E.J. Dionne on empathy and democracy



E.J. Dionne

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.

Additional Information

E.J.’s Washington Post columns

E.J.’s lecture at Penn State 

E.J.’s paper on universal voting for Brookings

Chris Beem’s TED talk on how young people can improve democracy

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you agree with E.J.’s notion that a partisan response was required to protect democracy?
  • Have you noticed a difference in political argumentation over the past few years? Is it more difficult to have arguments now than it was a few years ago?
  • What do you see as the relationship between civil society and democracy? How could one help the other?
  • What do you make of the National Fair Vote Interstate Compact and universal voting?

Interview Highlights

[3:52] In One Nation After Trump, you wrote that a partisan response was required to protect democratic values. What did you mean by that?

Trump had done something to our politics that was very dangerous and needed to be reversed, and given that the Republican Party had chosen almost to a person (with a couple of exceptions in Congress) to support Trump, the only way to hit back, to create any sense of accountability, was to give at least one house of Congress to Democrats. There a lot of people out there who aren’t necessarily partisan Democrats, who aren’t necessarily liberals or lefties, who believe that there are abuses here that need to be checked, and that there is a threat to democracy that needs to be reversed, and that’s exactly what happened after the 2018 midterms.

[5:19] Should that approach continue heading into 2020?

My view is that the Republican party has moved to a point where it needs a real rebuke in order to look inside itself and analyze where they want to continue to be.

[6:54] ]What happens to the people who are conservative but don’t may be aligned with where the Republican party is currently?

I think there are still a lot of conservatives who made a deal that they think is still worth making on behalf of low taxes deregulation and Supreme Court appointments. There is a pattern in which some districts that 30 or 40 years ago would happily have sent a moderate Republican to the house are now sending Democrats.

[11:00] You’ve also called for making America empathetic again. Have you seen any indication that it’s happening?

Yes, I have seen it in the reactions of the people when the Muslin ban. The number of people who rush to the airports over the Muslim ban and people who may not have met a Muslim in their life and said “wait a minute, this isn’t who we are.” There is also the reaction of the people to the kids being taken away from their parents at the border. I think we’ve taken some steps forward, but we still have a lot of work to do.

[12:51] What can people do to develop a sense of empathy?

Chris Beem gave a TED talk in which he said we need people to do three things. First, people need to tell the truth. Second, they need to engage in democratic humility, and third, people need to join an organization. I think one of the terrible things about the Trump age is that the division is so deep that friends who disagree about politics don’t even talk about politics anymore because they’re afraid of busting the friendship, and that’s a problem.

[14:54] Why do you think it’s so hard for people to have constructive arguments?

I think some of it is that our allegiances are all aligned together in a package. So people’s political commitment and people’s party commitments are aligned with their ideological commitments or often aligned with their religious commitments that includes people who are religious or secular combined with where they live. The “big sort” argument and many things combined in one party has come to stand for it.

[16:00] How we can make civil society work given the world we live in today?

I think we people need ways in which they can get together face-to-face and do things together. Sports teams are part of that, by the way. There is enormous life in civil society when where kids sports are concerned about it. What I want to tell to my conservative friends is: I’m with you, I want a stronger cvil society, but you have to acknowledge the cost of inequality and the cost of economic collapse.

[19:08] Can you give us an overview of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact?

We have a problem in our country that’s going to keep growing with the Electoral College. Since 2000, we’ve had just two elections where the Electoral College went against the popular vote. The way in which population is getting concentrated in big states, the over-representation of low population states in the Electoral College will get even greater. This is a problem for democracy and you can’t change it very easily under the Constitution.

[22:26] You’ve also worked on what you describe as universal voting. Can you explain what that is and how it might work?

This idea comes from Australia. Australia has compulsory attendance at the polls, but not the United States. I’m working on an initiative with Miles Rapoport at the Ash Center at Harvard on this. We’re trying to see what would this look like If we did it in the United States. Our theory is if you can ask people to serve on juries, if you can ask people for going to say to potentially give their lives in war, then asking people to vote is not an over ask for civic life. It finally reverses the role of local officials. They can’t suppress the vote anymore. Their job is to help make it as easy as possible for all the people in the country to vote.


No Jargon: Who controls the states?



No Jargon logoWe are excited to bring you an episode from No Jargon, a podcast from the Scholars Strategy Network. Much like Democracy Works, No Jargon aims to break down some of the biggest issues in politics and society in a way that’s not partisan and not punditry. New episodes are released every Thursday, and we hope you’ll check it out if you enjoy this conversation.

We like to think that state governments make decisions based on their particular situations. But it turns out, often that’s not the case. In fact, three large conservative groups have gained massive influence in state houses across the country, working to pass legislation in line with their views and corporate sponsors.

In this episode of No Jargon, Columbia University’s Alexander Hertel-Fernandez explains their rise and strategies, why state governments are so susceptible to their influence, and what this all means for American democracy.

Additional Information

No Jargon website

Alex Hertel Fermandez’s book, State Capture

The McCourtney Institute’s John Gastil on No Jargon discussing the Citizens Initiative Review


The ongoing struggle for civil rights



Joyce Ladner
Joyce Ladner

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 also describes how Emmett Till moved her generation to action, and how Trevon Martin is doing the same for a new generation of organizers. She visited Penn State to deliver the annual Barbara Jordan lecture, hosted by the Africana Research Center.

Additional Information

Penn State Africana Research Center

Interview Highlights

[4:44] What was the catalyst for you to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement?

The catalyst for us was the lynching of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in Mississippi

[5:15] How did that make you feel and how you did you translate those feelings into your actions?

I remember feeling very very powerless back then. Sort of visceral reaction came when I saw the photograph of Emmett Till on the cover of Jet Magazine. That photograph made me feel that I had to one day do something.

[9:42] Did you see any changes or any integration efforts following Brown v. Board of Education

No, what happened to the Deep South was that the Southern states immediately after the Brown decision came down rushed to build new schools for black children, so we got a new school.

[14:42] What do you think is missing from how civics education and democracy are being taught today?

I took high school history and social science civics to become good citizens. We were informed with a knowledge base in ethics and values, and about what democracy was. I think that one of the worst things that’s happened in subsequent years is the decline of civics education. A lot of social science type courses have suffered tremendously.

[16:55] What do you think about Black Lives Matter Movement?

Black Lives Matter is to this generation what’s SNCC was to my generation, and also Trayvon Martin is to this generation what Emmett Till was to mine. Here you have a case of a young man who was just shot and murdered and the response to it is a national outpouring of anger and eventually that anger was channeled by young people (college students and non-college students). I should say is the case in a manner that was very similar. I was so excited to see that finally we have some movement activity.

[20:16] What was the process to become a registered voter?

I tried to register to vote three times in Harrisburg, but I failed the voter register literacy test because all black people who went to register were failed. At the same time all white people were registered. I was required to write essays on two questions, one was an interpretation of section in the U.S. Constitution. They never gave us reasons. They just says “you failed to pass this test, you didn’t answer these questions adequately”.

[24:41] Was there something that united all the different organizing that you did, whether for civil rights, voting rights or all of those?

Freedom was the reason to do all of this. Equality was later added but freedom remain the constant.

[26:57] What advice did you have to say to young people or anyone who wants to get involved in organizing and trying to impact what they perceive as injustice?

Freedom is not free. Each generation has to fight for those same rights all over again because they’re not permanent.

 


Immigration, refugees, and the politics of displacement



Jan Egeland
Jan Egeland

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 former 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.

Jan visited Penn State as guest of the Center for Security Research and Education.

Additional Information

Norwegian Refugee Council

Penn State Center for Security Research and Education

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • How should governments and organizations address immigration?
  • What’s the relationship between immigration and democracy?
  • Did hearing Jan’s interview change the way you think about migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers?
  • How will climate change affect migration?

Interview Highlights

[4:58] What do the terms migrant and refugee mean and how they might differ?

Migrants are everyone who leaves a country and goes to another place. Refugees are people who flee from persecution. It could be political, religious, or cultural.

[6:38] What is the Norwegian Refugee Council and how this organization works with these various groups?

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is a humanitarian organization working for both refugees and the internally displaced people providing them relief in the in the form of shelter (housing, water, sanitation, and food). We also provide legal help and legal advice, including civil documentation. There are two main solutions that we seek. The first one is to return the person, but this solution is very difficult when a war is going on. The other one is local integration. It could be that little by little they would be integrated, get their get jobs and education and maybe even citizenship, and the third solution is relocation to another place. Traditionally the United States generously receives more than a 100,000 refugees, but most of the rich industrial countries have become colder places for refugees.

[9:00] When did that that transition start and how has it evolved since then?

It’s always been there really in Europe, in the United States, and in places like Japan and in other industrialized countries. We are now in a new period of great difficulty for us who work for and with refugees because there is a wave of nationalism in very many places.

[10:50] What is the right balance between helping refugees and people in need while still paying mind to people who are already living in the countries where the refugees want to go?

First of all, we have to recognize that the main solution for people who have fled their homes is to return home. We need to have more work and diplomacy peacemaking conflict resolution to make it safe and protected for people to return home and help them then rebuilt.

[16:15] Do you find that the populism we’ve seen throughout Europe and elsewhere also extends to humanitarian efforts?

What I find now is that there is a race to the bottom. Really many countries are willing to give us money if we keep them away from from that country. Europe and North America have been traditionally the most generous places for receiving refugees, but there are many rich nations who are not receiving refugees.

[18:44] There’s a long-term strategy but there’s also a lot of things that come up that you can’t anticipate. How do you account for those unknown elements?

We have very good people who in the field try to meet every eventuality. We have preparedness programs as we have prevention programs. But but in the longer term, perhaps the most worrying longer term problem is that many more people will be displaced not by conflict, but by the forces of nature in the age of climate change and we have to be prepared for that.

[19:56] What role does civil society have to play in terms of refugees?

The civil society groups play an enormously important role. We work with civil society groups like women’s groups, student groups, church groups, religious groups, and tribal groups. We need to help people who are knocking on our door, we need to help them in their hour of greatest need!

[22:22] How do you see democracies countering these anti-refugee and anti-immigrant policies?

There are a few sensational stories about one or two immigrants doing something bad in the media and everybody believes that that immigrants are worse than others, but that’s not what statistics demonstrates. Europeans and the media is in panic with the amount of refugees. For example, Europeans felt overwhelmed when 1 million people came to a continent of 500 million. Let’s imagine you have a school yard of 500 kids and one girl comes in to the school. Should we panic for one to 500? We shouldn’t, but that’s what Europe did.

[25:26] You’ve said previously that you feel the world is getting better for most people. Do you still feel that way?

Absolutely, specially in terms of private consumption, public consumption, education, health care, life expectancy, dropping child mortality, equality between the sexes, and opportunity for girls. However, it is worse for those who live in war zone or in areas with gangs. The challenge moving forward will be to maintain this sense of progress and momentum.


A playbook for organizing in turbulent times



Srdja Popovic
Srdja Popovic

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. It’s easy to characterize social movements as a bunch of people rallying in the streets, but successful movements require a lot of planning and a unified vision around a singular goal — things that are often easier said than done.

Srdja 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. He is the director of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CAVNAS) and author of Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World.

At the end of the episode, Michael and Chris compare Srdja’s discussion of anger and fear with some of the results we’ve seen from our Mood of the Nation Poll.

Srdja visited Penn State as a guest of the Center for Global Studies, the same organization that hosted Syrian journalist Abdalaziz Alhamza in the fall. Our episode with him is a nice companion to this conversation with Srdja.

Additional Information

CANVAS website

Srdja’s book: Blueprint for Revolution

A book Srdja references in the interview: The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy

Another Democracy Works episode you might enjoy: Breaking the silence in Syria – Abdalaziz Alhamza

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • How did the Otpor! movement achieve its goals?
  • How should a social movement balance its members individuals goals and views against the larger goals?
  • How do you see the apathy and fear Srdja described playing out in today’s political climate?
  • Do you think Otpor!’s approach could be successful in a place like Hungary or Brazil?
  • What are some recent examples of laughtivism? Are they effective?

Interview Highlights

[4:20] What was the the political climate in Serbia when the Otpor! movement began?

We started with large students protests. We were occupying campuses and all the intellectuals were there. The first large-scale demonstrations started in Serbia and we figure out that in fact, we can win local elections if opposition is united, but we lost. After three months on the streets every day, we understood that it’s a very stupid way to have everyday protests because are very costly. The movement grew from 11 people into several hundred, then performed a large tactics of recruitment and and grew up up to 70,000. We had a pretty clear vision of tomorrow — we were trying to build unity among the civil sector and the opposition parties. We stayed cool and nonviolent and focusing in low-risk tactics.

[10:15] What are some of the the strategies you recommend for people to build  broad coalitions or movements?

The first thing is you need to understand what you really want to change. You need to look the terrain and your constituency. Try to listen and try to find the smallest common denominator that will bring groups to your side. Try to figure out why the people who are pro change and against change feel that way.

[13:32] As these movements grow, people come in with their own ideas. How can you be receptive to them without curtailing the main goal?

It is really important is to figure out your grand vision and the grand goal. Movements are driven by the people, and the best thing people bring to the movements are their ideas. The way the Serbian movement operated and several other movements we worked in in the past, like Egyptian movement, was to make a highly decentralized structure. That creates a culture in the movement where everybody can become a leader.

[15:16] How do you push forward for social change given the prevalence of nostalgia?

When you take a look at the biggest obstacles to the social change of any kind, it’s either apathy or fear, and if you really want to make a change you want to deconstruct these obstacles. The key for change in these cases is to turn up into enthusiasm.

[20:39] How is laughtivism an effective tactic for authoritarian regimes?

There are a few reasons why humor is so powerful in these situations. The first reason is that humor breaks fear and makes scary situations look a little less so. The second reason is that humor attracts people and gives them something they can get behind. The third is that it disrupts order, which dictators and authoritarians thrive on.

[25:18] How are these tactics translated into public policy?

Some politicians think that democracy is all about winning elections and then winner takes all, but social movements are now taking a new role which they call defending democracy. They are actually defending the courts, defending the parliament, and defending the pillars that are already there.

[32:55] What does democracy mean to you?

To me, it means having the right balance between strong and active state and strong and active people to hold the state accountable.

 

 


Jonathan Haidt on the psychology of democracy



Jonathan Haidt
Jonathan Haidt

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.

Additional Information

Jonathan’s books:

OpenMind 

Heterodox Academy

New York Times article on free play and democracy

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Why is democracy so difficult to sustain?
  • Does hearing about the moral foundations of politics change the way you perceive people from another political party?
  • What can each of us to do make better decisions and resist the temptation to follow our inner elephants?
  • What do you make of the relationship between free play and democracy?

Interview Highlights

[4:32] Why is democracy so hard to practice?

Haidt: In the 20th century we developed this obsession with democracy and I think it’s because we fought a war to defend democracy and World War I and then we did it again in World War II and we were thinking that democracy is the greatest thing in the world. Then in the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapses, It was clear that democracy won and there is no alternative into the end of history and every country as it developed is going to become a free market liberal democracy just like us. And we were wrong we were fooled. Democracy is a lot harder and lot less stable than we thought. Now it’s clear that’s the case.

[7:12] Are there other things about the way we’re wired as people that make it so difficult to carry out democracy in practice?

Haidt: Our founding fathers knew we were not rationals and we don’t relate to any people and that’s why you don’t want to have something that’s too, democratic because especially when there are hard times somebody’s going to come along and tell you the reason for our troubles is them, and it’s really easy to rally people to hate them and then attack them and kill them.

[9:42] What motivates people to continue practicing democracy?

Haidt: Tocqueville noted how we individualists come together very quickly and easily to solve problems, that was what he noted was really unique about us. So we’ve always been a democratic people in that sense. We’re ready to take things into our own hands, solve problems and, um, America in the, in the, you know, 20th century, we certainly see many cases of activism that were like that and that worked. Um, of course, taking things into your own hands can also lead to riots and violence.

[11:49] Can you talk about how you see the way that we’ve organized ourselves into political parties here in the U.S.?

Haidt: I think the worst number of political parties to have in a country is one, but the second worst number is two. Research shows that if you simply have three combatants, then the hatred of each for the other is much less. We have two parties and anyone who was psychologically disposed to leftism or progressivism is now a Democrat, and anyone who was psychologically predisposed to conservatism or traditionalism or stability is now Republican. My colleagues and I came up with a theory called the Moral Foundations Theory, which has five features of every society:

  • Care vs. harm
  • Fairness vs. cheating
  • Loyalty vs.betrayal
  • Authority vs. subversion
  • Sanctity vs. degradation

[17:12] Where do these moral foundations stand today?

Haidt: Moral foundations never change, that’s the whole metaphors at their foundations. A moral or political order is a consensual hallucination. We hallucinate it together. We pretend that it’s real. It becomes real, we live in it, and we get angry within it.

[24:42] What do you think about calls for restoring civility?

Haidt: It’s absolutely the right approach, we need to restore that, but just saying it and signing some pledges we are not going to reach a change in civility. We’re not going to get very far by just doing this. I think we’re going to get really far by changing the path that the elephant is on.

[28:01] What’s the relationship between free play and democracy?

Haidt: The way to learn social skills that are essential for a democracy is through free play, and it has to be unsupervised. If there’s an adult there to settle disputes, you learn how to appeal to adults instead of learning to figure things out for yourself. Gen Z is the first generation in American history that was deprived of childhood. We freaked out in the 90s and thought even though the crime rate was plummeting and actually the crime wave ended in the 90s. Americans began to think because we’re frightened out of our minds by media, that if we ever take our eyes off our kids outside they will be abducted, and so in the 90s, we stopped letting kids out to play.

[29:35] How will this impact the way Gen Z views democracy?

Haidt: I think democracy is or democracy is in real danger now, but when Gen Z becomes more politically active, you know so in the 20, 30s when they’re the largest group let’s say, um I think our ability to govern ourselves will be much harder.

[32:54] What can we do to reverse this trend?

Haidt: The first thing is we have to give kids back childhood to create more resilient kids. We have to stop overprotecting kids. We have to let them develop skills. Secondly, I think we have to educate kids as if democracy was fragile. We have to be teaching skills of democratic engagement. I think that high schools should be teaching politics in a very different way. That is, teachers and social studies teachers in particular tend to be on the left. They either don’t teach anything about conservatism or they some of them let their politics intrude um and I think we should be teaching great respect for the long philosophical traditions of left and right, and then teaching skills of democratic discourse.

 


Future Hindsight: Ian Bremmer on the failure of globalism



Future Hindsight podcast logoWe are closing out our series on democracy around the world with a bonus episode from Future Hindsight, a show that features deep conversations with guests who are engaged in strengthening our society. This episode is a discussion with Ian Bremmer, author of Us vs. Them: The Failure of GlobalismIan is a political scientist and president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk advisory and consulting firm.

In this episode, Ian talks with Future Hindsight host Mila Atmos about populism, authoritarianism, and some of the other trends we’ve heard about over the past few weeks. Think of it as a 30,000-foot view of what we’ve covered in individual countries like Hungary and Brazil.

Future Hindsight is in its fifth season and available at futurehindsight.com or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Here are the episodes from our series about democracy around the world:

 


Brexit and the UK’s identity crisis



Sona Golder
Sona Golder

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 Sona 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.

Listen through to the end of the episode for information about the Big World podcast, produced by American University’s School of International Service.

