voting in person, by mail, or both. Chris Fizsimon, director and publisher of States Newsroom, returns to the show to give us a birds-eye view of what's happening on the ground in state legislatures. 

Danielle Allen
Lyceum Agency

Danielle Allen is a leader of two large-scale efforts to make democracy truly inclusive and reimagine the way we teach new generations of democratic citizens. She joins us this week to discuss both initiatives and how to build coalitions for effective change

Ethan Porter
George Washington University

If you're listening to this podcast, you probably don't fit Ethan Porter's definition of a consumer citizen, but you probably know someone who does — someone who tunes out of politics and would rather focus on just about anything else. Porter argues that appealing to consumer behavior might be on way to spark civic engagement among this group. 

James Piazza
Penn State Department of Political Science

The FBI recently reported that it's opened 2,000 domestic terrorism investigations since 2017. How the United States responds to these threats touches on some of democracy's most basic tensions. We explore those tensions this week and discuss where things might go from here.

Anne Applebaum
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Journalist, autho, and historian Anne Applebaum says that democracy is not like running water — something that we know will always be there when we turn on the tap. Her latest book "Twilight of Democracy," highlights the ways in which countries around the world are coming to terms with this fact and provides suggestions for how we can do our part to keep the water flowing.  

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
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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
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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
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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.

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