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What does it mean to be a partisan for democracy? We don't take sides on the political spectrum, but we do defend the rights everyone has as a democratic citizen — from voting to protesting to consuming information from a free press that serves as a check on political leaders.

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy draws from the humanities and social sciences to examine democracy from multiple angles. This cross-discipline collaboration is evident in our research, education, and outreach efforts.

We educate the next generation of democratic citizens through our Nevins Fellows program, monitor attitudes toward democracy with the Mood of the Nation poll, and host speakers and events that bring people from diverse backgrounds and points of view together to discuss the role of democracy in our society.

We make all of this happen in partnership with our centers of excellence, the Center for American Political Responsiveness and the Center for Democratic Deliberation, and many other organizations throughout the College of the Liberal Arts and the broader Penn State community. 

Democracy Works Podcast
Hong Kong's fight is everyone's fight

Hong Kong's fight is everyone's fight

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.

Our guest is On-cho Ng, head of the Asian Studies Program at Penn State and Professor of History, Asian Studies, and Philosophy. He is a native Hong Konger and received both his undergraduate and master's degrees from the University of Hong Kong. 

Students learn, students vote

Students learn, students vote

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 missions.

Nancy Thomas is director of the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education, an applied research center at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. Over the past decade, the IDHE has worked to understand how college students vote and make recommendations to university leaders about both short-term voting challenges and long-term obligations to creating democratic citizens. This conversations covers both of those areas, as well as what role faculty can play in fostering democracy and civic engagement in their courses.

A new season and a new cohost

A new season and a new cohost

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 the conventions, the Census, and how they're thinking about elections up and down the ballot this fall.

After 100 years, there's still no "woman voter"

After 100 years, there's still no "woman voter"

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, this episode traces the history of women's voting behavior and why women voters have never been a monolith — despite efforts to portray them that way. Our guest is Christina Wolbrecht, director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at Notre Dame and coauthor of A Century of Votes for Women: American Elections Since Suffrage.

Reason in politics and hope for democracy

Reason in politics and hope for democracy

John Gastil and Katherine Knobloch, authors of "Hope for Democracy: How Citizens Can Bring Reason Back Into Politics" join Democracy Works host Jenna Spinelle for a discussion of deliberative democracy, ballot initiatives and the Citizens Initiative Review.

The people who choose the President

The people who choose the President

Lawrence Lessig and Meredith McGehee, whose organizations were on opposing sides of the "faithless electors" cases in the Supreme Court, come together for a discussion on the court's decision and how to make the Electoral College more democratic. This episode is a special presentation from The Democracy Group podcast network.

The clumsy journey to antiracism

The clumsy journey to antiracism

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.

We’re  joined by Tehama Lopez Bunyasi, assistant professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and Candis Watts Smith, associate professor African American Studies and political science at Penn State. She was recently named the Brown-McCourtney Early Career Professor in the McCourtney Institute for Democracy.

Bunyasi and Smith are coauthors of a book called Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making all Black Lives Matter, which looks at the history of structural racism in the U.S. and gives people information and tools to become antiracists.

We talk about the clumsiness associated with changing patterns of thinking and behavior and how that’s playing out across our online and offline lives and among both individuals and companies. We also discuss the inherent messiness of the Black Lives Matter movement and why that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

How to end democracy's doom loop

How to end democracy's doom loop

This episode invites all of us to imagine how we can break out of the status quo and create something very different. Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America. He is the author of Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America and The Business of America is Lobbying, and winner of the 2016 American Political Science Association’s Robert A. Dahl Award, given for “scholarship of the highest quality on the subject of democracy.” He has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley.

Civil rights, civil unrest

Civil rights, civil unrest

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.

Our guest this week is uniquely suited to speak to questions of civil rights and civil unrest. Clarence Lang is the Susan Welch Dean of Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts and professor of African American Studies. He is a scholar in African American urban history and social movements in the Midwest and Border South. He is the author of Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75, and Black America in the Shadow of the Sixties: Notes on the Civil Rights Movement, Neoliberalism, and Politics.