Additional Information

Sona’s website

For more on UK politics, check out The Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you think that Brexit should have been decided via referendum?
  • If a second referendum happens, how would you phrase the question and the options people vote on?
  • Do you see similarities between Brexit and Donald Trump’s election? Or with the rise of authoritarian leaders in places like Hungary and Brazil?
  • How do you think Brexit will end?
  • How do you feel about the state of democracy around the world after listening to the past four episodes? Has you opinion changed since the beginning of the series?

Interview Highlights

[4:45] How did the original Brexit referendum come about in 2016?

When it comes to important EU initiatives, it’s not unusually to have a referendum. There were referenda in at least three countries back in 1992 when they were trying to get everyone to agree to the Maastricht Treaty. France’s treaty just barely passed and was known as the little yes. In the UK, various leaders have proposed having a referendum on whether to remain in the EU over the years but never followed through on it. Given that history, I don’t think it seemed out of place to the citizens of the UK.

[5:52] What was it about 2015-2016 that finally allowed the referendum process to happen?

Ever since the Maastricht Treaty was signed, there’s been a group of people in Parliament who are Euro-skeptical. That’s been going on for decades. More recently, countries from throughout Europe joined the EU. The UK was the only country that did not set restrictions on how people could move into the country so the UK ended up with a lot migrants that no one expected. On top of that, the financial crisis happened in 2008. David Cameron, the Prime Minister at the time, went into it thinking he was going to get a better deal from the EU and then there would be a referendum after that. He almost assuredly thought the outcome would be that the UK would end up in the EU.

[7:53] Is Brexit indicative of a larger trend around immigration and economic inequality?

One common issue that many countries are dealing with is the financial crisis, which gave people the feeling that they’d left behind and that political leaders on both sides of the aisle were not helping them. This feeling manifests itself in different ways based on the culture of that country. In the UK, people felt like Labour and the Conservatives were not really doing anything and the status quo doesn’t really seem very appealing.

[8:50] Can you give us an overview of the parties in the UK and where they stand on Brexit?

There are two main parties. Labour is on the left and is traditionally a socialist party, but you can think of it as akin the Democrats in the U.S. The Conservatives are on the right and are akin to the Republicans. The UK has the same voting structure as the U.S. does so those parties tend to get the most seats and one of them has a majority, even though there are other parties who will have smaller numbers of seats.

[9:45] What do we know about the people who voted for Brexit?

People who voted for Brexit tended to be more rural, older, and less educated. They were motivated by frustration with the current parties. Both parties have moved to the center. There was a sense that there was not much difference between them.

[11:37] What was the rationale that each side presented for staying or leaving the EU?

The remainers said it would be a disaster for the economy if the UK pulled out of the EU. They might have exaggerated it, but they thought it was so obvious that no one would want leave. The people who wanted to leave felt that the UK didn’t have control over its boarders and all of its policies were being set in Brussels.

[13:23] What are some of the ways Brexit could end?

After the referendum, it wasn’t immediate that the UK was going to leave the EU. They had to trigger Article 50, which Theresa May did in 2017. Since then, she’s been trying to negotiate a deal that would set up rules for the new relationship. If that doesn’t happen, there’s no deal and it’s unclear what happens. The UK is an island nation. It’s not clear what happens to goods at the border if there’s no deal in place.

[15:22] What are some of the obstacles to a deal being put in place?

Some members of Parliament still don’t want to leave and they’re hoping that a new referendum would be called or it would just be voted in Parliament that they wouldn’t leave. There’s some people who want the hard Brexit. Theresa May is having a hard time trying to build a coalition to back her deal. The people advocating for a second referendum hope that people will have come to their senses and change their mind. But it’s not clear that anything would change. The EU is trying to negotiate a trade agreement that would be beneficial to the countries that remain. My sense is that people will become more open to a deal as the withdrawal deadline gets closer.

[19:25] How does Ireland and the “backstop” figure into Brexit?

The issue is over the border between the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the UK, and Northern Ireland, which isn to part of the UK. The backstop is a way of saying the UK can pull out of the EU but not have a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. No one is quite sure how that would happen. The Good Friday agreement of 1998 went a long way toward solving the problems of terrorism in Northern Ireland. No one wants to go back to that, but it wasn’t a big part of the consideration during the Brexit vote. Most people who thought about the Good Friday agreement were confident that the UK would vote to remain in the EU.

 


Brazil’s tenuous relationship with democracy



Gianpaolo Baiocchi
Gianpaolo Baiocchi

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.

Next week is our final episode about democracy around the world. We’ll be talking with Penn State’s Sona Golder about all things Brexit.

Additional Information

Gianpaolo’s website

Urban Democracy Lab

Brazil’s unraveling political institutions – article by Gianpaolo in Democracy Journal

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What is the role of social movements in Brazil?
  • Do you think Brazil will retreat from democracy under Bolsonaro?
  • What is the role of the military in Brazil?
  • How is Brazil politically involved with other Latin American countries?

Interview Highlights

[3:07] What is the history of democracy in Brazil?

Brazil, a very unequal country, has had this relatively short and checkered history with democracy. Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery in the world. In 1964, Brazil had a military coup that lasted with a military regime that lasted until 1985. Social movements really played a very important role in the transition to democracy, but also in helping build the institutions of democracy. Brazil’s constitution of 1989 has some very progressive elements in it, has things about direct democracy, has gestures and participation municipalities, and have a lot of power.

[7:08] Where did social movements  in Brazil come from?

Social movements comes in the mid-1980s. There are urban movements, the movement for the right transport, the movement against poverty, student movements, a lot of movements to the progressive church, so kind of Liberation theology, we have movements very important of patients and users of the health system.

[10:38] Who is Jair Bolsonaro and why was he appealing?

People are going to be talking about the Bolsonaro phenomenon for a long time. He’s been a politician for a long time and he’s mostly known for shocking statements. He’s been a guy who likes to say provocative things about rape, about affirmative action, and sort of anti-political correctness. His platform is law and order, it’s about God, it’s against political correctness, and it’s pro-business. He definitely has the elite support in Brazil, but because Brazil is an unequal country, that won’t go very far.

[16:18] Why is Bolsonaro compared to Donald Trump?

There are definitely similarities between Trump’s Make America Great Again rhetoric and some of Bolsonaro’s language. They’re both populists and have both been involved in scandals, yet always seem to skate by and remain in power. Trump and Bolsonaro have also sought to undermine democratic institutions. However, the institutions in Brazil were weaker to begin with because democracy does not have the long history there that it does in the U.S.

[19:05] Can you give us some examples of how institutions in Brazil are weaker?

The judicial system, the courts begun to play a very openly political role. The Minister of Justice was the judge and prosecutor over Lula, the former president of Brazil, who’s currently under arrest and during the process of the prosecution investigation. This judge was very openly partisan in social media and releasing things and it has given people the sense that the law is just something that you use. One of the things that has happened because of Bolsonaro being elected is that people has a free license to commit hate crimes. The only openly gay member of Brazilian Congress has had to flee the country.

[23:02] Did misinformation play a role in Bolsonaro’s election?

Yes. Social media and fake news were a huge part of the election. In particular, a WhatsApp investigation a few days before the election itself revealed that foreign money and industrialists had paid for all these bots to repeat these fake news.

[24:49] How is Bolsonaro playing throughout the rest of Latin America?

The balance of the continent has definitely shifted. All eyes are in Venezuela right now and early on in his campaign. Bolsonaro said he would be for a military intervention and I don’t think that’s actually going to happen, but Bolsonaro’s election does feel like the region has definitely turn right and turned authoritarian in a very real way.

[28:44] Social movements have risen up before in Brazil. Do you see the same thing happening again now or in the future?

Yes! In the weeks before the election as it look like Bolsonaro was really going to win, people came together in a way that hadn’t really been seen in a long time in Brazil.


Yellow vests and the “grand debate” in France



Cole Stangler
Cole Stangler

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.

Next week, we’ll focus on Brazil for a discussion about the appeal of Jair Bolsonaro, who has been called Brazil’s Donald Trump.

Additional Information

Cole’s website

Interview with Cole about French politics on the Commonweal podcast

Story from The Atlantic on the “Grand Debate”

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What do you think will be the future of the yellow vest movement?
  • Will the “grand debate” be effective?
  • What are some of the challenges associated with large-scale movements like this one?
  • How can the movement overcome those challenges?

Interview Highlights

[5:03] How did the debate from Yellow Vest Movement in France come about? And what is President Macron looking to accomplish by doing it?

This great national debate was rolled out as one of many concessions that was designed for the yellow vest protest movement. In addition to the government canceling the fuel tax, in response to these mass protests the government also increased a state wage subsidy and some other more modest measures. One of the big measures they design here to deal with that is to meet with Mayors. The government is going to take into account the results of what they’re hearing from from citizens and what they’re hearing from Mayors.

[6:39] France has very high voter turnout levels. Do you think that that level of participation will carry over into this great debate?

I don’t think so. In general in France in terms of elections participation is much higher than in United States and over 70 percent was a big deal last year. People are worried about participation dropping below 70 percent, but it was still much higher than that in the United States.

[15:45]  What type of backgrounds do protesters have?

That’s the huge question because even in France people don’t know exactly who these people are coming from. They seem to be people that don’t have much background in politics. The profile seems to be people protesting core economic issues. People think they are being taxed too much, they think the government is treating them unfairly and being overly generous to the rich and not to themselves.

[22:09] Is there any consensus among protesters about what some solutions to these issues might be?

No, but the citizen referendum seems to be the clearest actual coherent demand. In terms of actual coherent demands it remains very vague.

[27:32] Where do things go from here for the movement?

It depends a lot on what city you’re in and what town you’re in because this moment varies a lot from place to place. I suspect when the weather gets nicer you could have more people coming. In France, historically students have played a pretty integral part in protests or partisan moments and we’ve seen unrest from students for a variety of reasons. One key issue among others is the government trying to hike tuition fees. I think it’s kind of silly to speculate about the movement because no one knows where this is going.


Viktor Orbán’s “velvet repression” in Hungary



John Shattuck
John Shattuck

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.

In this episode, John discusses Viktor Orbán’s rise to power, how he is waging war on democratic institutions, and what people in Hungary are doing to fight back.

Additional Information

How Viktor Orbán degraded Hungary’s weak democracy – John’s article in The Conversation

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What impact has Viktor Orbán has on democracy Hungary?
  • Is there anything that the rest of the world can do to constrain Orbán’s actions?
  • What does the future of democracy in Hungary looks like?
  • Do you notice any similarities between democratic erosion in Hungary and other countries?

Interview Highlights

[6:18] Can you start off by telling us a little bit about Hungary?

Hungary is a small country of about 9 million people in the middle of Europe. It’s been for centuries kind of prize for Invaders; Mongols, Turks,  Russians, Germans, Habsburgs and the Soviets. It was a strong economy during the Communist period for 40 years. It had a communist government dominated by the Soviet Union and was a member of the Warsaw Pact. It has almost no history of democracy. There have been many people coming in from outside who are mixed with Hungarians, but it’s also fairly monochromatic homogeneous that language of Hungarian is extremely difficult, spoken pretty much only by Hungarians, and are very few people outside of the country who speak it. In 1989, it emerged from the Soviet era the Communist era and became at least initially a democracy and a market economy. And it was performing quite well in the early days of the post-cold war within 15 years that had joined NATO and also became a member of the European Union.

[10:42] Who is Viktor Orbán?

Viktor Orbán is a Hungarian politician and was Hungary’s Prime Minister from 1998 to 2002. He did not have a very successful term as prime minister, he was fairly unpopular. He was a moderate at that point and when he was defeated at the polls in 2002, he moved sharply to the right because he began to realize that he had an opportunity to appeal to Hungarian nationalism and thereby increases popularity because the party of the right was rising in Hungary. He turned a country that had the beginnings of the democracy and was doing reasonably well democratically into an authoritarian state by using the levers of democracy, the institutions of democracy, by basically taking over the country and taking over its institutions taking control of the courts, the media, civil society, the legislature, and eliminating checks and balances.

[13:12] What were some of the tactics that Orbán used to can gain power or to assemble the power that he has now?

One big factor was the financial crisis of 2009, which hit Hungary harder than almost any other country in Eastern Europe. Other major factor was that after all, Hungary had no previous real experience with democracy. Another factor was the what the isolationist victim mentality aspect of Hungarian culture and society that has been present throughout the country’s history.

[15:55] Was there an element of nostalgia in Orbán tactics?

There was certainly an element of that. Hungary after World War I had been divided up, so many Hungarians were no longer inside Hungary and the country have been made much smaller by the peace process in World War One and the Hungarians never forgot that. They felt they had all these Hungarians living in what then became Serbia or Romania or even Germany and other places, but they felt were part of their country. They felt they were victimized by Germany because Germany ultimately let them down and Germany lost the war. All of these feelings were out there for Orbán to be able to pray upon as he began to move into his authoritarian mode.

[21:47] How is Viktor Orbán getting this power? And what is he doing with it?

He says he is building and illiberal democracy, but he claims that he is building a democracy and in some ways he has a legitimate claim to that in the sense that he has been elected now, he’s been elected twice actually, three times if you consider his earlier election. He’s using the major institution of democratic governance, which is an election to seize the path to take power legitimately. But then this is where the “illiberal” term that he uses comes in to eliminate what are the basic elements of liberal democracy and that is checks and balances, freedom of the media, independent judiciary, independent civil society, and a pluralist governing system instead.

[31:06] What does civil society look like our people in Hungary starting to fight back or push back against any of these actions?

There’s been a lot of coverage of what’s happened in Hungary by the international media, by the American media, and there’s some evidence to suggest that people in Hungary are starting to push back against government actions they don’t like. Orbán has been constantly attacking the higher education, which culminated in the closing of Central European University in Budapest. The University is now located in Vienna and some of the faculty and students from Hungary commute back and forth. It’s another example of the political and intellectual hegemony that is being exercised by this authoritarian regime.

 


A brief history of “people power”



James Miller
James Miller

In his book Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World, James Miller encapsulates 2500 years of democracy history into about 250 pages — making the case that “people power” will always need to be at the heart of any successful democracy.

James is a professor of politics and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. in New York City. He is the author of Examined Lives: From Socrates to NietzscheFlowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947–1977, and Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago. He was recommended to us by Astra Taylor, and you’ll hear some similarities between how James and Astra view democracy and our role within it.

Starting next week, we’ll be expanding our focus to look at the state of democracy around the world, starting with Hungary. We’ve talked in broad strokes about how democracy is on the decline outside the United States and are excited to dive into what’s happening in a few specific countries.

Additional Information

Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What do you make of the notion that democracy is “people power?”
  • Based on the definition James provides, is the United States a democracy?
  • What are the origins of democracy?
  • Where do the ideas of democracy comes from?
  • What can affect democracy or democratic processes?

Interview Highlights

[4:50] In your book you talk about the ideal of democracy survives. What that ideal is and where it comes from?

The term democracy comes from ancient Greek and it’s not just cuddly abstract power. It really connotes people who have weapons in their hands and you have to respond to them. A literal translation of the word democracy in the English would be “people power.”

[8:34] What can history tell us about trying to marry this the ideal of democracy with what what it ends up being in practice?

It’s very misleading to try to draw direct lessons from history because so much in politics is situational. It depends on the context, on the culture, on the level of development of the people or a group that’s trying to become self governing. In the modern period the democracy is an idea and as an ideology, it’s inherently unstable because there’s a core ambiguity about to what extent it can be realized in practice and there’s a further ambiguity and that it’s proven to be a very powerful legitimating mechanism as an ideologies, and you end up with regimes that talk about democracy but don’t for a nanosecond really mean it and the cases of communist countries like North Korea and China are to most Americans self-evident.

[14:22] Where did the French get their ideas about democracy?

They obtained some ideas from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who grows out of a modern Republican tradition and ends up backing into a kind of support for democracy. There is an American version of democracy that does appear in the course of the 19th century and it develops on a different path than democracy in Europe and yet in the United States think we invented democracy. So the one of the more weird facets of the story of modern democracy is America preening itself on being the birthplace of modern democracy, which is false and being a place where the great protector of democracy which we’ve used repeatedly in the 20th and 21st century as a rationale for imposing by gunfire democratic ideals on foreign countries.

[18:40] Can you talk a little bit about what the people’s party and the people’s constitution in Rhode Island look like?

At the time of the Revolution after the Declaration of Independence most of the states, the colonies, drafted their own constitutions, but during this whole ferment Rhode Island basically just ratified as Colonial Charter and kept it in. A convention was declared and there’s a draft of the new Constitution which of course by the rules of the state legislature in Rhode Island was illegal. It ends up a short of the Civil War.

[22:11] In the 20th century, public opinion polls enter the picture. How did they impact perceptions of democracy?

The conception that allows that to happen is the notion that democracy is ruled by public opinion, and this is proposed as a definition of modern democracy by Woodrow Wilson in writings before he became president of the United States. This nascent science of the monitoring of public opinion takes root in the United States. First of all in commercial applications through market research, but very quickly spreads to politics and emerges as a kind of practices in the 20s and into the 1930s. Finally, in the 1936 presidential campaign for the first time you have newspapers and magazines printing public opinion polls on who supports the different presidential candidates for the first time in history. Is that public opinion polling? It’s a two-way street. You can find out what people think they want and then you can try to manipulate it and you can manipulate it in part by the questions you ask.

[27:29] Knowing what you do about democracy’s history, where do things go from here?

The vitality of democracy in a modern setting, in effect, depends on the continued irruption into the public sphere of the voices of ordinary citizens and that this eruption of voices will often be unruly and may even create chaos. That’s the nature of democratic revolts. I have no sympathy for people who keep denouncing what they call populism which to me just means it’s people power that they don’t like. It’s a group of people who are advocating policies they disagree with.


The power of local government



Peter Buckland
Peter Buckland

No matter where you live, chances are that your local government is filled with things like feasibility studies, property tax assessments, and endless meetings governed by Robert’s Rules of Order. It’s difficult to keep track of, but yet could fundamentally impact your day-to-day life in ways that few state or national-level decisions do. This week’s guest says that citizens and the governments themselves have a role to play in changing the conversation.

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:

  1. Citizens should pay attention to meeting agendas.
  2. Municipalities should use a variety of communication tools to let constituents know what’s happening.
  3. Everyone should support local media so it can do its job of reporting on local government.

All of the small places add up and Peter shows how local governments working together can have a big change on national or global issues. Peter lead an effort to adopt a resolution calling for carbon neutrality in Ferguson Township by 2050. It’s easy for a cynic to say that one municipality of 20,000 people can’t change anything, but as you’ll hear, the idea is already starting to catch on.

Additional Information

Peter’s op-ed in the Washington Post about Ferguson Township’s carbon neutrality resolution

Ferguson Township, Pennsylvania

Two local government podcasts we enjoy: GovLove and Building Local Power

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What is the importance of the local government?
  • Why people would be aware of what’s happening in their local government?
  • Which are the challenges local governments face?
  • How are local governments related to democracy?
  • What can people do to be more involved in local government decision making?

Interview Highlights

[5:22] Can you tell us who you represent and your municipality fits into the larger structure of state government?

I serve as the chair of the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors and we represent the roughly nineteen to twenty thousand people who live in about 50 square miles west of State College Borough.

[9:07]How does being an elected official differ from what you thought it would be as an outsider?

Before I ran, I underestimated the slowness and the deliberate transparency. When you’re running, you are excited and you think these people are trying to get something over on me. I could have actually gotten more information than I had before I ran.

[11:19] What are some strategies for how people can find out what their local governments up to?

On the citizen side, the agenda of a meeting it is public. It is easy to access I would guess pretty much anywhere in the Commonwealth. So getting those and simply looking through what’s on the agenda, you can see what they’re working on and the stuff that affects your daily life.

