Penn State Penn State: College of the Liberal Arts

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy


Our podcast aims to rise above the daily news grind and have intellectually-engaging conversations about issues related to democracy.

Democracy Works podcast 

Winner of a People’s Choice Podcast Award and CASE Circle of Excellence Award.

If you’re looking for partisan bickering or hot takes on the news, this is not the podcast for you. We aim to rise above the daily news grind to take a broader look at issues impacting democracy — which can be just about anything.

Why the name Democracy Works? It’s about people coming together to build things that are greater than the sum of their parts. Much like workers throughout Pennsylvania’s history built ships and trains at iron and steel works, each of us has a role to play in building and sustaining a healthy democracy.

You probably hear a lot these days about how democracy is failing. We can’t promise that the view will always be rosy on this podcast, but we can promise an examination of how people are trying to make democracy work.

Visit the podcast website for more information about the show and detailed show notes for each episode.

Our latest episodes:

May 20, 2024 - 9:00 am

Democracies today are increasingly eroding at the hands of democratically-elected incumbents, who seize control by slowly chipping away at democratic institutions. Penn State political science professor Joseph Wright is and his coauthors explore this trend in their new book, The Origins of Elected Strongmen: How Personalist Parties Destroy Democracy from Within

Wright joins Michael Berkman, McCourtney Institute for Democracy director and professor of political science at Penn State, on the show this week to explore how the rise of personalist parties around the globe facilitating the decline of democracy. The book examines the role of personalist political parties, or parties that exist primarily to further their leader’s career as opposed to promote a specific policy platform.

The Origins of Elected Strongmen will be released June 11 from Oxford University Press. Wright’s co-authors are Erica Frantz, associate professor of political science at Michigan State University, and Andrea Kendall-Taylor, senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

May 6, 2024 - 9:00 am

Please join us in welcoming a special guest host for this episode! Cyanne Loyle is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Penn State and a Global Fellow at the Pease Research Institute Oslo. Her research focuses on transitional justice and democratic rebuilding after conflict, which makes her the perfect person to reflect on South Africa’s democratic transition.

One additional programming note — Chris Beem lost power during this recording so the closing segment is Cyanne and Jenna reflecting on the interview.

At the end of April, South Africa marked the 30th anniversary of its first post-Apartheid election — the first in the country where everyone could vote. South African writer and scholar Antjie Krog join us for a look at the state of South African democracy today, the impact of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and how South Africa has served as a model for other countries in democratic transition. 

Krog is a South African writer, scholar, and activist. She covered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the South African Broadcasting Corporation and wrote about the experience in the book Country of My Skull. She has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry and translated Nelson Mandela’s biography into Afrikaans. She is currently a professor at the University of the Western Cape. 


April 22, 2024 - 9:00 am

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida happened around the same time Democracy Works launched in 2018. In fact, one of the first episodes featured students who organized a march event in State College, Pennsylvania. At the time, we thought it would be fantastic to get David Hogg on the show. 

Six years later, he’s finally here to talk about what his life has been like since that fateful day in February 2018 and his work to change gun policy at the state and federal level. Hogg also discusses his new project, Leaders We Deserve, which helps young people run for elected office. 

Finally, we discuss youth voter turnout and waning enthusiasm for Donald Trump and Joe Biden among young people ahead of November’s election.

April 8, 2024 - 9:00 am

Heather McGhee made her career in pushing for economic policy changes at the think tank Demos. But she couldn’t help but feel that something was missing from her work. So she embarked on a cross-country road trip to understand what’s at the heart of what ails America’s economy and our democracy. The result is her book The Sum of Us, which she joins us to talk about in this episode. 

In the book, McGhee explores what we lose when we buy into the zero-sum paradigm—the idea that progress for some of us must come at the expense of others. She details how public goods in this country—from parks and pools to functioning schools—have become private luxuries; of how unions collapsed, wages stagnated, and inequality increased; and of how this country, unique among the world’s advanced economies, has thwarted universal healthcare. 

Finally, she offers examples of how this paradigm is changing in communities across the country when people work across differences to achieve a shared goal. 

At the beginning of the episode, we reference our conversation with Rhiana Gunn-Wright, one of the architects of the Green New Deal.