In addition to his scholarly work, Lang also has a personal connection to what’s happening right now. He grew up on Chicago’s South Side and a family member who was a police officer. He’s a humanist at heart who believes that our country can pull together and overcome these trying times.

Doing the hard work of democracy in Baltimore

Doing the hard work of democracy in Baltimore

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.

A roadmap to a more equitable democracy

A roadmap to a more equitable democracy

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.

Our guest this week is K. Sabeel Rahman, president of Demos and co-author of the new book Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Crisis. He is also an associate professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, where he teaches constitutional law, administrative law, and courses on law and inequality. His last book, Democracy Against Domination, won the Dahl Prize for scholarship on the subject of democracy.

Rahman argues that the old ways of thinking about and participating aren’t working for under-represented groups. His book lays out a framework for how to make democracy reform more inclusive and how to balance liberalism and democracy by making institutions more representative of the communities they serve. The book was written before the pandemic hit, but feels even more relevant today.

China's role in the COVID-19 infodemic

China's role in the COVID-19 infodemic

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.

Our guests this week have been tracking China's role in this infodemic and argue that Beijing is taking a few pages out of Russia's playbook for interfering in the 2016 U.S. election and its broader efforts to undermine democracy around the world. Jessica Brandt and Bret Schafer are part of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which tracks online information manipulation through its Hamilton 2.0 dashboard.

Give me liberty or give me COVID-19?

Give me liberty or give me COVID-19?

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?

Joining us this week to explore some of those questions is Chris Fitzsimon, director and publisher of States Newsroom, a collective of nonprofit news sites that cover state politics in many of the places where the "reopen" protests have occurred. Fitzsimon talks about what his organization's reporters have observed on the ground and the challenges that states face in deciding when to lift stay at home orders and restart economic activity.

We also discuss how this movement came together and whether it might have staying power beyond the immediate concerns related to COVID-19.

Federalism in uncertain times

Federalism in uncertain times

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. A lack of clear guidance from the federal government will likely lead to a fragmented return to business and social life state by state in the coming weeks and months.

This situation is unique in many ways, but brings to light the complexities of American federalism — our topic of discussion this week. Charles Barrilleaux, Leroy Collins Professor and Political Science Department Chair at Florida State University, is an expert on American federalism and joins us to discuss the relationship between states and the federal government, and how that manifests itself during the response to COVID-19.

The episode begins with Michael and Chris explaining the history of federalism and what powers the Constitution gives states and the federal government

Will COVID-19 create a one-issue campaign?

Will COVID-19 create a one-issue campaign?

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. This episode addresses the nuts and bolts of campaigning during a pandemic, but we also discuss a broader question — should we even be talking about politics at a time like this? Our guest this week makes an interesting case about why the answer is always "yes." John Sides is a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and publisher of the Monkey Cage, a political science blog published by the Washington Post. Sides talks about the novel coronavirus has impacted campaigns up and down the ballot, and why it's valuable to consider it as a political problem apart from a public health issue. Note: You'll hear a reference to Bernie Sanders during the interview. We recorded on April 6, before Sanders announced he was dropping out of the race.

Public health depends on the Census

Public health depends on the Census

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.

Jenny Van Hook is the Roy C. Buck Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State and a former member of the Census Advisory Board. She was an expert witness in the legal fight over the efforts to add a citizenship question to this year’s Census and has written about the Census in The Conversation and other outlets.

COVID-19 exposes democracy's tensions

COVID-19 exposes democracy's tensions

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.

Our guest is Nita Bharti, assistant professor of biology at Penn State and faculty member in the university’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics. Nita’s research focuses on the interactions between social and biological processes as underlying determinants of human health — making her the perfect person for us to talk to about the response to COVID-19.