[13:42] What can local governments to do connect with their constituents?

Something that we do on the township or the municipal side is that every couple of months we do a coffee and conversation. We’re in different parts of the township. We invite citizens to simply come and talk with people who work at Ferguson Township, and we also invite State officials to come, like the local Representatives because they represent to the state.

[17:16] What pressures do local governments face?

One of the things that happens at all levels of government is that people are trying to make money no matter what they’re doing. In a way developers can practically capture a department with bags of money, they have a lot that they can do and can overwhelm a local government like that.

[20:17] What can local governments do to try to get issues out in front of people before action is taken on them at a meeting?

There are three possible strategies. First, individuals should pay attention to agendas. Second, the township or city or whoever should very deliberately let people know what’s coming do as much as they can to publicize and be transparent about pending decisions.And the third thing is that local media in this country is not doing what it needs to do.

[23:37] What Ferguson Township is done regarding climate change?

I took a resolution that Don Brown had authored and I had quasi co-authored and I adapted it for our Township couching it in terms of Article 1 Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which is the green amendments. I said we need to have a net zero greenhouse gas emissions goal by 2050. We’re also working on a solar-powered public works building.

[26:59] It’s easy for for a cynic to say that one small township can’t make a meaningful impact. Does it really matter?

It matters hugely. If you can assist in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions of all of the individual people within your municipality, that’s good, and if you have 500 of those places doing that, you have 500 times 20,000 what you end up with a million people.

[28:33] Did it take any convincing to get your fellow supervisors on board with this idea?

That resolution passed four to one. The lone dissenter is no longer on the board and I think she was ideologically just sort of opposed to it. The other three on the board were open to it. I think one of them might have been a little bit hesitant about it simply because of the potential ideological backlash that we might get.

[29:58] How did you learn all of the information needed to make these informed decisions?

It’s a combination of having good training. The regional government trains you in all of the sort of different things that it does and makes these sort of lunch and learns available. When we came on the board the manager of the township. Did a sort of training session with us to take us through the Home Rule charter and that’s my learning zone.

[31:32] Why people should want to be part of their local government?

If you care about where you live and you want to improve the quality of life for yourself and your neighbors and you think that someone needs to do that, that person might be you. If you just think “someone has to do something about this,” that person very well might be you.


Using the tools of democracy to address economic inequality



Chris Witko
Chris Witko

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.

Additional Information

The New Economic Populism: How States Respond to Economic Inequality

The Conversation: States are on the front lines of fighting inequality

Penn State School of Public Policy

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What is the relationship between democracy and economic inequality?
  • Whose responsibility is it to address inequality?
  • What policies should be taken in order to reduce inequality?
  • Do you think that individual states are doing enough to reduce inequality?
  • Do you think that multiple states adopting politics like minimum wage increases will spur federal action?

Interview Highlights

[6:02] Why are income inequality and democracy closely linked?

We are going to have some inequality in a capitalist system, but when we are in a democratic capitalist system that assumes some level of equality, there is a concern when you have extreme levels of extreme inequality.

[6:53] Talking about problems of Democracy in United States, do you agree with the statement that we can’t start to fix what is wrong with democracy until we address the issue of inequality?

Yes. When you see the extremes of wealth and inequality, you see that wealthy people can use their money for politics, so that generates an unequal political influence.

[7:50] Whose job to fix the problem of inequality?

In the United States we tend to think that the public is not concerned about inequality and that’s relatively true in comparison with Europe, but according to survey data, the public is really concerned about inequality and they want the government to do something to fix it.

[10:15] If public opinion really does supports action on inequality, why isn’t it moving forward?

The polarization is preventing anything getting done, and when you have big interests and the wealthy has gib influence in politics, that makes it really hard to get any chance of getting any egalitarian policy in Washington DC.

[13:09] How can we use the tools of democracy to fight inequality?

We do have in the states that we don’t have in Washington DC is direct democracy, in which desires from majority are expressed, but sometimes terrible policies can restrict rights from minorities.

[14:30] If a state want to take action either in minimum wage or thru the earning income tax, it is a tipping point to take action at the federal level?

Yes. We have seen it in the past. A lot os states has a higher income wage than the federal minimum wage an at this point it is natural that there’s not an opposition at the federal level because a lot of businesses are already adjusted to that level of income wage.

[15:17] What is the Earned Income tax Credit? How that it be a solution for that states that are looking to solve inequalities?

It’s a tax credit that comes back to workers who don’t earn a lot of money so you can actually end up getting cash back from the government when you file your tax return. That’s something that started at the federal level and then has proliferated down to the states and now the states are doing more to expand their earned income tax credits. It’s another policy tool that you can use in a more conservative area where maybe you don’t want to increase taxes on the wealthy, but you want to bring up the incomes of lower income workers.

[16:49] Can you talk about how populism fits into this inequality conversation?

The public is concerned about inequality and a lot of the policies that would actually address inequality or that we’ve used in the past to reduce inequality are actually really popular with the public. Minimum wage increases and tax increases on Millionaires and billionaires are very popular with the public. There are policies that a majority of the people want and we’re not really getting them in Washington DC due to the political dynamics there, but some of the states are actually doing this.

[17:44] What are those points in history that let large-scale changes, like the New Deal, to move forward?

What happened during the New Deal is a unique set of circumstances, you had a massive congressional majority of Democrats, Franklin Roosevelt’s terrible economy and people were ready for action, but we don’t want to have another Great Depression. With those political conditions we really did see the federal government pioneering new policies to address problems and we’re not seeing that because you have the the influence of the wealthy and politics in Washington DC, which is similar in some states but not as great in other states, so the states have more room for action and you have the mass of polarization in Washington DC which prevents anything from getting done.

[19:54] Can people try to do in their own way to make progress on some of these issues?

Voter turnout is really important to the types of policy. We need to do more to mobilize lower income voters, so any supporting organizations to make that happen is a good idea.

[20:59] Is there any type of ideal that we should be looking for?

No. I don’t think we can specify a mathematical point at which we’re good and within 2 percentage of points of this it’s bad, and that’s part of the danger of this situation. You never know when things have gotten too extreme. I don’t think many Americans would support everybody earning the same income or pure equality and that’s not going to happen, but just avoiding extremes of inequalities.

[23:11] How things like the Affordable Care Act and some of the other kind of more drastic proposals like Medicare for All are a factor?

The Affordable Care Act is interesting because it is one of the few real major egalitarians policies that we’ve seen enacted. There are some problems with how the ACA was designed. We’re seeing a similar logic where liberal states expanded medicaid right away, but even some of the more conservative states have done so through the particularly, through the initiative, but in some some cases not even through the initiative.

[24:36] Do you think that we can really do anything to move forward on addressing inequality without talking about the current state of campaign finance and the influence of money in politics?

Yes. Stricter campaign finance laws would probably be a good thing. The problem is right now the Supreme Court and a lot of state courts are really against regulating money in politics. The other thing we can do is to just try to increase money from other voices into the system.

 

 


What is democracy? A conversation with Astra Taylor



Astra Taylor
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.

Taylor is a writer, documentarian, and organizer. In addition to What is Democracy?, her films include Zizek!, a feature documentary about the world’s most outrageous philosopher, and Examined Life, a series of excursions with contemporary thinkers including Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, Cornel West, Peter Singer, and others.

A companion book, Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, will be released May 7.

Her writing has appeared in The Nation, the London Review of Books, n+1, the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Examined Life, a companion volume to the film, and the coeditor of Occupy!: Scenes from Occupied America. Her 2015 book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, won an American Book Award.

Additional Information

What Is Democracy? website

What is Democracy? release schedule

The Debt Collective

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What does democracy mean to you?
  • Does it matter that people have different views of what democracy is?
  • What do you see as the relationship between equality and democracy?
  • How do you practice democracy in your day-to-day life?

Interview Highlights

[5:36] Why did you want to make a film about democracy? 

I kept coming back to democracy and I think for me the big takeaway of making this film and writing the companion book that goes with it is that I’ve actually become more of us, more democrat. It’s sort of inspired a deep conviction in the concept, in the practice, and things that bothered me about the term, it’s a vagueness? What does it mean? All sorts of people say that they believe in democracy. I mean North Korea uses the word “democratic,” but it is a vague use of the word.

There’s a sense that democracy was corrupted, that it was synonymous with bureaucracy so I would have been more attracted to words like freedom, equality and justice and even socialism, a revolution. Things are really changing, we are in a very different political moment. We are in a moment when people are feeling we are in a political crisis and democracy we had for granted is declining, and people’s reaction is “I better pay attention to this thing I was ignoring”.

[8:55] Did you see people’s perception of democracy change over the course of making film?

The last week of filming was the 2016 election. I filmed for a few days after Trump’s victory and you know like most people I was surprised. I think people became more concerned with democracy. They got more sort of panicked and yet, I think what’s interesting about the film and how it turned out in the editing room is actually the footage that I shot earlier was somehow more power it didn’t lose its relevance because so many problems existed and have existed for decades. The closer we got to the moment of crisis of the election. I found that people almost couldn’t think the interviews weren’t as good because people were just in the state of panic that was not very philosophical.

[11:57] Is it a problem that people don’t have a standard definition of what democracy is?

I think the fact people have different answers is a good thing, but I actually I didn’t find that people had answers that were particularly in depth, and actually nobody said democracy was equality to me. That was a word that I sort of expected to hear but it wasn’t something I encountered. So I found that when I really engage people started asking they could have quite interesting things to say about their lives and the political situation, but when I pose directly the question “what is democracy?” their answers could be kind of cursory or there could be platitudes and I think that’s a sign, a symptom that something is wrong. That people can’t really robustly or personally explain this concept that is supposedly so essential to our society. I don’t think democracy is something people really feel they experienced in today. And that’s part of why I think people have a hard time defining it.

[14:14] How does liberalism fit into the definition of democracy?

I think at different points there was a lot more about the rule of law and sort of thinking about because I sort of thought about different sort of tensions and democracy as I was going into it and sort of rule of law or the rule of the people rights with sort of and that it just didn’t end up being the most sort of compelling issues, so there is stuff about sort of structure. Nobody uses the word “norms” but there’s stuff about structure and rules will been throughout the film in sort of who writes the rules. Part of my attempt also was to raise sort of these fundamental issues, but in language, that’s not necessarily the typical academic or philosophical language because when regular people meaning just you know, we’re all regular people but meaning non-experts, meaning those of us who read and engage the scholarly literature. I mean people bring up these issues. They just don’t use the academic or philosophical or left-wing rhetoric. I think I feel like it’s sort of hinted at but it’s just in sort of common tongue.

[16:38] Do you have a sense of where the line between democracy and populism is?

I’m still thinking through the term populism because I think there’s also another word like liberalism and like democracy. There’s a huge literature around it and it’s up for debate and I think there’s a battle over different definitions of populism and there are attempts to claim populism on the left and the right. I think the right is making them a much more successful pitch. I’ve noticed actually a lot of conservative intellectuals actually calling themselves now populists and which is interesting. This idea of popular sovereignty is in the film.

[21:26] The film spends a lot of time looking at the relationship between inequality and democracy. Did you gain any understanding through the course of making this film about how we might address inequality?

I’m definitely of the mindset that you cannot have political equality, that people cannot enjoy the political rights that they have on paper under conditions of extreme inequality. So the question though how to rein in the engines that are producing these conditions and this immense concentration of wealth is a real challenge, so I think part of the film is and that’s the work I do as an activist.

[26:53] After doing all this work for the book and the film, what does democracy mean to you?

I think democracy is a promise going back to that. But I think it’s not a promise that the powerful make and then break right, they’re not doing our democracy for us. I really think it’s a promise that can only be fulfilled by the people. Taking the time and thinking, acting, and making it as real as it can be and I don’t think it can ever just be fulfilled. It’s not something that we ever just grasp and then we get to just relax and tweak on the margins. I really think it’s a perpetual struggle. We had our founding fathers, but I think we need to be perennial midwives birthing this democracy into being.


Trump on Earth: The Red State Paradox



Trump on Earth logoWe’ll be back with new episodes starting next week. This week’s episode comes to you from our friends at Trump on Earth, a podcast that’s taking a closer look at all the changes coming out of Washington on the environment — from what’s happening at the EPA to how our public lands will fare under the Trump administration.

This episode features an interview with sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild about her book Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Rightwhich chronicles her time with conservatives in Louisiana. Hochschild found people there who had become sick from industrial pollution or lost their homes due to an industrial catastrophe yet were resentful of the federal government.

Trump on Earth is produced by The Allegheny Front, a public media outlet based in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania. All of their episodes can be found at trumponearth.org.

 


It’s good to be counted [rebroadcast]



For this week’s rebroadcast, we revisit an episode on the U.S. Census that originally aired in May 2018. New episodes return January 21 when we talk with “What is Democracy?” director Astra Taylor.

Jennifer Van Hook
Jennifer Van Hook

The next census won’t start until 2020, but the U.S. Census Bureau is already hard at work on preparing to count the more than 325 million people in the United States. The census is one of the few democratic norms that’s required by the Constitution, and the data collected has wide-ranging uses.

The normally routine process has been disrupted this year by Trump administration, which is pushing for the reintroduction of a question about citizenship. As you may have heard, there’s a debate going on about whether this question is appropriate, and whether the resource-strapped Census Bureau will have time to implement it before 2020.

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. She talks about the process for creating and testing new questions, the implications of asking about citizenship, and some of the ways you might not realize census data is used.

Additional Information

Jennifer’s piece about the Census in The Conversation

2020 Census website

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you think it is necessary for a democracy to have this sort of information that the census gathers?
  • How often do you think the census should be performed?
  • Do you think the citizenship question should be added to the census? Why or why not?
  • If you could add a question to the census, what would it be?
  • Do you plan on participating in the 2020 census? Why or why not?

Interview Highlights

[6:06] What do you see as the role the census plays in a democracy?

Jennifer: It is fundamental for a representative democracy. The United States was actually the first nation in the world to require that a census be conducted. This was done because they wanted to distribute power according to population within the states. The number of representatives each state gets in the House is proportionate to the population. Therefore, the census is very important.

[7:28] In addition to determining representation in Washington, what are some of the other purposes of the census? 

Jennifer: One of the other uses is the civil rights legislation that has been passed since the 60’s. This helps tell us if certain groups are under represented. This information can show us if certain groups are being discrimintated against within society. The people conducting the census are expected to be non-partisan. Therefore, they collect the information while not saying anything about the data. They simply give it to the public because they want to stay out of the politics of this information.

[9:20] In the era of “fake news” and people being able to cherry pick their facts, how will the census be viewed and used going forward? 

Jennifer: The staff that conducts the census takes considerable measures to strip the data of any political leanings. One way this is done is by having multiple authors for all reports to prevent any one bias from impacting how data is reported. They also work in large teams with multiples checks for each bit of data collected.

[10:40] There are reports that the there is underfunding for the census. How will the organization continue to meet its standards with this funding issue? 

Jennifer: There is no set director of the census bureau. This lack of direction could cause a problem. One of the thing people have been worried about is the ability of the bureau to conduct out reach and inform people about the census. For example, many people don’t realize that the bureau can’t share its information with Ice. This is significant to share with immigrants who might fear participation in the census out of immigration police fears. This goes to the importance of building trust amongst the public to get them to participate.

[12:35] How does the bureau actually go about counting everyone in the country?

Jennifer: Everyone gets a postcard in the main informing them they have to participate. If you don’t respond to that, you might get follow up contact. This is the most expensive part of the process. If people don’t respond to the first contact, and they have to be contacted again, this is where the cost can really increase for the census process.

[13:25] How does the bureau use past experiences to improve the process? 

Jennnifer: They do but it takes a lot of time. They try to improve their operation. However, this is difficult given the size of the debarment. It is difficult to turn on a time and change the way they conduct their business. Any small change takes a lot of time.

[14:30] What goes into deciding on the wording of a question for the census? 

Jennifer: Every part of the question is tested. The introduction of a new question typically takes several years because of all the test to make sure people interpret the question correctly as intended. We also consider a question from the standpoint of its impact on people’s willingness to participate in the census in light of it. In terms of the citizenship question, this has become more of a hot button topic especially given the anti-immigrant rhetoric in society today. This means that the field test questions done in the past for this topic might have to be changed because we just don’t know how people will respond to it this time.

[16:37] Wilbur Ross has said that he thinks the benefit of the citizenship question will outweigh the potential risks of lower response rates. Do you agree with that? 

Jennifer: No, I don’t. I don’t think the bureau has shown that this question is really necessary. Typically, questions that make the census form have to be dictated by law as being necessary. So you can’t just add questions because you think they wont’ harm the utility of the census. Every question has to be there because it is required. There is another survey called the American Community Survey. They have been collecting citizenship information for years. This data has been used to enforce the voting rights act. I’m not aware of any problems with this survey being used to gather citizenship information.

[17:50] Can you talk about how this survey differs from the census survey? 

Jennifer: It is a much longer survey. The questions change from year to year. It is administered to roughly 3.5 million people every year. It provides more detailed information on an annual basis for the population. It provides us with more specific information even down to the county level.

[19:37] How is census information used to impact federal policy?

Jennifer: It is particularly useful when we need to know something about the populations health. One example would be looking at the changing life expectancy. This information wouldn’t be known without procedures like the census. It is the backbone of our federal statistical system.

[21:20] What would you say to someone about why they should participate in the census? 

Jennifer: It is good to be counted because we don’t know about our population unless we measure it.


When states sue the federal government [rebroadcast]



Our holiday break continues this week as we bring you an episode with with Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro that originally aired in October. Happy New Year!

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro

It seems like every few weeks, we see headlines about states banding together to block actions taken by the federal government. You might even remember former Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott quipping that he goes to the office, sues the federal government, then goes home.

How do those lawsuits take shape? How does a state decide whether to join or not? How does that impact the balance of power between federal and state governments? This week’s guest is uniquely qualified to answer all of those questions.

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. Though Shapiro is a Democrat, he says his chief motivation in joining these suits is the rule of law and a commitment to do what’s right for people of Pennsylvania.

Whether or not you agree with Shapiro’s politics, he does present 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.

Before the interview, Chris and Michael dive into the origins of federalism, including Federalist 51, the 10th Amendment, and the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.

Additional Information

Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General

Federalist 51

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What do you think should be the balance between the states and federal government in terms of power?
  • Do you think states should be active in legal action against the federal government?
  • Do you think that state attorneys general are becoming too political?
  • Do you see state as a shield to protect a state’s residents against federal overreach?

Interview Highlights

[5:12] When you took this office, did you expect yourself to be this active on federal issues?

Shapiro: I said when I was sworn in that if someone was going to try to mess with Pennsylvania that they would have to go through me. I see the constitution as giving the states broad authority. States rights isn’t something progressives have pointed to, but it is something I value. If someone in the federal system is doing something to undermine our rights, I’m going to stand up to take action.

[6:32] How do one of these suits against the federal government get started?

Shapiro: The first question is whether the action comports with the rule of law. I put aside what I agree or disagree with personally and instead focus on the law. Once we deem that an illegal action has been taken, be think about what is the best way to file an action to challenge that activity. We discuss whether or not Pennsylvania should be the lead state. There are sometimes strategic reasons why we file a suit in a particular state. What we are not doing is constructing opposition to the president just for the sake of opposing him. What we are doing is organizing ourselves around the rule of law.

[8:43] What issues or possible suits have you turned down?