March 25, 2024 - 9:00 am

Cassidy Hutchinson, and aide to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows whose testimony captured the nation’s attention in the January 6 Congressional hearings, joins us this week to discuss her time in the Trump administration and her new role safeguarding American democracy. 

Hutchinson was faced with a choice between loyalty to the Trump administration or loyalty to the country by revealing what she saw and heard in the attempt to overthrow a democratic election. She bravely came forward to become the pivotal witness in the House January 6 investigations, as her testimony transfixed and stunned the nation. In her memoir, Hutchinson reveals the struggle between the pressures she confronted to toe the party line and the demands of the oath she swore to defend American democracy.

Hutchinson’s memoir, Enough, was published in September 2023 and is a New York Times bestseller.

March 11, 2024 - 9:00 am

If there’s one thing that people across the political spectrum can agree on, it’s a sense of discontent with the current state of American politics. This week, we explore the origins of that discontent and why it’s damaging to democracy. Our guest is Matthew Rhodes-Purdy, an assistant professor of political science at Clemson University and one of the authors of The Age of Discontent: Populism, Extremism, and Conspiracy Theories in Contemporary Democracies.

Rhodes-Purdy and his co-authors argue that the most successful populist and extremist movements of the past 20 years have focused largely on cultural grievances, rather than on economic discontent. The book outlines what they describe as  the troubling implications of discontent on the long-term compatibility of liberal democracy and free-market neoliberalism. 

Looking at case studies from around the world, the authors imply that democratic states must renew their commitment to social regulation of markets and to serve as conduits for citizen voice for  democracy and market economies are to survive.


February 26, 2024 - 10:00 am

We’ve talked about social media a lot on this show over the years — usually focusing on algorithms, echo chambers, polarization, and the other ways it’s damaging to democracy. This week, however, we hear a different take from V Spehar, who has more than 3 million followers on the TikTok account Under the Desk News

V built a reputation providing recaps of the daily news for an audience who might not consume news anywhere else. The Under the Desk News audience is politically diverse and V talks about some of the conversations that happen in the comments section. V’s also seen how social media can bring people together in real life and encourage people to become civically informed and engaged.

Check out V’s new podcast, American Fever Dream

February 12, 2024 - 10:00 am

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, one of America’s leading experts on the far right, joins us this week to discuss what draws people to political extremism online and offline — and what we can do to combat it. 

Miller-Idriss is the director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University and author of the book Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right. As you’ll hear, PERIL takes a public health approach to preventing violent extremism and provides tools and resources to help communities create resilient democracies. 

In the interview, Miller-Idriss discusses how extremism and political violence are linked to our desire for community. This dynamic means that extremist ideas can pop up in seemingly innocuous places from martial arts groups to online wellness communities. She says understanding this dynamic is key to moving people away from extremist spaces and into constructive communities.

Miller-Idriss visited Penn State as part of the Mellon-funded Sawyer Seminar exploring the theme, “Birthing the Nation: Gender, Sex and Reproduction in Ethnonationalist Imaginaries.”

January 29, 2024 - 10:00 am

As a Democracy Works listener, you probably follow politics pretty closely. And we’re going to go out on a limb and say that many of the people in your life do, too. But what about everyone else? People who casually keep up with political news or maybe tune iit out entirely. 

Scholars Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan argue that America might not be as polarized as we think because the media and political observers over-index on people who are deeply invested in politics at the expense of those who are not as engaged. They call this phenomenon “the other divide” and it’s the subject of their most recent book. Krupnikov and Barry Ryan join us on the show this week to share their research on levels of political involvement and how it translates to media coverage.

As Candis Watts Smith says at the end of the episode, we hope that this conversation will inspire some epistemic humility. 

Krupkniov is a professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan. Barry Ryan is associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan. They are the authors of The Other Divide: Polarization and Disengagement in American Politics.

January 22, 2024 - 10:00 am

Chris Beem talks with journalist Tim Alberta about the role that Evangelical Christians play in the Republican Party — and what that means for the future of American democracy.

Alberta is a staff writer at The Atlantic and author of the books The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age  of Extremism and American Carnage: On the Front  Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump. He’s also the son of an evangelical pastor. 

This conversation covers both books and how the evangelical movement and the Republican party have been corrupted. They also discuss the role that religion should play in politics, and Alberta’s answer might surprise you.