There are no silver bullets when it comes to outbreak mitigation, but there are lessons we can take from other outbreaks about how information affects behavior and how the government can help or hinder that process. As Nita says, we’re likely only beginning to see what the new normal looks like in the U.S.

Populism is not a monolith

Populism is not a monolith

We know that there are a lot of episodes about COVID-19 out there right now. We’re working on one of our own that we hope to bring to you soon, but in the meantime, consider something different to focus on while you practice social distancing this week.

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.

We welcome back Penn State’s Vineeta Yadav to look at some of the forces that are pushing back against populism around the world, and how those efforts look different in each place. She joined us last fall to discuss the rise of Narendra Modi in India. We reusume that conversation in this episode, but also touch on what’s happening in Turkey and Brazil.

Michael and Chris also give an important overview of the difference between liberalism and democracy — and how the two work together to form the system of government practiced in many countries around the world today.

The promise and peril of early voting

The promise and peril of early voting

Super Tuesday is this week, but voters in many states have already cast their ballots for races happening this week and throughout the rest of the primary season. From Florida to Pennsylvania, states are expanding access to early and absentee voting to give people more options to make their voices heard in our democracy.

Sounds great, right? However, early voting is not without its problems for candidates, election officials, and even voters. Daniel Smith, one of the country’s leading elections experts, joins us this week for a look at the pros and cons of early voting, and how it might improve voter turnout among young people specifically.

Breaking down black politics

Breaking down black politics

As the South Carolina primary approaches, all eyes are on the African American vote. This week, Michael Berkman is taking over the interviewer’s chair for a roundtable discussion on black politics with Ray Block and Candis Watts Smith, who are associate professors of African American studies and political science at Penn State.

Does Congress promote partisan gridlock?

Does Congress promote partisan gridlock?

Some of the most talked-about issues in Congress these days are not about the substance of policies or bills being debated on the floor. Instead, the focus is on the partisan conflict between the parties and the endless debate about whether individual members of Congress will break with party ranks on any particular vote. This behavior allows the parties to emphasize the differences between them, which makes it easier to court donors and hold voter attention.

Some amount of competition between the parties is necessary in a healthy democracy, but have things gone too far? Frances E. Lee joins us this week to explain.

Lee is jointly appointed in the Department of Politics and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, where she is Professor of Politics and Public Affairs. She is the author of Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign and the forthcoming The Limits of Party: Congress and Lawmaking in a Polarized Era with James M. Curry.

Primaries, parties, and the public

Primaries, parties, and the public

The 2020 primary season officially begins this week with the Iowa caucuses, followed by the New Hampshire primary on February 11 and Nevada and South Carolina later this month.

It’s easy to forget that the primaries have not looked like they do now. In fact, it was not until 1968 that things really began to morph into the system of state-by-state contests that we know today. Before that, nominees were largely chosen by party leaders in preverbal smoke-filled back rooms.

While the parties once ruled the primary process, they seem to have lost some of that control, particularly in recent years. Donald Trump, a candidate the Republican Party opposed for much of his candidacy, received the nomination in 2016. Bernie Sanders one of the top candidates in this year’s Democratic candidate field, even though he is officially an independent. What does this change mean for democracy? We explore that question this week.

David Karol is an associate professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. He is an expert on primaries and the role that the political parties play in them and join us this week to help make sense of how we got here and where things might go moving forward.

How the Tea Party and the Resistance are upending politics

How the Tea Party and the Resistance are upending politics

Since 2008, the Tea Party and the Resistance have caused some major shake-ups for the Republican and Democratic parties. The changes fall outside the scope of traditional party politics, and outside the realm of traditional social science research. To better understand what’s going on Theda Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Strategy at Harvard and Director of the Scholars Strategy Network, convened a group of researchers to study the people and organizations and at the heart of these grassroots movements.

Skocpol joins us this week to discuss their findings and the new book Upending American Politics: Polarizing Parties, Ideological Elites, and Citizen Activists from the Tea Party to the Anti-Trump Resistance. Her work in particular focuses on the Tea Party and includes interviews with Tea Party members across the country. We also discuss the Resistance and whether these oppositional forces to the party in power are likely to continue after November’s election.