Shapiro: We’ve been involved in about fifteen cases since taking office. I’m very careful about what we engage in on behalf of the people of Pennsylvania. Again, it is not my job just to weigh in whenever I personally disagree with the president. It is my job to weigh in when the rule of law is being threatened.

[9:31] What is the timeline for one of these cases?

Shapiro: I spend the majority of my time going around to differnt places listening to people. I think I have a good feel for where the people of the state are. I don’t poll test these issues. Instead, I try to do what is right and what adheres to the rule of law.

[10:36] Under Obama, we saw a lot of states file suits against the federal government much like what is happening now with Trump in office. Do you think this goes to the partisan nature of government?

Shapiro: I would actually push back on that a little. Most of what I do is bipartisan. It’s just that the media usually doesn’t report that. The vast majority of the actions we take are really bipartisan.

[12:34] President Trump has stated that he thinks the attorney general office should be more of a political one. What are your thoughts on that?

Shapiro: We are above politics in this office. I’m a proud Democrat. People know I have progressive leanings. They knew that when they elected me. However, we check our political views at the door everyday when we come into the office. If you look at our track record, we’ve held democrats and republicans accountable. We do our job in a way that the people of the state can be proud that the justice system is fair. We are diverse in both appearance and thought.

[15:23] What does the term “rule of law” mean to you?

Shapiro: It is the very foundation of everything that I do. It helps you be above politics. My job is to understand the law, apply the facts and evidence, then make a decision in the best interest of the people of Pennsylvania.

Shapiro: The tenth amendment makes it really clear that states have a role to play in our democracy. I believe that if the federal government is making an overreach into our state business, then I’m going to be a shield to guard against that. However, states have also at times been the thing infringing upon rights. However, more often than not, they are expanding rights. The fight for marriage is a perfect example of that. Justice Brandies spoke eloquently about states being the laboratories for democracy. That still holds true today. States need to be a shield against overreach and a sword in promoting the rights of their citizens.


Citizenship, patriotism, and democracy in the classroom [rebroadcast]



While we take a holiday break, we are going back into the archives to rebroadcast a few of our favorite episodes from earlier this year. This one originally aired in September.

Mark Kissling
Mark Kissling

As a piece in The Atlantic recently noted, democracy is not natural. Becoming a democratic citizen involves a set of behaviors that need to be learned and practiced over time. One of the first places for that conditioning to happen is in the classroom. Beyond reading, writing, and STEM skills, students have an opportunity to engage in dialogue and debate facilitated by their teachers and learn what it means to be part of a democracy.

The term most often used to describe this is civics education, which probably brings back memories of learning about the branches of government how a bill becomes a law. As you’ll hear this week, true civics education is about so much more than that. In in a polarized political climate, are teachers afraid to engage controversial subjects? How should they address things like citizenship and patriotism? How do they have time to engage in these wide-ranging discussions given the constraints they face to prepare students for standardized tests? Mark Kissing helps budding teachers find their way — strengthening their commitments to democracy so they can pass that spirit along to their students.

Mark is an assistant professor of social studies education at Penn State. His work focuses on citizenship education, or the practice of preparing civic-minded individuals. We’ve recently seen the importance of civics education play out in the months since the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Our look at Generation Z and the future of democracy earlier this year is worth revisiting as proof that what Mark and his colleagues are teaching is having an impact.

Recommended Reading

Mark’s post about the National Anthem ritual on the McCourtney Institute blog

Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy: Yoni Appelbaum in The Atlantic

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What was your civics education like? Does anything you learned still stick with you today?
  • What role should the formal education system play in creating civically engaged and aware young people?
  • How should teachers and the field of education in general react to concepts such as “fake news” and alternative facts?
  • When a significant current event happens, should teachers and professors take time away from the structured curriculum to address it?
  • Given the access that students have to information outside of the classroom, how should a teacher handle a student who brings in a theory or an idea into the classroom from the internet?
  • What role should parents have in deciding how controversial subjects are addressed in the classroom?
  • People often complain today about the state of political rhetoric. What if anything can be done within K-12 education to help change this for the future generations?

Interview Highlights

[4:34] What do you think an education in civics looks like?

Mark: In school, social studies usually has a civics education built into it. This fusion came about in the early 20th century. I tend to think about it in terms of teaching about a civic society and what it means to be a participatory citizen. It does include the basic stuff about how government works. However, I think it also entails an introduction to how citizens interact with that government in a democratic system.

[6:12] What does the idea of citizenship education actually look like in the classroom?

Mark: For me, I think it involves looking at where teachers and students are in terms of their own lives, such as where they’ve been and the circumstances of the places they live. Then consider what participation with society looks like in these areas under theses circumstances. That is then pulling in history and other factors. Importantly, this is place based education.

[7:08] As a social studies teacher yourself, how did you approach this in your classroom?

Mark: One of the courses I taught was a street law course. I taught the class in Framingtown Massachusetts, which was the largest town in America at the time. Therefore, most of our issues were centered around local town government. I think this focus on place occurred naturally at this time. However, I’m more continuously aware of place today.

[8:45] Today, the political climate is very polarized. We also have concepts such as “fake news” and “alternative facts”. How do you prepare teachers to address and handle these issues with their students?

Mark: How one would address that in their class would be molded by where that course is physically. For example, these issues would be handled differently between a rural school as compared to a more urban located school.

[9:40] Do you find that your students are receptive to this notion of place?

Mark: They are immediately receptive to it. However, their broader schooling experiences don’t lead them towards being receptive to it. There is a really big gap between the lived experience of a particular area and the curriculum students are provided with. One of my missions it to ground social studies in the context of the experience of where the students in a particular school actually live.

[10:45] How do you balance providing students both local and national awareness in a field like social studies?

Mark: It would be a mistake to focus only on the local issue and ignore the broader national and global context. However, it’s typically the other way around in that were focusing on the national or global perspective and ignoring the local perspective. I certainly think there is a need to traverse across those scales. For example, when talking about something like patriotism, we should talk about what it means both in the context of protests around the world as well as local instances such as the national anthem issue at the local Spikes game.

[12:00] Do you think teachers should sort of play the role of a journalist in that they stick to the facts and keep any personal opinions out of their lessons?

Mark: I think there is an expectation of that. Also, they’ve been schooled that way. I actually had an instances recently with a group of soon to be teachers following the events in Charlottesville. I asked them how they’d be handling this situation in their own classrooms. Most of them said that they wouldn’t address the issue at all. Part of this game from a fear of lack of information as to what was happening. There is also a political charge to it that teachers often feel worried about taking on in front of their classes. However, if we want to take on schooling as a community based effort, we have to be willing to engage with students on these difficult current event issues. We have to have conversations across these divides.

[14:35] What is your advice to those teachers who said they wouldn’t address this issue with their own classroom?

Mark: My comment is that you are taking it up by not addressing it up or pushing it to the side. Any statement, including the lack of a statement, is a message that you send to students. In the absence of a class discussion about Charlottesville, you’re being socialized not to talk about difficult issues like that. That’s troubling. We need to also consider treating the classroom as a place where students can engage, often for the first time, in difficult dialogue on challenging issues, such as what took place in Charlottesville.

[17:00] How do you balance dialogue on current events with the increased focus on “teaching to the test”?

Mark: It is a little different in social studies as compared to other subject areas because this field isn’t tested nearly to the degree of other topics. I do think standardizing education is important. I work with teachers to find the balance between engaging students on controversial current events while also ensuring that they’re prepared for these standardized assessments.

[19:30] Everyone is familiar with the image of the angry parent beating down the door after a controversial topic is address in a class. How do you prepare future teachers to handle something like that?

Mark: I think it is important to listen and understand what the parent is saying. It is important to build your justification for how you structure your classroom and properly present this to the parents. It can be a slow and brutal process. However, I think it can be a very productive exercise.

[20:50] In light of the events at Parkland, have you seen a change amongst your students in terms of an increase interest in taking on some of these more controversial civic topics?

Mark: I think the civic engagement of the Parkland students themselves will have a big impact on my students. I think this is something I’ll see reflected in them this coming semester. I also think that my students have some sense of fear of living in a school on lock down. There is also the teacher side of this. How does a teacher handle teaching in an environment where being on lockdown is becoming more of a norm?

 


2018: The year in democracy



Michael Berkman

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.

Chris Beem

Thank you to everyone who supported Democracy Works this year. The show has been more successful than we ever imagined. If you like what you’ve heard this year, please take a minute to leave us a rating, review, or recommendation wherever you listen to podcasts.

We are excited to bring you more great discussions about all things democracy in 2019. New episodes will begin in mid-January. If you have suggestions for episode topics or guests, we would love to hear them! Email us at democracyinst@psu.edu or complete our contact form.

Related Episodes


The complicated relationship between campaign finance and democracy



Caroline Hunter
Caroline Hunter

In the United States, voting is a very private act. You step into the booth alone and, for a lot of people, it’s considered taboo to tell someone who you voted for. Campaign donations, however, are a different story.

The Federal Election Commission, an independent regulatory agency established after Watergate, collects donor infomration from candidates, makes it available to the public, and enforces federal campaign finance laws. Anyone can go online and look up records to see who gave money to a particular candidate — to a point, anyway.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that political spending was protected under the First Amendment. The decision opened the door to “dark money” groups that allow corporations and other organizations to give to a Political Action Committee (PAC) that in turn backs a candidate. Much of this spending is not publicly disclosed and it added up to more than $500 million in the 2018 midterms.

FEC Chair Caroline Hunter joins us this week to explore the relationship between campaign finance and democracy. Hunter has been on the commission since 2008 and has seen the impact of the Citizens United ruling firsthand. She makes an interesting connection between PACs and political polarization — and how it all ties back to democratic participation.

Caroline is a Penn State alumna and, prior to joining the FEC, she worked for the Republican National Committee. The FEC is a bipartisan commission with three Republicans and three Democrats, though two positions are currently vacant. Caroline talks about how that bipartisan nature might expand to other parts of the government and who reads FEC filings.

Additional Information

Federal Election Commission website

Citizens United v. FEC

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What impact do you think the Citizens United ruling had on campaigns in America?
  • Should people be able to donate to a particular issue group without their names being made public?
  • Would the public sharing of donors names prevent you from giving to a particular campaign?
  • Are you worried about “dark money?”
  • What changes, if any, would you like to see made to campaign finance regulation?

Interview Highlights

What is the mission of the FEC?

Hunter: Many think that the Federal Election Commission has control over election administration, which it does not. State elections are run by state and local governments.

What does the day to day work of the commission look like?

Hunter: It receives many complaints from the public about things people see in campaigns around they country. When we see a case that seems to have merit, we’ll investigate and come to a determination as to whether or not campaign laws were violated. This is really the bulk of our work.

What sorts of things do you tend to see in these complaints?

Hunter: There are trends in each cycle. Two cycles ago we got a lot of complaints regarding presidential hopefuls who weren’t properly reporting their campaign fundraising. We’re still actually working through some of those now.

What is the time frame from the filing of a complaint to an official ruling from the commission?

Hunter: There is a statutory 60 day deadline to get the investigation conclusion back to the public. If it’s a matter relating to a campaign, we have to provide result within 30 days. The enforcement division takes more time. It can take up to several years. This time spans is due to due process protections afforded the accused. This can included responses from the accused and additional investigations. These investigations can take a good period of times.

In some of the longer investigations, it could be the case that a candidate has already won the race. How does this factor in to eventually punishing someone who violated campaign laws?

Hunter: It’s difficult to come to a conclusion on a complaint before the end of the race because so many are made right before the end of the election. Therefore, many times the race will have ended before we come to a conclusion on a particular complaint.

There are currently open seats on the commission. How does this vacancy impact the work that you do?

Hunter: The commission has three members of each party. For anything to happen, you must receive court votes from these six people. This means the decision has to be bipartisan. I thin this is good because it prevents one party from taking over the commission. It is something the federal government should consider doing in other parts of the government. Most of our decisions actually come to a bipartisan result. Only rarely do we see a three to three split.

How has your work changed since the Citizens United ruling?

Hunter: That ruling and others have enabled more people to become involved in politics. The citizens ruling enabled corporations to engage more by running commercials for or against candidates. When people think of a corporation, they often imagine a massive company like Starbucks. However, included under the title of corporations are interest groups and grass roots movements that are often coded under the tax law as corporations. I think this is a good thing for democracy. While they are limited as to what they can do, they are now able to engage more in the political process.

Do you worry that some campaigns are becoming too large to effectively regulate?

Hunter: There certainly has been an increase in the amount of money raised. However, I don’t think this is necessarily a problem. Much of this money is raised from individual donors through the campaigns website. You could look at this as increased democratic participation. However, one concern that many have is that these groups will get so large that they won’t really be impacted by the fines that we may place upon them.

The commission is about 40 years old. Do you think it has kept with the world around it?

Hunter: I think we have. Our mission of highlighting who is donating to federal elections has not changed and we’re still effectively accomplishing that. When you talk to people from other countries, they’re amazed at our systems and what we’re able to do

Is there an organization similar to the FEC that follows complains about voter suppression and voter fraud?

Hunter: There is sort of a group that does that work. It is called the Election Assistance Commission. It doesn’t have a lot of power. It is still really run by the state governments. I think it actually makes sense to keep this policing power at the state level rather than have the federal government get involved with policing state elections.

A term we hear a lot is “dark money.” Can you explain what it is and how it relates to the FEC?

Hunter: After Citizens United, people were concerned that there would be basically unregulated money flowing into campaigns. However, every dollar that goes into super packs is registered with us. Also, corporations have to report all political spending they engage in within two days of doing so. Your “dark money” is coming from 501c(4) groups. They’re able to spend politically where as they weren’t able to before this court ruling. Again, I think this is good for democracy because it enables greater participation in the political process. The reason these donations are referred to as “dark money” is because the identification of donors to these groups is not reported to the commission. The reason for this is that they’re not political committees. They are referred to as issue advocacy groups, like the NRA or the Sierra Club. Groups like this are seen as not existing primarily for the purpose of political activity. This is actually the topic of serious debate within the commission.

Could this be the future of political donations?

Hunter: I think it could. One reason is that people would like to donate to a particular cause without facing public harassment. There is a wave of hostility right now from a particular side of the isle where there is blowback on someone if they give to a certain organization.

Do you have any interaction with members of Congress?

Hunter: In my experience, those in Congress are not very interested in talking about campaign finance law. This is largely due to the fact that we regulate all of their campaigns.

Do you think that relationship has an impact on democracy?

Hunter: While I don’t think it necessarily impacts democracy, I think it would be useful to have the two sides be in closer communication.


Bonus: Capturing the nation’s mood



Eric Plutzer
Eric Plutzer

We end almost every episode of the show with four questions that come from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Mood of the Nation Poll. Rather than simply addressing people agree  agree or disagree with a particular point of view, the poll uses open-ended responses to understand why people feel the way they do. Every poll asks respondents to describe in their own words what makes them angry, proud, worried, and hopeful about politics and current events.

We interview a lot of smart people on this show and it’s not surprising the they have interesting and thought-provoking responses to these questionsl. We revisit some of those responses in this episode and hear from Eric Plutzer, the poll’s director, about how what our guests say matches up with what everyday citizens say in the poll.

Responses in this episode

Anger

[2:30] Rebecca Kreitzer, University of North Carolina

[5:02] Brad Vivian, Penn State

Pride

[8:14] Forrest Briscoe, Penn State

[10:19] David Frum, The Atlantic

Worry

[13:42] Robert Asen, the University of Wisconsin

[16:24] Lara Putnam, the University of Pittsburgh

Hope

[20:10] Sophia McClennen, Penn State

[20:43] Michael Mann, Penn State

Additional Information

Mood of the Nation Poll


Are land-grant universities still “democracy’s colleges?”



Penn State Provost Nick Jones
Penn State Provost Nick Jones

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. The The United States does not have a national university, but the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 established a public university in each state.

Penn State, Pennsylvania’s land-grant university, is the home of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and this podcast. We invited Nick Jones, the University’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.

We also talk about the the skills needed to be good democratic citizens and the skills needed to obtain a high-paying job — and why land-grant universities in particular must pay attention to both.

Recommended Reading

Chronicle of Higher Education article on the role of universities in a democracy 

Land-Grant Universities for the Future

Land-grant universities as “democracy’s colleges”

Why doesn’t the United States have a national university? 

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What do you see as a university’s key responsibilities?
  • How do you think the role of university has changed over time?
  • Do you think schools have done a good job making their case as to the importance of higher education?
  • What do you think is contributing to the trend of many seeing higher education as being less valuable than it once was?
  • Do you fear that universities will be poisoned by the level of political polarization that we’ve seen take hold of so many institutions over the last few years?
  • How can universities address the problems pointed to in the last two questions?
  • If you are either a current student or a college graduate, do you think you’re getting a good return on your investment?

Interview Highlights

Land grant universities have often been referred to as ‘schools for the people’ in the sense that they’re accessible to the pubic. To what extent do you think this label still applies to such institutions?

Nick: I absolutely believe that view of land grant institutions still applies. One of the key tenants of a democracy is an educated and informed citizenry. Our mission here is to ensure that we’re helping to produce that educated citizenry to enable democracy to function.

Penn State manages many things that don’t directly relate to education, such as arenas and medical facilities. How does this tie into its mission as a land grant institution?

Nick: The service duties of institutions like Penn State have changed since their founding as land grant institutions. Today, in 2018, providing medical services is seen as one of these duties of an institution like Penn State. Doing things like managing concert venues goes to another part of our mission which is to expose those in the commonwealth to the arts.

What goes into the process of deciding to increase the offerings of Penn State?

Nick: First and foremost, I think it is critical that we always stay focused on our mission as a university. It truly is the case that all of my decisions are made through the lens of the mission statement of Penn State. Whenever a new project or opportunity is presented to us, we always ask ourselves whether this is vital to our mission as a land grant university. If the answer is yes, we do it. If the answer is no, we don’t.

How do changes in funding from the state impact your decision making process?

Nick: When this process first began of the state reducing their level of financial support, it was ok because tuition costs for families was still relatively low. However, as support has continued to decline, the burden on students and their families has continued to creep up. This increased burden occupies a lot of our time. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to ensure that a valuable Penn State education remains accessible to all types of people across the commonwealth from all walks of life.

Do you see a change amongst the students as to how they view a degree? For example, do they see it as simply a requirement for getting a job or as acquiring a tool to enable them to contribute to the public good?

Nick: We want to ensure that we’re preparing students for life as well as for a career. We are mindful of ensuring that an education from Penn State prepares them for both aspect of the future in a balanced way. We want students to be successful both in their personal career lives as well as in their lives as part of the community.

We’ve seen a trend as of late of devaluing the idea of a liberal education. In part due to a conflation of the idea of a liberal education as being a politically biased education. Do you see this trend as being a problem? How does the university address it?

Nick: We do hear that a lot. We firmly believe that creating students who can address issues analytically is really important. We fundamentally believe in the importance of an educated citizenry.

Do you worry that higher education is going to get caught up in the political  polarization that has crept into nearly every part of our lives?

Nick: We do worry about that a lot. We need to ask why this is happening as well as what we can do to address this. We also have to take ownership of our role in contributing to this problem. We need to again make the case that higher education is important to society and make a significant contribution in a democratic society. One example of a place where I think we have made progress in this regard is in the area of agriculture.

 


Norman Eisen’s love letter to democracy



Norman Eisen
Norman Eisen

As we’ve previously discussed, there are a lot of books about democracy filling book store and library shelves right now. Norman Eisen could have written a book in the vein of Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s How Democracies Die or David Frum’s Trumpocracy, but chose to go in a different direction.

