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We are partisans for democracy

What does that mean? 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.

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Democracy Works Podcast
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.

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.

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. 

2018: The year in democracy

2018: The year in democracy

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.

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.

Behind the scenes of the "Year of the Woman"

Behind the scenes of the "Year of the Woman"

One of the biggest headlines to emerge heading into the 2018 midterms is the record number of women running for office. Rebecca Kreitzer, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill studies the more than 400 groups that exist to help elect women into office.

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.

A democracy summer reading list

A democracy summer reading list

If you’ve been to a book store or the library lately, then you’ve probably seen at least a few books on democracy on the shelves. The 2016 presidential election spurred a lot of conversation about the current state of our democracy and where things go from here. 

How will we remember Charlottesville?

How will we remember Charlottesville?

Joining us to unpack the public memory around Charlottesville is Brad Vivian. He is the director of the McCourtney Institute’s Center for Democratic Deliberation and a professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State. Brad studies public memory, particularly around Confederate iconography. He also grew up in the Charlottesville area and recounts some of his experiences there during the interview.

Ep. 18: The Constitutional Crisis Episode

Ep. 18: The Constitutional Crisis Episode

This is one we’ve been wanting to do since we started the podcast. The term constitutional crisis is frequently used but often misunderstood. Like democracy, it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it.

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