A 2020 preview

A 2020 preview

This week, we begin a new year and a new season with a look ahead what 2020 will mean for democracy in the United States and around the world. We know that there will be a Census and an election, but will they be carried out in a democratic way? The escalating conflict with Iran is another unknown, but one that will no doubt have ramifications for democracy in the U.S. and abroad.

We also look at how political polarization has changed since 2016 and the implications of that change on just about every aspect of our lives. From impeachment to Iran, we see that Americans are more divided than ever. It's unclear what that will mean as tensions with Iran escalate.

Is it possible to overdo democracy?

Is it possible to overdo democracy?

Robert Talisse is the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and author of a new book called Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in Its Place. The book combines philosophical analysis with real-world examples to examine the infiltration of politics into all social spaces, and the phenomenon of political polarization.

In the middle of an impeachment inquiry and with a presidential election looming on the horizon, this might seem like precisely the wrong time to try to balance your political engagement with other things. But Talisse argues developing that sense of “civic friendship” through a sports league, book club, cooking class, or just about any other type of activity that’s not political, can help you see past the partisan identity that’s so prevalent these days.

Chris Beem on democratic humility and virtues

Chris Beem on democratic humility and virtues

Earlier this fall, our own Chris Beem traveled to Notre Dame to appear on With a Side of Knowledge, a podcast produced by the university’s Office of the Provost. The show is recorded over brunch, and this happened to the last meal served at campus institution Sorin’s.

Bacon and eggs aside, Chris talks with host Ted Fox about his most recent book, Democratic Humility: Reinhold Niebuhr, Neuroscience, and America’s Political Crisis, and his current work on democratic virtues. They discuss why democracy runs counter to the way we’re wired, and why it’s so difficult to sustain.

Next-generation democracy

Next-generation democracy

Joining us this week is Kyle Hynes, a junior at State College Area High School and a true advocate for democracy. He is the statewide champion in the youth division of the Draw the Lines PA mapping competition and winner of the Future Leader in Social Studies from the Pennsylvania Council for the Social Studies.

Kyle is an expert on the ins and outs of gerrymandering, but he also has interesting perspectives impeachment, political engagement among his peers, and the generational divide in American politics.

The democracy rebellion happening in states across the U.S.

The democracy rebellion happening in states across the U.S.

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.

Smith joins us this week to talk about what he learned from these organizers while filming his latest project, a documentary called The Democracy Rebellion: A Reporter’s Notebook with Hedrick Smith that will air on PBS this January. He says that the grassroots are not nearly as polarized as politicians and political insiders, as evidenced by the fact that many of these pro-democracy ballot initiatives passed with large bipartisan majorities.

A roundtable on impeachment, institutions, and legitimacy

A roundtable on impeachment, institutions, and legitimacy

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.

They discuss impeachment from the standpoint of political institutions and the legitimacy of our democracy. Regardless of what happens with the current impeachment inquiry, some of our government’s norms and institutions may be irreversibly damaged, while others may develop in response to the Trump administration.

Your guide to ranked-choice voting

Your guide to ranked-choice voting

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? Burt Monroe, Liberal Arts Professor of Political Science, Social Data Analytics, and Informatics at Penn State, joins us this week to explain.

Latino immigrants and the changing makeup of American democracy

Latino immigrants and the changing makeup of American democracy

A.K. Sandoval-Strauss is director of the Latina/o Studies program at Penn State and author of the new book Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City.

In the book, and in this conversation, he argues that immigrants moved into cities like Dallas and Chicago and revitalized downtowns that were beginning to hollow out because of white flight and discriminatory practices designed to keep African-Americans out. The same thing, he says, is happening again as Latino immigrants move into smaller cities and towns from Hazleton, Pennsylvania to Sioux City, Iowa — bringing economic and cultural vitality to places industry left behind.