In The Last Palace, he tells the story of the Petschek Palace, where he lived while serving as U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic. The palace and its residents sought to defend liberal democracy throughout both world wars and the Cold War. The book, which one review calls a “love letter to liberal democracy,” also shows the ways in which ambassadors do the hard work of democracy abroad.

Eisen describes the cycles of democracy that occurred as public support waxed and waned over the years. He says that we are now an inflection point that will determine support for liberal democracy moving forward. Ever the optimist, he’s confident that democracy will come through this seemingly dark period to triumph once again.

Eisen is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings and chair of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington. Prior to becoming ambassador, he advised the Obama administration on ethics — a job that earned him the unofficial title “ethics czar.”

Additional Information

Norman Eisen’s book The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What do you think is the role of an ambassador?
  • What impact do you think corruption has on democracy?
  • Where do you see democracy being harmed by corruption around the world?
  • There have been claims that corruption is harming democracy here at home. Do you agree?
  • During the interview, Norman Eisen spoke to the ability of democracies to be strong and fight back against corruption. Do you think the United States is in a good position to be able to fight back against efforts to undermine our democracy both at home and abroad?
  • What do you make of the large number of vacant ambassadorships currently in America?

Interview Highlights

[5:20] What made you want to tell the story that you tell in your book The Last Palace?

Eisen: There were multiple objectives in wanting to tell this story. Before even arriving, I heard so many stories about the residence itself. I continued to collect such stories while I was there, and I thought these would be something people would like to hear. However, I also thought there was a larger story about democracy itself in this place over the last hundred years. I wanted to tell that story as well. So the book is really a story of five people, an amazing house, and the history of transatlantic democracy itself.

[6:00] There is a quote on the back of the book of a love letter to liberal democracy. Was that your intention with this book?

Eisen: I didn’t realize the story of democracy that would come out of the research of past ambassadors and the unique residence. By the time I finished the book, yes, I intended it to be a love letter.

[7:40] In your book you take about the ebb and flow of democracy over time. Where do you think we are at right now?

Eisen: We’re at an inflection point. There have been three great surges of democracy in the past century. One was the post-WWI boom that included the founding of the League of Nations. The second was after WWII when the modern security structure of NATO was established securing Western Europe. The third was the post-cold war era. We had hopes after this third boom of greater growth of democracy into Eastern Europe and maybe Russia itself. However, unlike following WWII, we didn’t create anything like the Marshal plan to ensure growth of democracy into these new territories. Also, the United States looked away. One of the key stories of this century is when the United States looks away, trouble brews. That is where we are now with Putins rule and his partner Donald Trump.

[10:02] Your book tells the stories of ambassadors who have lived in the Petscheck Palace. What lessons can we take from their stories?

Eisen: One story is that democracy has endured in the face of much greater challenges than we face today. However, another important takeaway is that we can’t assume this will happen on its own. Over the last hundred years, it makes all the difference when the friends of democracy fight for democracy. We need to continue to fight that good fight if we want democracy to succeed.

[11:40] Has our ability to fight for democracy become weaker than that of past generations?

Eisen: In the initial days of the Trumps administration, those same tools of social media which he utilized to win office served as a vehicle to bring people together. Hopefully, these tools will lead to greater oversight of the president with the new Congress. Our polarization is no worse now than it was following the Civil War.

[14:00] We currently have many ambassador positions that are not filled. What impact does that have on the role of promoting democracy that ambassadors do?

Eisen: The fact that this administration has failed to at least nominate people for some of the most important ambassadorships does lead to a democracy deficit. It is incredibly important to have some sort of head executive, confirmed by the Senate, who can work on the behalf of our values and democracy in a foreign capital city. They are there to speak up for our Wilsonian post 1918 idea of western values. Having an ambassador established in a foreign nation enables us to work with civil organizations to promote all of the core tenants of a democratic society.

[16:00] What is the relationship you see between authoritarianism and corruption? How does that impact democracy?

Eisen: It is a problem that authoritarians, including our own president, always see it as part of their initiative to get control of the public’s purse. We’ve seen this through world leaders such as with Mr. Putin who some have said has become the worlds riches man through corruption. We’ve also seen this with President Trump who has tried to benefit himself and his family. That is a sign of autocracy.

We are heading the first ever case in which a judge has found a cause of action for accepting forbidden government cash benefits relating to the president. This has helped established a climate in the public where people are now keeping an eye on these issues. Another key part of this effort to control corruption is the Muller investigation. We are now awaiting his report as to whether the president obstructed justice or not. I think the rule of law system is working as it should.

[19:30] In your book, you show how you’re more optimistic while your mother is more pessimistic. Do you think democracy works better when both points of view are represented?

Eisen: Perhaps if we had been a bit more pessimistic following the Cold War we would have put in place some sort of Marshal Plan for Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time we have to be aware of the profound difficulties we’ve overcome. It all fits in together. I try to lay out this balance in the book.

[22:00] Can you expand further on the dangers posed to democracy by corruption?

Eisen: Corruption in a democracy infringes upon the voting freedoms as well as others that are critical in a democracy. You can see this playing out here in the form of campaign contributions. The special interests have more money to spread around than average people. They spend more on elections, they get people elected, then they call in favors of those they helped get elected. This is legal corruption.


Winning the “democracy lottery”



Robin Teater
Robin Teater

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 this week’s guests, is work worth doing.

CIRs, which organizers called the “democracy lottery,” bring together groups of voters in an intensive four-day, jury-like setting to research the basic facts of initiatives and referenda on the ballot. These citizen panels draft joint statements that provide clear, concise, and accurate information to their fellow voters, removed from campaign messaging and financial influence. It’s been implemented in Oregon, Arizona, and California, and is currently in a pilot phase in Massachusetts. Our guests have been at the forefront of making this process happen.

John Gastil
John Gastil

Robin Teater is the Executive Director of Healthy Democracy, an organization that designs and coordinates innovative deliberative democracy programs. The organization helped implement the CIR process and remains committed to helping it expand across the United States.

John Gastil is a Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and Political Science at Penn State and an expert on deliberative democracy. He’s studied CIRs throughout the United States and Europe. His research gauges how effective CIRs are at making voters more informed, and how being part of a CIR impacts participants.

This is our first show on deliberative democracy. It’s a topic we hope to return to soon.

Additional Information

Healthy Democracy

John Gastil’s work on the Citizens Initiative Review

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you think the Citizens Initiative Review is an effective way to educate people about complicated or numerous ballot initiatives?
  • Would you prefer to read the measure yourself or have a summary provided for you?
  • Do you trust the process as described as being non-partisan or free from the influence of interest groups?
  • Could the CIR process work in your state or country? Why or why not?
  • What other applications do you think this program could have beyond its current use in the area of ballot initiatives?

Interview Highlights

[5:00] What is a Citizens Initiative Review?

Robin: It involves a randomly selected group of registered voters between the ages of twenty and twenty four. They’ll spend roughly four days measuring a ballot measure. They’re selected based on demographics of a particular state. The relevant factors are age, party affiliation, gender, and geography. They’re job is to be representatives for their fellow voters throughout the state they’re in. The final result is a summary of the key facts concerning the ballot initiative. They also produce arguments for and against the ballot initiative.

[7:00] What are the motivations people have for wanting to do this?

Robin: Reasons why people respond to our recruitment mailer include curiosity amongst others. Also, there is a stipend paid to participants. We also have some young people who are either looking for the money or who are getting pushed to do it by their parents while they’re home from school.

John: We’ve also heard from mothers who participate that it is a chance for them to get away from the home for a few days. There are also some who admit that they participated because of the financial incentive.

[8:50] Can you speak to the need for this program and how this program fits a need?

John: We wanted to bring about a more deliberative democracy. However, you can’t ask all voters to be engaged in deliberation on ballot measures. What we know is that those people in the electorate who have the time and willingness to deliberate can do a very good job. In just a few days, people can say very insightful things about random topics such as highway budget planning measures. This was a good place to start because legislatures realized that the voting public was at a loss as to these long ballot measures that voters had to make a quick decision on when in the booth. Some people got the ball rolling independently in Oregon, and here we are.

[11:50] What does the relationship with special interests look like since this program has been operating?

Robin: It is tricky because they make enormous investment into their own messaging. They realize that this program is a great opportunity to have influence on how people see initiative as well as to get feed back from actual voters.

John: These are professional campaigners who spend a lot of money crafting very detailed messages. They also have almost no control over this program. They can bring a good message to our participants, but they have little to no influence after that.

[13:35] On the first day, participants listen to presentations from groups on measures. How do you go from this first day to the final product?

Robin: Even before the first day, participants are engaged in training to teach them how to ask good questions and get the relevant information they need in order to make good decisions. Part of this process is just making sure these participants are comfortable working in such a diverse group. After that, they hear the opening statements from the campaigns on each side of the ballot issues. The next day is a question and answer panel with the campaigns. The panelists actually rank their questions ahead of time before asking them of the campaign representatives. This is then followed by a panel of policy experts. Day two ends with a discussion with the participants trying to glean from them the information that stuck with them from the presentations throughout the day. Day three is a series of editing groups. Participants look at the written claims of the campaigns of each issue and decide what should make the cut for the final summary and what shouldn’t. At the end of this day, we do a key vote on the findings. This includes the eight most reliable comments on a particular ballot measure. Day four is all about writing the pro and con aspects of the measure.

[21:21] Where else has the CIR been used?

Robin: Massachusetts, learning from the mistakes of Oregon, passed legislation to fun the program through state funds. We’ve also been in Arizona which is publicly funded by the elections commission. They are the first state to publicly fund the CIR. We’ve also done pilots in Colorado and California.

John: There was also legislation in the state of Washington, but it didn’t come to a full vote. The program has also been talked about in other nations. One example is England to run a possible re-vote of the Brexit measure.

[22:50] How do you measure whether voters were impacted by the CIR or not?

John: We’ve had funding from a number of sources which enable us to conduct polling on voters responses to this program. We poll people who read the ballot initiative both with and without the CIR summary. What we find is that those who read the measure along with the CIR summary are more knowledgeable on the issues. They have a better factual grasp of the issue.

24:30: What is the process to get people to believe what they see on the CIR?
Robin: It is baked into the process because the panel is randomly selected. The also can’t have any ties to campaigns or interests groups. This enables us to tell the voters that the summaries they’re reading are by accurate representatives of the people. Our tag line is that this is work by the people for the people. There are other entities that produce good summaries of these measures, but they aren’t completely unbiased. They still have a stake and an angel on the issues. The credibility to these reports is strengthened by the diversity of the participants in the program. It is also strengthened by the fact that these are not professional consumers of this sort of information.

John: The average voter seeing this page on the ballot gets the general idea that this was prepared by a body of citizens.

[27:20] How can this program develop in the future? Can it become a mechanize for candidate selection?

John: That is something that has been experimented with here and abroad. This has considerable applicability in terms of candidates in the primary races where someone can’t just pick the republican or democrat as they normally would in a general election. This is also the situation people face in many judicial races or places where candidates don’t have an official party endorsement. Therefore, I think this process could be very powerful in the lower visibility elections.

Robin: I agree. I think there are infinite applications of this program.


From soldier-statesman to the warrior ethos: Gen. Wesley Clark on the military and democracy



Gen. Wesley Clark
Gen. Wesley Clark

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.

Active duty service members represent less than one percent of the U.S. population and service has increasingly become something that is limited to the communities that surround military bases and the families who live there. As the military’s makeup has shifted, so too has it ideology — to one that is increasingly focused on combat rather than diplomacy.Things didn’t always used to be this way. Up until the end of the draft in the early 1970s, service provided an economic opportunity for millions of Americans and shined a light onto what it meant to serve the country with duty and honor.

With more than 30 years in the military and a subsequent career in politics, Gen. Wesley Clark has a unique perspective on this transformation, and some ideas about how to bridge the empathy gap between soldiers and civilians. We also talked with him about veterans running for political office, his support of Colin Kaepernick, and whether democratic dissent has a place in the military. Clark visited Penn State to promote Renew America, a new nonpartisan organization aimed at reducing polarization and ideological divides in America.

Recommended Reading

Warriors & Citizens: American Views of Our Military — by Kori Schake and Jim Mattis

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you think military service has changed in America? If so, do you think that change is good or bad?
  • Do you think it’s a problem that a vast majority of our military comes from a shrinking portion of society compared to when a draft was in place?
  • General Clark speaks about the importance of all young people being involved in the protection of the nation or service in some way. Do you think this is something we should require from young people?
  • General Clark also speak about the need for national service in terms other than military. Can you think of any way to implement such a program?
  • Do you agree with General Clarks’s stance on this and his support of Kaepernick?
  • During the episode, the issue of a “warrior ethos” is brought up where the military is becoming more combat minded. What do you think about this?
  • What changes would you make to the military today to improve it?

Interview Highlights

[4:30] What inspired you about Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s “Duty, Honor, Country” speech?

General Clark: Just before I attended West Point, General MacArthur made what would be his final public speech. When my class arrived in 1962, we got a printed form of this speech. When you read it, it just made you shiver. He talked about what it was like to be a solider and a soldiers responsibilities. He spoke about how soldiers were supposed to win the nations wars and not question policies. It was incredibly inspiring.

[7:00] We hear a lot about an empathy gap between different parts of society. Does such as gap exist between those within the military and those outside of it?

General Clark: Oh absolutely. People don’t serve the way they used to. Back during the draft, if you went to a land grant institution like Penn State, you knew you were going to be in ROTC. You were a part of the nation defense. If you look at these schools now, there is not this military participation. Something changed in the way we serve following the end of the draft. A few years ago I was teaching and some students expressed concern that the volunteer service wasn’t representing the nation. I think when young people who didn’t serve offer thanks to those who did, they don’t get it. That isn’t what serving is about. That doesn’t really help. We should all be in this together. We should all share this duty and this sacrifice.

[10:13] What is the solution to closing that gap?

General Clark: We need to pull the country together. What I’d like to see is real national service. This country needs major work done, such as our infrastructure system. If young people could come together for a year with those different from them socially and economically, they would be greatly enriched. The military is also becoming less representative of society. Children often follow their parents. Therefore, if your parents didn’t’ serve, you’re unlikely to do so.

Another change is the mindset of those in the military. There used to be an idea of the solider as being thoughtful and well read. However, we have now moved towards a warrior ethos. This change occurred in the 90’s. Today, the Army is very focused on winning its mission at the tactical level. This drives a wedge between different generations of the military.

[14:00] What does that change of ethos towards a warrior mentality mean for democracy?

General Clark: When these men come out of the military after several tours, they simply can’t give it up. There was just an article recently about how former military were being hired as mercenaries to kill political opponents. That is very disturbing when you take those skills out of the service and apply them for financial gain.

[15:00] Did you see this shift happening during your career?

General Clark: I just saw the beginnings of it. It was really the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent occupation that brought about this change. Some of this change was good. There were some changes that needed to take place to prepare people to fight. You also need a form of outreach to the American people, and it can’t just be about your favorite gun.

[17:00] What do veterans bring to the table as elected officials?

General Clark: First off, it really depends on the person. What you’d hope to see is someone with a better understanding of the military and an appreciation for sacrifice. Many of these veterans are just as indoctrinated as those who haven’t served.

[18:36] It seems as though democrats have struggled to get veterans out as a voter group for them. Why do you think that is?

General Clark: If you look at veterans holding elected office today, roughly two thirds of them are republicans. Today, the democrat party has become the “mommy party” and the republicans have become the “daddy party”. Democrats stand for fairness while the republicans stand for security.

[20:00] We’ve seen a decrease in support amongst veterans for Trump. How do you balance following orders from someone you may disagree with?

General Clark: There is no tension. You follow the orders; period. People asked this of me when Clinton was in office. Until he is removed from office, he is the boss.

[21:12] Do you think that democratic dissent has a place within the military?

General Clark: No. I think that if you get an illegal order, then your obligation is to not follow it. If you get an order you don’t like, you can disagree with it, but don’t expect your boss to agree with you. You always have the right to speak up, but you then have to face the consequences. This isn’t to say those in the military can’t vote. However, voting is private. You don’t bring that back into your job.

23:00: What went into your decision to come out in support of Collin Kapernick?

General Clark: I’m one of the few people to be at the top of the military, political, and business world. When you get to see things from that perspective, you see that there is a lot of injustice. Sometimes we don’t live up to our values. This stems back to our founding in our founding documents. I think treating people with respect is the absolute foundation of democracy. So when Collin Kapernick took a knee, I didn’t see that as an insult to the flag or the military. I saw that as standing up for the values we fought for.

[25:16] We have seen many military figures serving positions within the Trump administration. How do you see this impacting how government works?

General Clark: I think General Mattis is proving to be a very solid Secretary of Defense. H.R. McMaster was very capable, but he wasn’t prepared for the position he was put into. Any White House is difficult to work in due to conflicting agendas. This is a situation unlike the military where doing a good job can get your promoted. In the White House it is more of a popularity contest. John Kelly is also in a difficult position, but he is taking his challenges head on. He also has to deal with ethical issues, such as Trumps children receiving Secret Service protection while conducting private business in the Middle East.

[30:01] You are starting an organization called “Renew America.” Tell us a little about that.

General Clark: We’re trying to engage with young people interested in renewing the country. Politics today is a very nasty and dirty business. If you look throughout history, politics goes through cycles with different focuses, such as economic and social policy concentration. You have to see the big picture then break through the entertainment news cycle. I’m hoping that we’re going to mobilize a core of young people who are going to demand answers from people running for office. If you’re asking real questions you will change the political system.

[31:00] How do you think Renew America fits in with similar efforts to increase youth engagement in politics?

General Clark: We are interested in working with everyone. We make no claim to have a monopoly on this effort. We simply want to offer a platform for people to speak with others who are likeminded on a nonpartisan basis. There are many similar groups, but they are partisan. We are not.


Protecting democracy from foreign interference — recorded live at the National Press Club



Laura Rosenberger
Laura Rosenberger

With the midterms this week, all eyes are on the threat of election hacking and interference. Electoral integrity is important, but as you’ll hear in this week’s episode, the threats to American democracy go much deeper than that to the very basis of information and conversation. 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.

Laura is the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). Before she joined GMF, she was foreign policy advisor for Hillary for America, where she coordinated development of the campaign’s national security policies, messaging, and strategy. Prior to that, she served in a range of positions at the State Department and the White House’s National Security Council (NSC).

She describes the lack of response to foreign interference prior to 2016 as a “failure of imagination” and, through her work at the German Marshal Fund, is determined to ensure that imagination does not fail again. Laura is a Penn State alumna and a member of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Board of Visitors.

This week’s episode was recorded live at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Additional Information

Hamilton 68: Tracking Russian Influence Operations on Twitter

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you believe that Russia and other foreign entities are trying to interfere with our democratic norms and institutions? Why or why not?
  • How much damage do you think these attacks can have on our country?
  • Do you think you’ve come across any Russian “bots” on social media?
  • During the interview, Laura stated that she wants social media companies to take more action to prevent these attacks. Do you think they have a responsibility to take action? If so, what should they be doing?
  • Are you concerned that in an effort to limit the effectiveness of these attacks we might infringe upon our own rights such as freedom of speech?
  • Do you think our institutions will survive these attacks going forward?

Interview Highlights

[3:25] What are you hoping to accomplish with the Alliance for Securing Democracy?

