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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:

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.

January 15, 2024 - 10:00 am

The past few years haven’t been easy for election officials and their teams. They had to pivot during the pandemic and face ongoing threats that have resulted in unprecedented staff turnover. This turmoil brings more scrutiny of errors that occur when people make honest mistakes. 

Despite these challenges, Tammy Patrick, CEO for programs at the National Association of Election Officials, is confident that the tens of thousands of people charged with election administrators across the country this year will deliver free, fair, and secure  elections. She’s also optimistic about their ability to rise above threats and uphold their commitment to democracy.

Patrick has been working in the election administration space since 2003, most recently as the Senior Advisor to the Elections Program at Democracy Fund. Focusing on modern elections, she works to foster a voter-centric elections system and support election officials across the country.

In this conversation, we dive deeper into what’s in store for election workers this year and how Patrick and her team are helping them prepare to stand up against everything from misinformation campaigns to threats of physical violence.

January 1, 2024 - 10:00 am

Happy New Year! We’re starting off 2024 with a conversation about finding hope in politics. We often hear from listeners that our show brings feelings of hope, and this episode is no exception.

Rep. Derek Kilmer of Washington state joins us for a discussion on the Building Civic Bridges Act, a bipartisan bill that would provide funding for service projects aimed at bridging divides and reducing political polarization. We also discuss his work on the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which invited experts like Danielle Allen and Lee Drutman to discuss reforms including multi-member districts and increasing the size of the House of Representatives.

It’s hard to listen to Kilmer without feeling at least a little hopeful about where politics might go in the coming year. We hope this episode will help you start 2024 on a good note.

December 18, 2023 - 10:00 am

For our final episode of 2023, we revisit some of our episodes from throughout the year and reflect on what’s in store for democracy in 2024. We talk about:

  • Mental health and media consumption
  • Bureaucracy and the prospect of Project 2025
  • The Republican party and threats to democracy

Plus, we share some recommendations of the books and TV shows we loved in 2023. Recommendations include:

TV: For All Mankind, Fargo, The Gilded Age, and Slow Horses

Books: The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War by Jeff Sharlet; Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody, Why We Did It by Tim Miller

Thank you to all of our listeners for another great year. We’ll see you in 2024!

December 11, 2023 - 10:00 am

This week, we’re bringing you an episode from Making Peace Visible, a podcast that helps us understand the human side of conflicts and peace efforts around the world.

The episode explores the how democracy is faring in India after years of democratic erosion by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP.  We’ve covered democracy in India several times on the show, but it’s been while and thought this episode was well-timed for a check in.

Guest  Suchitra Vijayan questioned whether India can still be called a democracy in a recent Time Magazine article.  She talks with Making Peace Visible  host Jamil Simon about how journalists who have criticized the government have been harassed, detained, imprisoned, and even murdered. As you’ll hear in this episode, today’s Indian government uses complicit media outlets as a weapon against non-violent dissent. 

December 4, 2023 - 10:00 am

Two of our Penn State colleagues join us this week to discuss their recent findings on the connection between state-mandated civics tests and voter turnout. Jilli Jung, a doctoral student in education policy and Maithreyi Gopalan, assistant professor of education and public policy, recently published the paper “The Stubborn Unresponsiveness of Youth Voter Turnout to Civic Education: Quasi-Experimental Evidence From State-Mandated Civics Tests” in the journal Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 

In the paper, Jung and Gopalan study the Civic Education Initiative, a framework adopted by 18 states since 2015 that requires high school students to take a test very similar to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Civics test. They found that voter turnout among 18-24 year olds largely did not increase in states that adopted the Civic Education Initiative compared to states that did adopt it. The reason for this, they argue, is that the knowledge of civic facts alone is not enough to motivate someone to vote for the first time. 

In this episode, we discuss how to structure civic education that could increase voter turnout and lead to more engaged democratic citizens. For more information on this work, check out the CivXNow coalition, which is made up of hundreds of organizations across the country that are working to strengthen civic education. 

Jung and Gopalan also recommend the following books and papers to anyone who wants to take a deeper dive into the role of civic education in a democracy:

Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes into Civic Action

Refocusing Civic Education: Developing the Skills Young People Need to Engage in Democracy

I  Will Register and Vote if you Teach Me How: A Field Experiment Testing Voter Registration in College Classrooms

The Impact of Democracy Prep Public Schools on Civic Participation


November 20, 2023 - 10:00 am

Democracy is sometimes described as “a system where political parties lose elections.” That’s true but doesn’t capture the deeper feelings of grief and grievance associated with political loss. We dive into those emotions this week with Juliet Hooker, the Royce Family Professor of Teaching Excellence in Political Science at Brown University and author of Black Grief, White Grievance: The Politics of Loss.

Hooker argues that whites as a group are accustomed to winning and feel a sense of grievance when they need to give up political power. Conversely, Black people are expected to be political heroes in the face of grief that comes from setbacks on the road to racial justice.  These two forces, black grief and white grievance, have been at the heart of American politics for centuries and remain so today.

Black grief, Hooker says, is exemplified by current protests against police violence—the latest in a tradition of violent death and subsequent public mourning spurring Black political mobilization. The potent politics of white grievance, meanwhile, which is also not new, imagines the United States as a white country under siege.

This is a very thought-provoking book and conversation about some of the most important issues in American democracy. 

Black Grief, White Grievance: The Politics of Loss