Inside the world's largest democracy

Inside the world's largest democracy

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.

But, as our guest this week argues, what’s happening in India is not exactly the same as what we see in places like Hungary and Brazil — or even the United States. Vineeta Yadav is an associate professor of political science at Penn State and studies politics and democracy in India.

Vineeta visited India over the summer and talks about what she saw when Modi and the BJP eliminated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted special status to the Muslim-majority state. She also discusses India’s strong civil society and how it’s pushing back against the BJP’s illiberal tendencies

Changing the climate conversation

Changing the climate conversation

Climate change is perhaps the most pressing issue 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.

Andrew Sullivan on democracy's double-edged sword

Andrew Sullivan on democracy's double-edged sword

This is one of the most pessimistic episodes we’ve done, but it’s worth hearing. Andrew Sullivan, New York magazine contributing editor, Daily Dish founder, 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.

Understanding impeachment

Understanding impeachment

McCourtney Institute Director Michael Berkman and Michael Nelson, the Jeffrey L. Hyde and Sharon D. Hyde and Political Science Board of Visitors Early Career Professor in Political Science, discuss the constitutional framework for impeachment and what the Framers had in mind when they set it up. They also discuss how impeachment is a unique cooperation between the three branches of government, where the inquiry launched last week against President Trump is likely to go, and what it all means for our democracy.

Street-level bureaucrats at the border

Street-level bureaucrats at the border

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar and Founding Director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Penn State Law in University Park, is an expert in immigration law and joins us this week to discuss how discretion, checks and balances, and the rule of law figure into immigration enforcement — particularly in the Trump administration. Her new book, Banned: Immigration Enforcement in the Time of Trump, includes interviews with former immigration officials and people impacted by the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

China's threat to democracy

China's threat to democracy

Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies  joins us this week to talk about the threat China’s model of authoritarian capitalism poses to liberal democracy in the United States and around the world. Economics drives politics, and it’s easy to admire China’s growth while looking past things like increasing surveillance and lack of respect for norms and the rule of law. 

Pennsylvania's fight for fair maps

Pennsylvania's fight for fair maps

Pennsylvania is one of several states trying 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.

The Keystone State received a new congressional map in 2018 following a decision from the state Supreme Court. However, that was a temporary fix designed to counter partisan gerrymandering that occurred after the 2010 Census. Since then, several groups have been working to implement a more permanent change for the next map drawing in 2021.

One of those groups is a bipartisan Redistricting Reform Commission chartered by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. Penn State’s Lee Ann Banaszak, a professor of political science, was part of that commission and joins us this week to talk about how they tackled the question of fairness, and what they learned at public hearings throughout the state earlier this year.

How conspiracies are damaging democracy

How conspiracies are damaging democracy

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.

Political scientists Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum call it “conspiracy without the theory” and unpack the concept in their book A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. Russell is the Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics at Dartmouth. Nancy is the Senator Joseph Clark Research Professor of Ethics in Politics at Harvard.

Defending the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate

Defending the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate

The First Amendment and a strong Fourth Estate are essential to a healthy democracy. David McCraw, deputy general counsel of the New York Times, joins us this week to discuss how he helps journalists 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.

Immigration, refugees, and the politics of displacement

Immigration, refugees, and the politics of displacement

From Brexit to Hungary to the U.S. border wall, many of today’s political conflicts center around 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.

Jan Egeland doesn’t have all the answers to these issues, but he’s committed to figuring them out. He is the Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council and Special Adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Syria. Despite the challenges that immigration poses, he remains optimistic about the progress the world has made and the power of democratic governments to find solutions.

Congressional oversight and making America pragmatic again

Congressional oversight and making America pragmatic again

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.

Dent is a lifelong Republican, but one that does not fit in with the direction the party’s taken under Donald Trump. We talk with him about why so few Republicans are willing to speak out against the Preisdent, and what the party’s post-Trump future might look like. He also talks about the difference between separation of parties and separation of powers — and where he thinks we are right now.