Laura: It is a bipartisan effort founded a little over a year ago. Some are surprised to see a volunteer for Hillary Clinton and a volunteer for Marco Rubio work together in an organization like this. My response to that is that if we can’t work together to defend democracy, then we’ve really lost a lot. We disagree on many issues, but it takes a health and safe democracy in order to be able to have a place to have those debates. Jamie and I realized that we some times have to tend our own garden so to speak. This is the idea that our own democracy needed some work. We have to actually defend it because it can be undermined by those who want to weaken us. From a national security perspective, we think it is incredibly important that we understand how foreign powers are trying to undermine our institutions. We also must build resilience into our democracy. Entities such as Russia are exploiting our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

[5:37] What is Hamilton 68?

Laura: The names comes from the Federalist papers. Specifically, number 68 where Hamilton warns about the threat to our democracy from foreign powers. Today, this situation with Russia seems to have jumped out of a spy novel. Many people still ask if this is something that is really an issue. The idea of foreign threats to our democracy, and the importance of guarding against them, is a core aspect of the birth of the nation. The founders warned about this very threat. What the dash board does is track Russian backed social media accounts and the messages they are pushing out into the public. These accounts have taken a position on a wide range of issues. Also, they will often take both sides of an issue so as to creat as much division as possible. With the use of bots, which are automated social media messages, these foreign entities can manipulate the online information ecosystem and make certain issues appear more prevalent and important than they really are. We have used this tool to educate policy makers and journalists about the actions of these foreign entities.

8:35: What is the intended use of this tool?

Laura: It was designed to be a very publicly accessible tool. When we launched this program, many of the media companies were still refusing to acknowledge that there was this foreign misinformation effort on their platforms. So the intent early on was to bring attention to the fact that this issue was still a problem. While we’ve usually talked about this misinformation campaign effort in terms of the elections, many of the issues we see these accounts engage in are not election issues. We really just wanted to expose these actors and bring attention to them. If we can educate people as to the tactics used by these foreign entities, maybe we can get people to be more cautious when seeing certain information online.

[11:04] Looking to the upcoming midterms, how likely do you think it is that we wake up on the day after the election and realize that something is not right?

Laura: It is important to remember that many of these efforts by foreign actors are not about elections. While there is electoral interference efforts here, there are also broader long term democracy interference efforts going on. I see the election interference efforts as one part of this larger effort to attack democracy. Given how important elections are for a democratic system, they are ripe targets for those trying to negatively impact democratic nations. There were also several attempts to probe state election infrastructures. The efforts here aren’t so much about actually changing specific votes, but to attack things like voter roles to get people off of them to prevent them from being able to vote. These efforts can also do something very damaging, which is cause people to doubt the legitimacy of elections. This distrust can spawn conspiracy theories. Such developments are dangerous for a democracy.

One possible scenario on the day after the election is even just a story that a states infrastructure was hacked. The validity of this claim is irrelevant in terms of the damage such a story could do. It could take months to investigate such a claim. We also could see fake protests where these Russian accounts essentially goat people on both sides to participating in a fake protest. If you push fake stories about a hack and create fake protests pushing for violence, you’ve then create complete and total madness into the system.

[16:30] How has you imagination about what is possible in terms of threats to our democracy changed?

Laura: The report on the 9/11 attacks spoke about the failures which enabled the attack as failures of imagination to potentially see such an attack be launched. For me, what we saw around the efforts in 2016 was also a result of a failure of imagination. When we saw these actions being taken in Ukraine, we thought it was a regional effort and not a test run for similar attacks on us here at home. Social media companies didn’t realize that the platforms they used to connect us could be used by foreign entities as weapons to turn ourselves against each other. It is important for us to both understand what happened as well as to understand what is still possible in the future.

Another concern I have in terms of potential future threats involves artificial intelligence and machine learning. A specific concern amongst tech companies is something called “deep fakes”. Essentially, this is manipulated and augmented video and audio content using artificial intelligence tools. With these tools, seeing may no longer be believing.

[19:36] Should we be worried about China?

Laura: Yes, China in engaging in political interference in places around the world, such as in Australia. However, it is important to know that China is a very different actor from Russia. In part, due to the different strategies they utilize. There are still many unknowns as to Chinese interest in interfering with us. In terms of China, I’m more concerned about the long term political covert efforts they tend to engage in.

I have one last point I want to make. The vice president recently stated that China in interfering with our election because they don’t like the president, and I think that is very dangerous. We can’t politicizes this idea of democracy interference. When we start to think this is about one party, we lose our ability to mount a united fight against these efforts to undermine our institutions. They care about attacking us as a nation, not any particular political party.

[25:10] How have the Russians changed their approach given that we’ve started to catch on to what they’re doing?

Laura: One change we’ve seen is that these Russian actors are putting much more effort into making their outreach on social media appear real. Rather than putting out rather basic recruitment posts for protest or counter protests, they are now actually contacting certain activists and trying to get them to buy into their efforts. They are embedding themselves more into real communities in America. This does two things. First, it makes it harder for companies to detect these fake Russian accounts. Second, this makes it more difficult for companies to choose to remove the content because they’re also removing content from real users who the Russians have attached themselves to. This also has the effect of casting doubt on democratic efforts such as protests. People don’t’ know if you’re there to honestly advocate on behalf of something or if you’re simply some fake Russian effort to undermine the country.

[28:30] What are some things that we should be doing to combat these attacks?

Laura: One thing is that we have to come together as a nation on this. We’ve got to get out of the partisan trap on this issue. I think we are capable of doing this. We could also benefit greatly from a bipartisan commission similar to the one we had after the 9/11 attacks. Government and the private sector needs to take action. Also, citizens themselves need to take action to fight back.


Will Millennials disrupt democracy?



Stella Rouse
Stella Rouse

From cooking to shopping to getting around town, disruption is the name of the game for Millennials. Will they do the same thing to democracy?

Millennials, or those born between 1981 and 1996, are now largest generational group in the United States. There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether these 20 and 30-somethings will vote in the 2018 midterms. This episode touches on that, but also explores some of the reasons why Millennials feel disengaged from voting and other traditional forms of political engagement.

Our guest this week literally wrote the book on this topic. Stella Rouse is co-author of The Politics of Millennials, which draws upon existing data about Millennials, as well as surveys and focus groups that Stella and co-author Ashely Ross conducted. They found that events like 9/11 an the 2008 financial crisis profoundly shaped the way Millennials view the world and their place within it — views that run counter to older generations and their views of democratic engagement.

Stella is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and Politics, Director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship, and Associate Director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll at the University of Maryland.

Additional Information

The Politics of Millennials

Can young people revive civic engagement? A conversation with Peter Levine of The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you think Millennials are politically active?
  • If so, do you see them engaged more traditionally in campaigns and voting or non-traditionally in the form of protests?
  • How do you think Millennials world views will translate into public policy?
  • If you are not a Millennial, what is the biggest difference you see between this younger generation and your own? Also, what similarities do you see?
  • What do you think the political views of this generation will look like in 20 years?

Interview Highlights

[4:49] How do you define a millennial and what about them made you interested in studying their generation further?

Stella: Generally the accepted timeframe is those from the late 80’s to the late 90’s. Millennial are those who grew up mostly around the turn of the century.

[5:30] What are the identity characteristics of this generation?

Stella: It’s composed of a number of factors. Most notably, it is a very diverse generation in American history. They’ve lived around different races and ethnic groups more so than any other generation in the nations history. They are also the first “digital natives”. They don’t know what it’s like to be without the internet or a cellphone in their pocket. This impacts how they experience politics and communicate with others. Also, the events of 9/11 is a significant aspect of this generation in terms of how it views the world around them and the role of America in it.

[7:30] How to millennial see themselves as citizens?

Stella: Millennials are more engaged in non-traditional forms of engagement such as voting or working on campaigns. People look at this and then see the generation as being apathetic politically. However, this doesn’t take into account their engagement in more non-traditional political formats such as protests and rallies. They are also more engaged in the local level than the national level. The key question is how is this activity translated into voting. I don’t have a straight answer for that. A lot of it involved getting them into the habit of voting.

[10:08] Do you sense any momentum on the part of this generation to shape the political system to fit to its interest rather than it adapting to the current political climate?

Stella: Yes. We are seeing a lot of Millennials run for office. Particularly, minorities of this group are running for office. I think in the next few years we’re going to see this continue. Then, once in office, they’ll be able to shape the political landscape to better reflect their world view.

[11:10] This generation also identifies at a greater rate than those before them as global citizens. How does this square with their involvement in local political issues?

Stella: When I say local I don’t mean they’re voting at the local level. Where the participate traditionally is still higher at the national level than the local level. One thing about this generation is that they’re very distrustful of institutions. This includes political parties. This makes sense given the fact that their time has been filled with the greatest partisan divide in American politics in generations. Therefore, they are much more likely to identify as independents. Their lack of identification along party lines leads to lower levels of traditional political engagement in the form of campaigning and voting.

[13:00] We’ve talked about the separation of liberalism and the democratic norm of institutions. Do you see this divide growing as this generations comes into political power?

Stella: It could be, but the jury is still out on this. They have an internal conflict that they distrust institutions but they know they have to play by the rules in order to change it. It’s not clear if they’ll play the game and try to bring about change from the inside or whether they’ll maintain their outsider status and try to change things from the outside.

[14:35] We saw Obama and Sanders as two political figures who resonated with this generation. What about them do you think made them so appealing to this generation?

Stella: They spoke to the issues they cared about. Particularly, Obama really addressed them in the mediums they cared about, such as social media. Even though he is not a millennial, he became the millennial president.

[16:09] How does Donald Trump play among Millennials?

Stella: Not too well. He is not very popular amongst them. That’s not to say there isn’t a segment of the generation who support him, but about two thirds of the generation don’t support him or his policies. His policies related to immigration and diversity go against the preferences of millennials.

[17:02] Is there anything to suggest that millennials will become more conservative as they get older?

Stella: That is a really good question. An important point we try to make is that this group is not monolithic in that they aren’t all liberals. On a number of policies they are more liberal, but on others, they look a lot like older more conservative generations. One particular issue is abortion. Their numbers on this issue look more like those of generation X or the baby boomer generation. This is also repeated when it comes to issues of the economy. They aren’t some socialist block. However, they are very liberal on issues such as healthcare where they think it should be a government protected right. This has a lot to do with the time in which they came to age. Especially on issues such as student loan debt which is another issue area where they’re very liberal. It remains to be determined whether these positions will drift to the right as they get older.

[22:32] What do the older generations need to know in order to work better with Millennials?

Stella: I think one reason why those in government don’t’ reach out to millennials is because they don’t’ see them as an electoral threat because of their low voting numbers. To reach out, they have to meet them halfway. They need to acknowledge that millennials have a lot to say. However, they have to reach out to them in their preferred medium. Ultimately, I don’t think we’ll see politicians change their approach until millennials force them to by showing up on their radar as an electoral issue.

[24:00] What role does the financial situation of this generation have on their willingness to engage politically in more traditional formats?

Stella: Economic power speaks to political power. Their inability to acquire economic power due to unemployment or underemployment prevents the acquisition of this power in order to challenge political leaders. However, we’ve always had this issue amongst the current young generation at any given time.

[28:00] What do you expect to see in terms of Millennial turnout in the 2018 midterms?

Stella: I suspect that we’ll see higher rates than we’ve seen in previous elections. Whether this motivation actually translates to votes is still open to debate. If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll see an increase in voter participation amongst this generation.


David Frum on developing the habits of democracy



David Frum with the Democracy Works team.
David Frum with the Democracy Works team.

Around the McCourtney Institute, we like to say that we’re “partisans for democracy.” We can think of few people who better embody that notion today than David Frum. He was among the first people to talk about the Trump administration’s impact on democracy and remains one of the loudest voices defending democratic norms in the United States. David is a longtime contributor to The Atlantic and author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. The book was part of our democracy summer reading list and we invited him to speak at Penn State earlier this fall.

In many ways, this conversation speaks to the very idea of this podcast. 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. As you’ll hear, David is a strong advocate for joining organizations that require deliberation and working with people who might hold different political beliefs than you do — in person and away from social media.

The gradual shift away from those habits of democracy is one of the things that paved the way for the Trumpocracy that David writes about in his book. Rebuilding those habits, he says, is part of the cure for what ails democracy and must happen in tandem with voting to restore faith in democratic institutions and reduce polarization.

For more on democratic erosion, listen to our interview with How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt.

Additional Information

Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic

David Frum’s writing at The Atlantic

Interview Highlights

[6:06] Was Trump’s candidacy the reason you started righting about the state of democracy in America?

David: It was a catalyst in the sense that a catalyst triggers a response between elements that were already present. In the spring of 2015 I was doing a story in Hungary where fascism has been on the rise. However, that story was cannibalized due to the fact that what we had observed over there was starting to happen here. I was sort of ready for what we’re seeing now.

[7:29] Can you explain your journey from being a well known conservative to someone who voted for Hillary Clinton?

David: I remain a very conservative person today. When the question next comes up in an election, people might be surprised to see me retain those conservative views. However, these values have to be able to play out in a stable democratic framework. The lessons of Europe should teach us that the institutions that we see today as being rock solid look a lot less solid today. It is important to protect these democratic institutions in part because of how this instability can impact global economic markets

[8:50] Would you say that is the through line that unites yourself and other conservatives who have come out against Trump?

David: Yes. But it is also a throughline which explains why this has become an international issue. Studying the European examples is very useful. Democratic institutions aren’t doing as good of a job producing for voters. This has led to a bit of a crisis around the developed world. This can lead the population to lean towards less democratic forms of government. While this is happening to the ideological right here and in Poland, it can also happen to the left, such as in England and in Italy.

[10:09] Do you feel like the message is being received that fascism could take root here?

David: It is happening here. We always think that when a reaver spreads that we in America will get it last. This is not just an American problem right now. In nations around the world, democratic institutions are weaker than they were just ten years ago. A country like Turkey which was clearly a democracy ten years ago is now an outright dictatorship.

[11:30] Who do you think is the leader to be able to bring back these democratic norms?

David: The search for leaders is the problem. The problem is that we have these charismatic figures popping up saying that they alone can solve the problem. When young people ask me how they can help, I tell them to join something. Join something that has meetings. This helps develop the habits of democracy. Social media is important here. What it offers and delivers is a completely personalized experience. You only see what you like and agree with. Actual politics couldn’t be more different. You have to be able to work with people who are different than you and who disagree with you.

[16:33] What do you make of some of the civic renewal efforts to get people engaged again such as with voting?

David: This is super exciting and important. The more local, the better. Also, don’t be consumed with the national questions and issues that you disconnect from the local situation. If following stories is distracting you from stories about local issues such as budgets, then it is becoming harmful.

[18:43] What do the “guardrails of democracy” mean and where do they stand today?

David: This is about a series of restraints that we imagined were there to protect democracy that have since been crashed through. One of the keys guard rails is the concept of ideology. What we thought years ago was that each side (liberal and conservative) were being more ideologically extreme and that ideology was mattering more and more. What this meant is that we were demagogue proof in that a candidate had to stand for something in order to get enough support to win. But in 2016 with Trump, we learned that ideology doesn’t matter that much. He routinely broke perceived ideological norms for conservatives.

[20:40] Does this action by Trump explain the split in the GOP between those who stuck with the party and Trump and those who broke away?

David: I don’t think so. One example is the issue of international trade. The support for open international trade has been a hallmark of republican ideology since Reagan. When Trump came out against this idea, I wondered if this would jolt the Republican Party out of support for him. It has not. In fact, he is changing the positions of the Republican Party.

[21:58] Why are these people going against the party norms and embracing ideas they opposed just a few years ago?

David: Because once you get on board with Trump, you’re a prisoner. You have to go wherever it goes. The farther you go and the more awful things you accept, the more you have to defend the driver to defend yourself. People say don’t condemn Trump supporters. When people do something, we should seek to understand it. However, we need to recognize that Trump succeeds by appeal to what is bad about people and what is cruel about the. This is also part of the story. However, it is wrong to then look down upon someone as a child given this reality. Instead, when we see someone who agrees or identifies with something that is brutal or cruel, we should seek to understand why that concept or position resonates with that person.

[25:22] Do you think there was ever a time in our nations history were we had a sort of peak of democracy?

David: I don’t think we should ever look back. This is our time. There is a lot to learn from the past, but the past also has deep flaws. We should focus on making it better. For example, one of the biggest tells for whether or not someone voted for Trump was their level of social isolation. If you were a member of a stable family, you were much less likely to be a Trump voter.


When states sue the federal government



Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro
Josh Shapiro

It seems like every few weeks, we see headlines about states banding together to block actions taken by the federal government. You might even remember former Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott quipping that he goes to the office, sues the federal government, then goes home.

How do those lawsuits take shape? How does a state decide whether to join or not? How does that impact the balance of power between federal and state governments? This week’s guest is uniquely qualified to answer all of those questions.

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. Though Shapiro is a Democrat, he says his chief motivation in joining these suits is the rule of law and a commitment to do what’s right for people of Pennsylvania.

Whether or not you agree with Shapiro’s politics, he does present 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.

Before the interview, Chris and Michael dive into the origins of federalism, including Federalist 51, the 10th Amendment, and the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.

Additional Information

Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General

Federalist 51

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What do you think should be the balance between the states and federal government in terms of power?
  • Do you think states should be active in legal action against the federal government?
  • Do you think that state attorneys general are becoming too political?
  • Do you see state as a shield to protect a state’s residents against federal overreach?

Interview Highlights

[5:12] When you took this office, did you expect yourself to be this active on federal issues?

Shapiro: I said when I was sworn in that if someone was going to try to mess with Pennsylvania that they would have to go through me. I see the constitution as giving the states broad authority. States rights isn’t something progressives have pointed to, but it is something I value. If someone in the federal system is doing something to undermine our rights, I’m going to stand up to take action.

[6:32] How do one of these suits against the federal government get started?

Shapiro: The first question is whether the action comports with the rule of law. I put aside what I agree or disagree with personally and instead focus on the law. Once we deem that an illegal action has been taken, be think about what is the best way to file an action to challenge that activity. We discuss whether or not Pennsylvania should be the lead state. There are sometimes strategic reasons why we file a suit in a particular state. What we are not doing is constructing opposition to the president just for the sake of opposing him. What we are doing is organizing ourselves around the rule of law.

[8:43] What issues or possible suits have you turned down?

Shapiro: We’ve been involved in about fifteen cases since taking office. I’m very careful about what we engage in on behalf of the people of Pennsylvania. Again, it is not my job just to weigh in whenever I personally disagree with the president. It is my job to weigh in when the rule of law is being threatened.

[9:31] What is the timeline for one of these cases?

Shapiro: I spend the majority of my time going around to differnt places listening to people. I think I have a good feel for where the people of the state are. I don’t poll test these issues. Instead, I try to do what is right and what adheres to the rule of law.

[10:36] Under Obama, we saw a lot of states file suits against the federal government much like what is happening now with Trump in office. Do you think this goes to the partisan nature of government?

Shapiro: I would actually push back on that a little. Most of what I do is bipartisan. It’s just that the media usually doesn’t report that. The vast majority of the actions we take are really bipartisan.

[12:34] President Trump has stated that he thinks the attorney general office should be more of a political one. What are your thoughts on that?

Shapiro: We are above politics in this office. I’m a proud Democrat. People know I have progressive leanings. They knew that when they elected me. However, we check our political views at the door everyday when we come into the office. If you look at our track record, we’ve held democrats and republicans accountable. We do our job in a way that the people of the state can be proud that the justice system is fair. We are diverse in both appearance and thought.

[15:23] What does the term “rule of law” mean to you?

Shapiro: It is the very foundation of everything that I do. It helps you be above politics. My job is to understand the law, apply the facts and evidence, then make a decision in the best interest of the people of Pennsylvania.