Will AI destroy democracy?

Will AI destroy democracy?

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 an interesting perspective on the relationship between automation and democracy, and the role that algorithms and platforms play in the spread of misinformation online.

Democracy in America, 2019 edition

Democracy in America, 2019 edition

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. The Democracy Project, an initiative of the George W. Bush Center, Penn Biden Center, and Freedom House, found that people support the ideal of democracy, but worry that the United States is not living up to that ideal in practice due to factors like economic inequality and the decline of civics education.

Lindsay Lloyd, director Bush Center's Human Freedom Initiative and part of The Democracy Project, joins us this week to discuss the report and what its findings mean for citizens across the United States.

What does the Mueller report mean for democracy?

What does the Mueller report mean for democracy?

By now, you’ve no doubt head all about the report issued by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the drama in Washington that’s ensued in the time since its release. 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. Laura joins us this week to discuss what she learned from the report, and where the efforts to combat Russian interference stand.

School segregation then and now

School segregation then and now

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. To help us understand the history of integration and the Brown decision's impacts on public policy, we're talking this week with two experts at Penn State, Crystal Sanders and Erica Frankenberg.

What Serial taught Sarah Koenig about criminal justice

What Serial taught Sarah Koenig about criminal justice

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.

It’s once thing to study criminal justice empirically, as many academics do, but something else entirely to be embedded within the system as Koenig and her team were in Cleveland.

We invited Koenig to Penn State for an on-stage conversation with Democracy Works host and McCourtney Institute for Democracy Director Michael Berkman. They discuss community policing, the lack of data about what works and what doesn’t, and where college students should focus their energy if they’re looking to reform the criminal justice system.

E.J. Dionne on empathy and democracy

E.J. Dionne on empathy and democracy

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.

We talked with him about the relationship between partisan politics and democracy, the need for empathy across the political spectrum, and a few policy ideas to help make America more democratic. We could have talked all day and hope to return to some of these topics in future episodes

The ongoing struggle for civil rights

The ongoing struggle for civil rights

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. Joyce delivered the Africana Research Center's annual Barbara Jordan lecture.

A playbook for organizing in turbulent times

A playbook for organizing in turbulent times

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. He joins us this week to discuss why Otpor! was successful and anyone can use the same principles of what we describes as “laughtivism” to fight for change. 

Brexit and the UK's identity crisis

Brexit and the UK's identity crisis

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.

Jonathan Haidt on the psychology of democracy

Jonathan Haidt on the psychology of democracy

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 also explore what we can do now to educate the next generation of democratic citizens, based on the research Jonathan and co-author Greg Lukianoff did for their latest book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

Jonathan is social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. His research examines the intuitive foundations of morality, and how morality varies across cultures––including the cultures of American progressive, conservatives, and libertarians.

One last thing: This week marks the first anniversary of Democracy Works! We are thrilled that the show has caught on with listeners around the world and are excited to bring you even more great episodes in year two. If you’d like to give the show a birthday present, consider sharing it with a friend or leaving a rating or review in your podcast app.

Brazil's tenuous relationship with democracy

Brazil's tenuous relationship with democracy

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.

Gianpaolo Baiocchi is a professor of individualized studies and sociology at NYU, where he also directs the Urban Democracy Lab. He’s from Brazil and has written extensively about the country’s politics and social movements. He joins us this week to talk about Bolsonaro’s appeal, the use of misinformation on WhatsApp during the election, and why Bolsonaro is often called the “Trump of the tropics.” We also discuss Brazil’s history of activism under authoritarian governments and whether we’ll see it return now.

Viktor Orbán’s “velvet repression” in Hungary

Viktor Orbán’s “velvet repression” in Hungary

This episode begins a four-part 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.