Shapiro: The tenth amendment makes it really clear that states have a role to play in our democracy. I believe that if the federal government is making an overreach into our state business, then I’m going to be a shield to guard against that. However, states have also at times been the thing infringing upon rights. However, more often than not, they are expanding rights. The fight for marriage is a perfect example of that. Justice Brandies spoke eloquently about states being the laboratories for democracy. That still holds true today. States need to be a shield against overreach and a sword in promoting the rights of their citizens.


How “if it bleeds, it leads” impacts democracy



Peter Enns
Peter Enns

The problems with the prison system in the U.S. have been well documented, but what’s not talked about nearly as often is how things got this way. Why does there seem to be such enthusiasm for putting people in jail? One answer might be the shift toward “risk management policing” that Frank Baumgartner described in last week’s episode, but there’s something else at play — and that’s what we explore this week with Peter Enns.

Peter is an associate professor of Government at Cornell University and author of Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World. Peter argues that, since the 1970s, media coverage has shaped public opinion about incarceration, which lead to an increase in people going to prison even as the crime rate went down. This created a vicious cycle of people seeing news about crimes, becoming more supportive of punitive measures, and a shift away from viewing prison as a rehabilitative experience.

Much like we heard from last week about the empathy gap in policing, a similar gap exists between the people going to jail and the people watching or reading news stories about the criminal justice system. Peter taught in Cornell’s prison education program and saw firsthand what daily life looks like for inmates and the possibilities that exist for prison reform programs.

One final note: We added a new voice into the mix this week. Andy Grant, our audio engineer, had some questions for Peter that you’ll hear toward the end of the interview.

Additional Information

Peter’s book, Incarceration Nation

Cornell Prison Education Program

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Why do you think the general public has largely supported more punitive measures over the last several decades?
  • Do you think the saying ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ holds true? What role do you think media has here?
  • What other changes would you make to the current criminal justice system?
  • Is it antithetical to a democratic society to have so many people incarcerated?
  • We have a very high recidivism rate. This means once you’ve been to jail, you’re likely to end up going back due to a parole violation or another violation. How do you think the system can better prepare convicts to get out and stay out?
  • Going forward, do you think our incarceration rate will decrease?

Interview Highlights

[4:58] Why do so many people in the United States want others to face jail time?

Peter: A Key to this study is noting how public opinion has shifted on this issue over time. The trend towards supporting incarceration really picked up across the sixties through to the nineties. A large factor in this trend was how media covered crime.

[5:38] How do you think the media contributes to how the public perceives the issue of crime where they live?

Peter: There are two aspects of this. One is the “if it bleeds, it leads” aspect of media coverage of crime. Also, the number of crimes committed by racial minorities are largely over reported.

[7:15] How have things changes over time?

Peter: This is really interesting because the crime rate has actually been decreasing since the 90’s but many people aren’t aware of this. The public has become less punitive as crime rates have gone down. However, the trend is not in line with the rate in decrease of crime. While the trend in public opinion is starting to change, the problem is that there is such a massive system in place that it is difficult to reverse this high incarceration rate. It is not as simply as turning off a switch. However, some meaningful changes have been occurring.

One example is that there has been a lot of discussion recently around the cash bail system and how strange it is. The way this works is that if you’re arrested and can’t afford your judge set bail, you’re going to stay in jail until trial. Many localities are revisiting this. The decriminalization of drug offenses is also a massive development impacting the incarceration rate.

[9:45] How does the prison experience impact ones views on government when they eventually get out of prison?

Peter: A large role in how we view government is our interaction with aspects of government such as the DMV. Imagine being in prison and having life as a prisoner being your main interaction with a government entity or structure. That tends to have a negative effect on levels of political participation amongst those who have been previous locked up.

[11:53] Is there an empathy gap where those who are in power are not aware of the problems in the criminal justices system?

Peter: Absolutely. Another important aspect of this is to remember that those who have been convicted are being judges based on likely the worst thing they’ve ever done. Imagine how we’d feel if we were publicly evaluated over and over again based on the worst thing we ever did.

[12:50] Could you tell us about your work with the Cornell prison education program?

Peter: Most recently, I was teaching a course in Auburn correctional facility. What the program does is teach college level education courses to those in maximum security prison in the middle of New York State. The course I thought to the convicts was the same one I thought as part of a senior seminar for government students. The students did a great job and it was a phenomenal experience.

[13:58] In this program, did you see a difference in the way the inmates were handling the course as compared to Cornell students you had lectured in the past?

Peter: I would say there was a higher level of maturity amongst the students. A large misconception that I came into contact with is the idea that inmates have a ton of free time to just sit around and read. However, many of them are assigned work detail within prison. In this sense, they are a lot like your regular college student who also has a part time job they have to juggle along with school work.

[16:00] How do you think the public’s attitude towards incarceration match with its position on other issues?

Peter: A key concept here is how someone will reintegrate with society. The vast majority of those incarcerated right now will be released back into society. Regardless as to ones political association, data shows that we all want people to be successfully introduced back into society once released from prison. However, this common interest is over powered by the punitive state. A major problem here is the parole board system

We know there is a high recidivism rate. A large portion of this is due to technical violations of parole terms. Such as the use of drugs of those who are addicted to drugs. If someone relapse, which is very common amongst addicts, will end up in someone out of parole ending up back in prison. One way to address this could be to provide a better support system for those leaving prison. For example, people who I know who have been in prison faced living in a homeless shelter the first night out because there was no structure to hell them integrate back into society.

[21:00] There have been more discussion around this administration about prison reforms. Where do you think these conversations are heading?

Peter: I think we’ve seen an increase in efforts because of the role of public opinion, which as the data shows is trending towards a decrease in support for heavy incarceration. However, due to high level of political polarization at the federal level, most of the actual legislative progress that we’ve seen has been as the state and local level. A perfect example of this involves discussion to close Rikers Island in New York. The debate now is just how quickly it will be closed. It is sort of stunning think about this ironing symbol of incarceration in America facing closure.

[22:30] Do you think our criminal justice system is more structured as a punitive or rehabilitative system?

Peter: I think the balance has shifted over the course of time. Right now, I think it is shifting away from a punitive minded system. However, right now I think the system is certainly more punitive orientated.


A story about democracy, told through 20 million traffic stops



Frank Baumgartner
Frank Baumgartner

The lights flash in your rearview mirror as the police car comes up behind you. A sinking feeling forms in the pit of your stomach as the officer approaches. Sound familiar?  However, this is where the story can differ greatly depending on who you are and where you live. If you’re African-American or Latino, you are much more likely to be searched or have your vehicle searched — and much more likely to be pulled over in the first place, according to research conducted by analyzing data from millions traffic stops in North Carolina over more than a decade.

Frank Baumgartner, Robert J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, lead the team that analyzed the data published the book Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race.” In the book, Frank and his colleagues make the case that an empathy gap exists between people with political and social power and the people who are most likely to be pulled over. The result is that segments of the population who are already disenfranchised become even more distrustful of the police and the government and less likely to vote and otherwise engage with democracy.

We’ve long heard that racially-motivated police violence is the result of a few “bad apple” officers. However, the data from North Carolina show a much more pervasive suspicion from police officers about young men of color. Combined with a move toward what Frank describes as “risk management” policing, the result is a clear pattern of behavior that has direct implications on democratic participation.

P.S. A huge thank you to everyone who supported us in the 2018 Podcast Awards. We are incredibly humbled and grateful to have won during our first year.

More Information

Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race

Frank’s profile on the Scholars Strategy Network

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you believe that there is racial bias in policing in America?
  • Based on your own experience with law enforcement, do you trust the police?
  • Do your interactions with law enforcement impact your view of the government and your willingness to engage in democracy?
  • Do you think the aim of police should be to solve crime or try to prevent crime?
  • Do you think policing in America is getting better? Why or why not?

Interview Highlights

[3:41] How did you come about the data for this book?

Frank: An investigative reporter in North Carolina conducted an investigation into possible racial profiling in the police department in 1996. This was also a time when people were becoming growingly concerned with racial profiling by police. At this time, North Carolina became the first state to mandate the recording of data about traffic stops, including the race of the individual stopped. I was then invited to look at the information they had collected in the early 2000’s as part of a task force.

[5:25] Can you walk us through how a traffic stop experience might differ along racial lines?

Frank: As a middle class white man myself, I have very few interactions with the police. But when I do, it is always very respectful and by the book. It is extremely rare for someone in this demographic to get pulled over by the police. For someone of color, it would be frustratingly common. These traffic stops usually lead to no citation or ticket. However, such stops are more likely to extend into a search of the vehicle.

[6:54] What did you find to be the cause of this variance in frequency and nature of stops?

Frank: We think party of the problem is that police officers are usually dealing with a low information situation when making a stop. Too often, they rely on visual cues to evaluate whether someone is a threat or not. And under the law, which has been confirmed mostly by middle class white men, it assumes that these stops will only be temporary inconveniences. However, as the data showed, these stops are not that uncommon. There is also an empathy gap where white people have a difficult time understanding the situation faced by minority’s in terms of traffic stops.

[9:18] In the book you refer to “risk management policing.” Can you explain what that is?

Frank: In the 60’s, the focus of policing used to be reactionary in the sense that they used to simply work to solve crimes. However, there has been a shift where as police now are working to try to prevent crimes using methods such as profiling. Policing is now more proactive and aggressive. This system didn’t happen to white people. This happened on the other side of town to minorities. It happened to people who themselves were seen as likely criminal elements.

[14:24] What impact do these stop rates have on the level of democratic participation among minorities?

Frank: Just a single traffic stop can reduce the odds of that person voting by as much as ten percent. We found that in areas where black people have greater political power, the percentage of blacks that are stopped is considerably lower. There is a national effect. Unjustified stops do alienate people and cause them to not trust the government. In Fayetteville North Carolina, they instituted some policy changes. What resulted was that there were fewer stops. Also, the number of calls to 911 that actually resulted in a crime being committed went up. This showed that people who were no longer being wrongfully stopped began to trust the police more and were willing to reach out to them when they actually needed them.

[18:21] We often hear during the more salient cases that this is simply the result of a few “bad apple” officers. Is this the case or is this a more systemic problem impacting more officers?

Frank: The short answer is that it’s both. In our research, we were able to categorize and study the stop of every officer by their badge number. We did find many officers who showed trends of discriminatory trends in stops. The racial disparity were highest amongst men. While there are bad apple officers, there also is a more systemic problem.

[22:20] What impacts have your findings led to?

Frank: Many police leaders have started looking at their own statistics more closely. When these departments have done this internal investigation they have often found that they have discrimination problems. Ferguson Missouri is just one example. While Ferguson is seen as the epicenter of bad policing, the situation in many others communities is not really that much better. We have to recognize that the data and the patterns are clear and consistent. It is time to question whether we’re getting the right bang for our buck out of the random traffic stops as a mechanism to fight crime. This is alienating people without having much good to show for it.

 


Breaking the silence in Syria



Abdalaziz Alhamza

We’ve talked before on this show about the importance of a free press, but this week’s episode brings a whole new meaning to the term. In 2014, Abdalaziz Alhamza and his friends started social media accounts to document the atrocities being committed by ISIS in their city of Raqqa. They called themselves Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) and their work quickly grew into a website and a social movement that garnered international attention.

RBSS brought the work of citizen journalists to a global audience and helped provide a counter to increasingly sophisticated ISIS propaganda. Their work was chronicled in the 2017 documentary City of Ghosts. Aziz visited Penn State for a screening of the film sponsored by Penn State’s Center for Global Studies, which is lead by friend of our podcast Sophia McClennen.

ISIS was removed from Syra last year, but that does not mean life in Raqqa has improved. Aziz and his colleagues are now working to report on the Asad regime and militias who are trying to take power from it. They are also working to empower citizen journalists in other countries and help defend the free press at a time when “fake news” has become a rallying cry for authoritarian leaders around the world.

Additional Information

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently

City of Ghosts documentary

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • How significant do you think groups like Aziz’s were in pushing back ISIS?
  • Given their access to information locally in the city, do you think they are a better new source than a foreign outlet such as CNN?
  • What was your initial reaction with Aziz mentioned that friends and family had been killed while trying to do their work as citizen journalists?
  • Does what they went through and are still going through change your view of journalists?
  • Does listening to the struggles of Aziz and his organization change your perception of democracy in America?
  • Would you be willing to take on the challenges and risks of covering the actions of ISIS if you were in Aziz’s situation?

Interview Highlights

[5:50] What has happened in Raqqa since the end of the film?

Aziz: A campaign began to defeat ISIS. However, this brought with it a lot of violence. Nearly 80% of the city has been destroyed. Most of the people have been displaced. The media stoped paying attention once ISIS was pushed out of the city. This is why we kept out campaign going to continue to share information about the city. There are still a lot of things happening in the city. For example, people are still being killed every day. They are still finding bombs in the city. Also, they are finding mass graves at different parts of the city.

[7:29] How have the conditions there changed the work that you’re doing?

Aziz: We do have more freedom now, but we still can’t do our work legally because we’re considered terrorists by some. If we can survive ISIS, then we can survive working around other groups. We have started an online program to teach people how to become activists and how to start their own movements.

[9:10] What was your motivation for starting this movement?

Aziz: Before the revolution, I wasn’t involved with politics at all. When everything started, I had that thing inside that motivated me to get up and do something. We started by filming protests. When ISIS started taking control they prevented media from covering what was happening in the city. At this point, we felt we had a duty to do something since we were all from Raqqa. None of us had any journalist education at all. We got some training, but now we actually work to train others to be journalists.

[11:20] How do you manage still covering Raqqa while also trying to expand your coverage beyond the city? 

Aziz: Cellphones are the magic. We can do most of our work remotely. They are both tools for communication as well as tools for learning stuff.

[12:46] What do you share with those you’re training to become activists themselves? 

Aziz: We have gone through many mistakes getting to this point that we try to help others avoid. We teach them how to handle a brutal regime or movement such as ISIS. For example, I went to Columbia to help activists there. They didn’t know what encryption was or the idea that the government could track their actions and communication without encryption. Some of the mistakes we’ve made have cost us the lives of friends, so we don’t want anyone to go through those mistakes like we did.

[14:30] Do you feel the work you did have an impact to ISIS ultimately being defeated in Raqqa? 

Aziz: The war with ISIS was not like a regular war with militaries. It was a war fought online. Therefore, they worked hard to shut us down.   They threaten us and killed family members. To get this reaction from ISIS showed us that we were doing something meaningful. They are still talking about us. To ISIS, we are the bad boys. ISIS didn’t want any other alternative media sources like us for the people to learn from. They just didn’t expect a group of teenagers being around and doing this stuff.

[16:27] How did you combat ISIS as they improved their propaganda efforts? 

Aziz: They spent way too much money on the media. For example, they spent millions on one media office in one city. Media was how they recruited fighters so they put a lot of money into it.

[18:25] Did you ever question if you were the right guys to do this? 

Aziz: Yes, at the beginning. However, this changed once our friends started to be killed. Since that, no one is second guessing this movement.

[21:50] How do you feel when you hear the term “fake news”? 

Aziz: It has become a huge problem even here in the United States. One network will say one thing while another will say the opposite. People get lost within all of these platforms and don’t know who to follow. We try to simply things and always provide evidence. I don’t think there is a way to kill fake news, but provide evidence is a good way to combat it.

[23:00] Do you videos that you use come from members of your group or do you get them from citizens? 

Aziz: They are mostly from our members, but we do get some stuff from other citizens. Even taking a photo is very dangerous. It is punishable by death. One of the first things ISIS did was try to scare people. They would have public executions in the middle of town. Because of this, people were afraid to gather information about them such as taking photos or videos.

[27:00] You have lost friends and family members through this effort. What is it like receiving that information? 

Aziz: It was scary when I would wake up and have to check my phone. I would wake up and pray to God that nothing bad had happened. I would feel powerless, but that didn’t last long because I knew there was something we should do about it. We knew that ISIS was killing us because they wanted us to stop our work. So we couldn’t stop and give them what they wanted.

[29:00] What does democracy mean to you?

Aziz: It means people being able to express themselves without being afraid. For those who are used to it, they don’t understand that people are dying around the world to try to get democracy.


Citizenship, patriotism, and democracy in the classroom



Mark Kissling
Mark Kissling

As a piece in The Atlantic recently noted, democracy is not natural. Becoming a democratic citizen involves a set of behaviors that need to be learned and practiced over time. One of the first places for that conditioning to happen is in the classroom. Beyond reading, writing, and STEM skills, students have an opportunity to engage in dialogue and debate facilitated by their teachers and learn what it means to be part of a democracy.

The term most often used to describe this is civics education, which probably brings back memories of learning about the branches of government how a bill becomes a law. As you’ll hear this week, true civics education is about so much more than that. In in a polarized political climate, are teachers afraid to engage controversial subjects? How should they address things like citizenship and patriotism? How do they have time to engage in these wide-ranging discussions given the constraints they face to prepare students for standardized tests? Mark Kissing helps budding teachers find their way — strengthening their commitments to democracy so they can pass that spirit along to their students.

Mark is an assistant professor of social studies education at Penn State. His work focuses on citizenship education, or the practice of preparing civic-minded individuals. We’ve recently seen the importance of civics education play out in the months since the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Our look at Generation Z and the future of democracy earlier this year is worth revisiting as proof that what Mark and his colleagues are teaching is having an impact.

Recommended Reading

Mark’s post about the National Anthem ritual on the McCourtney Institute blog

Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy: Yoni Appelbaum in The Atlantic

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What was your civics education like? Does anything you learned still stick with you today?
  • What role should the formal education system play in creating civically engaged and aware young people?
  • How should teachers and the field of education in general react to concepts such as “fake news” and alternative facts?
  • When a significant current event happens, should teachers and professors take time away from the structured curriculum to address it?
  • Given the access that students have to information outside of the classroom, how should a teacher handle a student who brings in a theory or an idea into the classroom from the internet?
  • What role should parents have in deciding how controversial subjects are addressed in the classroom?
  • People often complain today about the state of political rhetoric. What if anything can be done within K-12 education to help change this for the future generations?

Interview Highlights

[4:34] What do you think an education in civics looks like?

Mark: In school, social studies usually has a civics education built into it. This fusion came about in the early 20th century. I tend to think about it in terms of teaching about a civic society and what it means to be a participatory citizen. It does include the basic stuff about how government works. However, I think it also entails an introduction to how citizens interact with that government in a democratic system.

[6:12] What does the idea of citizenship education actually look like in the classroom?

Mark: For me, I think it involves looking at where teachers and students are in terms of their own lives, such as where they’ve been and the circumstances of the places they live. Then consider what participation with society looks like in these areas under theses circumstances. That is then pulling in history and other factors. Importantly, this is place based education.

[7:08] As a social studies teacher yourself, how did you approach this in your classroom?

Mark: One of the courses I taught was a street law course. I taught the class in Framingtown Massachusetts, which was the largest town in America at the time. Therefore, most of our issues were centered around local town government. I think this focus on place occurred naturally at this time. However, I’m more continuously aware of place today.

[8:45] Today, the political climate is very polarized. We also have concepts such as “fake news” and “alternative facts”. How do you prepare teachers to address and handle these issues with their students?

Mark: How one would address that in their class would be molded by where that course is physically. For example, these issues would be handled differently between a rural school as compared to a more urban located school.

[9:40] Do you find that your students are receptive to this notion of place?