We could not have found a better guest to help us make sense of what’s happening there. John Shattuck is the former President and Rector of Central European University, which Hungary’s Prime Minister recently forced out of the country. He is currently Professor of Practice in Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Yellow vests and the “grand debate” in France

Yellow vests and the “grand debate” in France

This episode is the second in our series looking at democracy around the world. France is the focus this week. Our guest is Cole Stangler, an independent journalist based in Paris who covers French politics.

The yellow vest movement, named for the safety vests that all drivers are required to carry in their cars, began in late 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.

Cole has been on the ground covering the movement and joins to discuss its origins, the reaction from President Emmanuel Macron, and where things might go from here

Using the tools of democracy to address inequality

Using the tools of democracy to address inequality

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.

Chris Witko, associate director of Penn State’s School of Public Policy and author of The New Economic Populism: How States Respond to Economic Inequality, argues that states can step in to address economic inequality while the federal government is embattled in political polarization.

Witko argues that democracy and capitalism will never fully be reconciled, but lessening economic inequality will go a long way toward strengthening democracy.

The power of local government

The power of local government

Peter Buckland is the Chair of the Board of Supervisors in Ferguson Township, Pennsylvania. You’ll hear him describe the area and the structure in the interview, but really Ferguson Township could be just about any municipality in America. He outlines three ways that citizens and local government can work together to create more informed and more vibrant democracy at the local level.

What is democracy? A conversation with Astra Taylor

What is democracy? A conversation with Astra Taylor

We begin our third season with a fundamental question: What is democracy? Astra Taylor grapples with this question in a documentary of the same name and a forthcoming book. We talk with her this week about what she learned from traveling the world 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.

It's good to be counted

It's good to be counted

This week's episode is all about the U.S. Census. Jennifer Van Hook, Roy C. Buck Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State, served on the Census Advisory Board from 2007 to 2011 and is an expert on how census data is collected, how it’s evaluated, and how it’s used. 

Are land-grant universities still "democracy's colleges?"

Are land-grant universities still "democracy's colleges?"

Land-grant universities were once known as “democracy’s colleges,” places where people who were not wealthy elites could earn the education necessary to make better lives for themselves and contribute to the greater social good in the process. We invited Nick Jones, Penn State's Executive Vice President and Provost, to join us this week for a conversations about the tension between staying true to the land-grant mission and ensuring that the university remains financially stable as funding from the state remains flat or declines.

Winning the "democracy lottery"

Winning the "democracy lottery"

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 Robin Teater and John Gastil, is work worth doing.

Gen. Wesley Clark on the military and democracy

Gen. Wesley Clark on the military and democracy

We observe Veterans Day this week, 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.

Protecting democracy from foreign interference

Protecting democracy from foreign interference

Laura Rosenberger has been one of the most important voices in the efforts to combat this interference and ensure that democracy becomes even stronger and more resilient. This conversation with McCourtney Institute for Democracy Director Michael Berkman was recorded live at the National Press Club.

David Frum on the habits of democracy

David Frum on the habits of democracy

Democracy, no matter where it’s happening in the world, is most successful when people come together to build something greater than the sum of its parts.

When states sue the federal government

When states sue the federal government

Since taking office in January 2017, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has been involved with more than a dozen suits brought against the federal government on matters ranging from family separation at the border to EPA emissions regulations. He presents an interesting take on the role that states play as a check on the federal government. This power is a unique part of the American experiment and speaks to the power of democracy in the states.

Citizenship, patriotism, and democracy in the classroom

Citizenship, patriotism, and democracy in the classroom

This episode features a conversation with Mark Kissling, assistant professor of social studies education at Penn State. His work focuses on citizenship education, or the practice of preparing civic-minded individuals. Mark helps future teachers tackle controversial subjects in the classroom.

Facebook is not a democracy

Facebook is not a democracy

If you’ve followed any of the recent news about Facebook, you’ve probably heard the company make claims about giving its community a voice and other things that sound very democratic. However, as Matt Jordan explains in this episode, that is not the case at all.

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