Mark: They are immediately receptive to it. However, their broader schooling experiences don’t lead them towards being receptive to it. There is a really big gap between the lived experience of a particular area and the curriculum students are provided with. One of my missions it to ground social studies in the context of the experience of where the students in a particular school actually live.

[10:45] How do you balance providing students both local and national awareness in a field like social studies?

Mark: It would be a mistake to focus only on the local issue and ignore the broader national and global context. However, it’s typically the other way around in that were focusing on the national or global perspective and ignoring the local perspective. I certainly think there is a need to traverse across those scales. For example, when talking about something like patriotism, we should talk about what it means both in the context of protests around the world as well as local instances such as the national anthem issue at the local Spikes game.

[12:00] Do you think teachers should sort of play the role of a journalist in that they stick to the facts and keep any personal opinions out of their lessons?

Mark: I think there is an expectation of that. Also, they’ve been schooled that way. I actually had an instances recently with a group of soon to be teachers following the events in Charlottesville. I asked them how they’d be handling this situation in their own classrooms. Most of them said that they wouldn’t address the issue at all. Part of this game from a fear of lack of information as to what was happening. There is also a political charge to it that teachers often feel worried about taking on in front of their classes. However, if we want to take on schooling as a community based effort, we have to be willing to engage with students on these difficult current event issues. We have to have conversations across these divides.

[14:35] What is your advice to those teachers who said they wouldn’t address this issue with their own classroom?

Mark: My comment is that you are taking it up by not addressing it up or pushing it to the side. Any statement, including the lack of a statement, is a message that you send to students. In the absence of a class discussion about Charlottesville, you’re being socialized not to talk about difficult issues like that. That’s troubling. We need to also consider treating the classroom as a place where students can engage, often for the first time, in difficult dialogue on challenging issues, such as what took place in Charlottesville.

[17:00] How do you balance dialogue on current events with the increased focus on “teaching to the test”?

Mark: It is a little different in social studies as compared to other subject areas because this field isn’t tested nearly to the degree of other topics. I do think standardizing education is important. I work with teachers to find the balance between engaging students on controversial current events while also ensuring that they’re prepared for these standardized assessments.

[19:30] Everyone is familiar with the image of the angry parent beating down the door after a controversial topic is address in a class. How do you prepare future teachers to handle something like that?

Mark: I think it is important to listen and understand what the parent is saying. It is important to build your justification for how you structure your classroom and properly present this to the parents. It can be a slow and brutal process. However, I think it can be a very productive exercise.

[20:50] In light of the events at Parkland, have you seen a change amongst your students in terms of an increase interest in taking on some of these more controversial civic topics?

Mark: I think the civic engagement of the Parkland students themselves will have a big impact on my students. I think this is something I’ll see reflected in them this coming semester. I also think that my students have some sense of fear of living in a school on lock down. There is also the teacher side of this. How does a teacher handle teaching in an environment where being on lockdown is becoming more of a norm?


Behind the scenes of the “Year of the Woman”



Rebecca Kreitzer
Rebecca Kreitzer

One of the biggest headlines to emerge heading into the 2018 midterms is the record number of female candidates in local, state, and national races. While it’s easy to point to this a post-Trump reaction, there’s much more that goes into persuading women to run and helping them raise the money and build the relationships needed to make it into office.

Rebecca Kreitzer, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has been studying the groups that exist to help elect women into office. She and Tracy Osborn from the University of Iowa have counted more than 400 groups around the country modeled in the tradition of Emily’s List.

Much like the groups Lara Putnam described, this is grassroots-level politics in action with women working to promote each other and make their voices heard. As you’ll hear Rebecca describe, there are several reasons why it’s important for women to have a voice in the legislature. However, with so many groups operating at the same time, there are bound to be conflicts and missteps, which Rebecca has also studied.

This interview was recorded at the 2018 American Political Science Association State Politics and Policy Conference, which was held at Penn State in June.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • How important is diversity in a legislature for a democracy?
  • How (if at all) do you think our democracy would change if there were more women in office?
  • Rebecca mentioned that female candidates are a harder time raising money. Why do you think this is?
  • What do you think is the best way to elect more women into office?
  • According to Rebecca, many group that support female candidates use abortion as a litmus test to determine whether or not to endorse someone. What do you think about this policy?
  • Beyond women, are there other groups you feel need to have a higher level of representation in elected office?

Interview Highlights

[4:09] Why do these groups exist for female candidates?

Rebecca: Around the world, there are structure in place to ensure a share of female representation in office, such as quotas. However, that doesn’t exist in the United States. In addition, you have other factors, such as the fact that women tend to have lower levels of political ambition. They also need to be encouraged to run for office. Unfortunately, elected officials are less likely to encourage women to run for office.

These groups are all around the country. Some of them are federal level groups. Others are loosely collected groups modeled after others, such as Emily’s List. There are over 400 such groups with at least one in every state.

[6:06] With so many groups, is there ever a problem of one group sort of stepping on the toes of another?

Rebecca: Some of them are coordinated. These are the ones that are chapters or branches of larger state or national groups. However, most of the groups do work in silos meaning that they work on their own and don’t share resources with other groups. We don’t really know why that is. We think it due to the fact that they’re competing both for resources as well as possible candidates.

[7:09] How do these groups go about recruiting someone who both meets their ideological aims but who can also win an election?

Rebecca: This is a problem because we know that those who are most involved with these groups also tend to enjoy high levels of privilege. Therefore, if these are your scouts, they are going to go after those who they think are good candidates. This could further explain the gap in the group of those who are privileged both financially as well as racially. Many of these groups have diversity goals yet lack plans to actually accomplish this mission. Unfortunately, we don’t know if these efforts are leading to more women being elected to office.

[9:43] What role does the issue of reproductive rights and abortion have in these groups determining who they will get behind?

Rebecca: Of the 400 groups we know of, roughly the same number (about 80) openly support either liberal or conservative candidates. While this gives the appearance of ideological balance amongst these groups, there are those in the middle with no official political affiliation. However, they aren’t as non-partisan as they make themselves appear. A large portion of them require a very pro-choice position from potential female candidates. A very small of these middle groups actually have either a pro-life stance or no position at all on this issue. When you take the issue of abortion into account, there are many more opportunities for pro-choice women than there are for pro-life women.

[11:24] What happens to these women when they win office? Also, why should we care how many women are in office?

Rebecca: Women legislators do face many challenges that male colleagues simply don’t. These include how the media covers them as well as how they raise money. These challenges can vary from state to state and from setting to setting. When it comes to actually making policy, women often lack the seniority which is crucial in actually getting legislation passed.

A popular caveat about women in politics is that they tend to win when they do run. However, this is largely due to the fact that these female candidates are often times much more qualified than their male counterparts.

As to why we should care about the portion of female representation, it actually matters for a number of reasons. One is that it is important for democratic legitimacy that their governing bodies accurately reflect those who they govern. This includes both gender as well as racial diversity. It also helps to empower women and increase legitimacy in our institutions. This is also important due to substantive representation. For example, women are more likely to address issues with policy that are important issues for women. Women tend to introduce and sponsor more bills that have to do with women’s issues. Diversity in government is also important because different people can take different bits of information from a situation and offer different takes on an issue than their counterparts.


The democrats in public sector unions [Labor Day rebroadcast]



Paul Clark
Paul Clark

This week, we are rebraodcasting our conversation about public sector unions from earlier this year with Paul Clark, director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State.

Paul talks about how these unions exist at at all levels of government — from bureaucrats to bus drivers. Many could find higher wages in the private sector, but are drawn to civil service out of a desire contribute to the public good. Public sector union participation is higher than it is in the private sector, but in some cases the bargaining power those unions have is limited. Despite that, Paul says that these union members are finding creative ways to make their voices heard, which one of the fundamental elements of a democracy.

This episode was recorded before the Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Supreme Court decision in late June. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that public sector unions that collected dues from non-members were violating the First Amendment by doing so. The impacts of the ruling mostly have yet to be seen, but as Paul explains, the loss of revenue could further weaken unions moving forward.


Middle America, Part 2: Grassroots organizing and rebooting democracy



Lara Putnam
Lara Putnam

Last week, we heard from Salena Zito about the segments of middle America who supported Donald Trump after voting for Barack Obama. This week, we talk with another Pittsburgh resident, Lara Putnam, about a different version of Middle America — the college-educated, middle-aged suburban women who have dusted off the organizing skills honed through decades of volunteering to affect change in their communities.

Lara is a Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author with Theda Skockpol of the article “Middle America Reboots Democracy.” in the journal Democracy. She argues that grassroots work is happening behind the scenes in “purple” suburbs, areas that are ignored in the red state/blue state and urban/rural media narratives.

Grassroots groups like those Lara observed in western Pennsylvania are mixing traditional organizing tactics with social media to raise awareness and push for change at the local and state levels, far away from the divisions that bog down national politics. To borrow a line from the article, “If your question is how the panorama of political possibility has shifted since November 2016, your story needs to begin here.”

Thank you to WESA and WYEP in Pittsburgh for allowing us to use their community studio to record this interview with Lara.

Additional Information

Middle America Reboots Democracy in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What is the relationship between social engagement and political engagement?
  • How does the populism Salena Zito described differ from the populism behind the groups Lara observed?
  • Lara argues that local grassroots groups have been overlooked by the media and national political parties. Do you agree? If so, why do you think it’s happening?
  • Both Republican and Democratic grassroots appear to want to make America great again. Can both visions of America coexist? Is there a possibility that these two less ideological groups merge into a new political coalition?
  • Lara said that many of the grassroots groups she observed are lead by middle class women. Do you think the tone or activities of these groups would be different if they were run by younger women? Or by men?

Interview Highlights

[3:28] As a history professor, how did you come to write about a political movement?

Lara: After the 2016 election, I looked around at local politics to see where I could make a change. Based on the national political coverage, I expected to see high levels of energy and organization for progressive politics in the city and little in the suburbs. However, what I found was actually that I was missing the real story. What I saw in these smaller towns was people engaging again in the political process through organization. This wasn’t getting covered nationally. This is where I kicked into historical gear. We know that large scale changes nationally have their roots in local developments. Therefore, it leads us to believe that these changes at the local level should be looked at as the possible motivation behind future national changes. So face to face groups which appear insignificant, can actually lead to large political changes.

[6:35] What does middle America mean to you after your research?

Lara: These movements are being started by women. Particularly, women who had already been involved in the political movement prior to the 2016 election. What we mean by “middle America” here is that these democrat movements are taking place not in the stereotypical coastal democrat strongholds, but rather in small rural towns in the middle of the country.

[9:30] Why do you think the national media is missing this trend?

Lara: The national media is really obsessed with candidates. While this does impact the spread of movements like the ones we’re seeing, it doesn’t completely stop them. Remember that politics is local. Most political conversations and political knowledge is shared in local conversations such as when people are running errands in town. This is how information is usually shared. The media tends to underreport this type of grass roots kitchen table politics.

[11:30] Do these groups still see support from the Democratic Party?

Lara: Part of the story here is that the Democratic Party changed. This is why we’re seeing many of these groups being created recently. The party used to be structured in such as way that you could join it and know your fellow democrats. You had a sense that you belonged to an actual place with real people rather than simply an email list. How the party today has embraced these new organizations has varied around the country. In some places, the local party structure has embraced these new groups while in other places you’re seeing more resistance to bringing them into the fold. Whether or not this osmosis process happens depends a lot on the level of maturity of these groups. What I mean by that is how organized and structured they are. When a group is very structured, it tends to more naturally fold into a larger equally as organized group.

[17:25] Do you think there is room in these left leaning groups for someone who voted for Trump in 2016 but have since changed their minds?

Lara: I think there are many different “middle Americas” out there. People are complicated and terms such as progressive means different things in different places.

[21:31] How are these groups communicating and utilizing technology to advance their cause in 2018?

Lara: Some groups have become hybrids of older and newer models in that they’re utilizing both face to face as well as technological forms of communications. For example, groups will often have several facebook pages. One will be public where as the other will be private. This private page has sort of become the 21st century face to face conversation.


Middle America, Part 1: Populism and the Trump Voter



In the effort to understand the people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, a style of reporting has emerged that Chris Hayes recently described as “Trump pastoral.” You might not know the phrase, but, but you’ve probably read a piece or two like this in the past few years:

Salena Zito
Salena Zito

A reporter from a national media outlet based in a big city visits a small town in a rural community and spends a little bit of time there trying to understand the people who live there and why they are attracted to Trump. That sounds great in theory, but the life of an urban media professional and a small town working-class person can be pretty different, which makes it difficult to build the trust needed for a true window into emotions and motivations.

Salena Zito is trying to change that. She grew up in Pittsburgh and splits her time between small-town events and CNN’s airwaves. Along the way, she’s learned a thing or two about what caused parts of the country to vote for Donald Trump after voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. She captures those stories in a book called The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, which was part of our democracy summer reading list episode.

We traveled to Pittsburgh to talk with Salena about how she gets to know people and what everyone can learn about trying to understand those who live different lives than we do. The lessons she’s learned apply far beyond journalism. We also talked about the coalitions that Salena and co-author Brad Todd argue helped Donald Trump become president, and whether they will remain in tact moving forward.

This is the first episode of two that will look at what’s going on in “Middle America.” Next week, you’ll hear from Lara Putnam, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who offers a different take.

Additional Information

Salena Zito’s book, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Many of the voters Salena interviewed said that the 2016 election was about something more than Donald Trump. What were those bigger ideas?
  • Did Trump create the new coalition Salena describes, or was he in the right place at the right time?
  • What does the new coalition Salena describes say about the future of political parties in the U.S.?
  • Think about a time when you went outside of your comfort zone to attend an event or have a conversation. How did you feel and what did you learn?
  • Will Trump be re-elected in 2020?

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

4:40: What motivated you to write this book?

Salena: We wanted to look and see if the Trump victory was a fluke or an example of a more significant change within the country. I went out to the five Great Lake states that voted for Obama twice then switched to vote for Trump. We wanted to get beyond the media stereotype of what a trump voter was. What we found is that these voters we much more complicated and diverse.

6:04: How did you get people to trust you enough to be willing to open up to you and explain their voting decision?

Salena: This is where my geography and upbringing helped me greatly. I live in Pittsburg. With this more Midwest background, I was able to connect with these people better than say someone who came to them from New York or Washington.

7:13: Did you have anyone skeptical of you and asking if you were part of the “fake news”?

Salena: The shocking thing I found was that democrats have the same misgivings about the news media as republicans do. They also have the same sentiments about larger institutions as republicans. I think this new populism is a healthy pushback to all things big across media and business.

8:08: Have you kept in touch with those you interviewed?

Salena: Yes, we have. Also, no one has changed their position on who they supported from 2016. An interesting development we saw was how these people reacted to the media’s coverage of events in the administration thus far. Specifically, I’m referring to Trumps tweets. What we hear from these people is that they’re sick of the cookie cutter politicians statements. While Trumps comments aren’t clean and crafted, they are more representative of how normal people actually speak. This is something that those we spoke with could identify with. I think sometimes my peers have a hard time understanding this largely because of geography. They aren’t from these types of places.

10:35: You sort of exist in both words by interviewing these people in middle America while also appears on CNN panels as part of the media cloud. Do you see yourself as sort of an ambassador for middle America?

Salena: I want to help people understand that just because someone consumes things different than you do doesn’t make them your enemy. They just have a different life. We don’t allow people to coexist.

12:25: Fox News was mentioned many times in your book. Is that something that came up a lot in your interviews?

Salena: There was a cross section of what these voters watched as far as news. However, most of these people get their news from their local stations.

14:30: We talk a lot about a split happening between classical liberalism and populism. How do people you speak with see the recent electoral developments in middle America?

Salena: I think those in this coalition see it as still the idea of classical liberalism that we’ve always see in American democracy. This is the first time we’ve seen a new major coalition form probably since the new deal amongst democrats. I think that coalition broke apart in 2012. This happened in part because of the push from the left of ideas like multi culturalism and the idea of global citizenship. People on the coasts simply missed this realignment.

16:52: What do you think these new coalitions look like?

Salena: The new coalition within the republican part has a lot of the old new deal democrats. This means that things like entitlement reform aren’t happening in this generation. The suburban voter is still in the republican tent. However, what matters here is where your suburb is.

18:22: Those who study democracy have been looking at Trump as a new sort of autocrat. Do the voters see him that way?

Salena: They don’t see that at all. While people in the press take him literally, the people I spoke with simply don’t. While they take him seriously, they don’t take him literally.

21:11: You’ve been able to get to a deeper level of dialogue with these people by cutting under the rhetoric at the national level. What is your advice to those who wish to do the same?

Salena: Challenge yourself by exposing yourself to something or a situation that you aren’t familiar with and that you don’t know. First, step back and just be an observer. Then watch how people interact with each other. This gives you a better understanding of people and who they actually are. This will help prevent a snap judgment about them.

24:10: Do you think that anyone you spoke with would vote for a democrat?

Salena: As the party exists right now, no. They would have to make some fundamental changes. The thing about this coalition is that they simply don’t feel welcomed by the current democrat party.


Facebook is not a democracy



Matt Jordan

We have access to more information now than at any other time in history, but we trust that information less than ever before. A Gallup survey recently found that 58 percent of respondents felt less informed because of today’s information abundance. As with a lot of things in life, too much of a good thing might not be so good after all.

If you’ve followed any of the recent news about Facebook — from Mark Zuckerberg’s comments about Holocaust survivors to the decision to ban InfoWars — 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.

At the end of the day, Facebook is a company and its goal is to make a profit. The result of that, Matt argues, is an algorithm-fueled avalanche of information that mixes news with opinion and fact with fiction to reinforce existing thoughts and feelings rather than exposing us to new ideas and perspectives.

Matt has also spent time studying the history of the term fake news and found that it goes back much farther than Donald Trump. He talks about how fake news in 2018 looks different than it did in 1918 and what responsibility journalists and news consumers have to push back against it.

Matt is an associate professor of media studies at Penn State and co-director of the Social Thought Program. For a look at how journalists are working in this media landscape, check out our interview from last season with Halle Stockton of PublicSource, a nonprofit news organization in Pittsburgh.

Note: This episode was recorded before Alex Jones and InfoWars were banned from Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, and other platforms.

Recommended Reading

Matt’s article on the history of fake news

How can democracy thrive in the digital age? From the Knight Foundation Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you think that Facebook’s mission of building community is a cover up for collecting and selling data?
  • Have the scandals surrounding Facebook and other social media over the past year changed your view of the platforms or how you use them?
  • What role should social media play in a democracy?
  • Do you think we’ll ever move away from a scenario where people use social media as their primary news source?

Interview Highlights

[3:23] How did you get drawn towards studying the concept of fake news or fake information?

Jordan: I’m always looking to see how structure of media are impacting cultural conversations. This concept of fake news has become a coercive presence in our media that has continued through 2016 and into 2018.

[4:20] Has the impact of fake information and news continued to today?

Jordan: It has continued through the body of the car into the interior.

[4:35] Can you tell us about your work chronically the history of the term “fake news”?

Jordan: Despite Trump claimed the credit for creating the term, which is a very “Trump” move, it actually came about with the end of the 19th century as a way to lie in media. It was a creation of the muckrakers who used misleading and fake information in the media to impact how the conglomerates at the time controlled media. They came up with this term to discredit both completely fake reporting as well as reporting that left out important information on a particular report. Therefore, the label of “fake news” became something that liberals and progressives used to discredit the large for profit news sources.

[6:00] Are there examples of the use of fake news in this manner today?

Jordan: I think you can look at Fox News and use the label of “fake news” to describe what they do. For example, they often times omit important information from their daily coverage. There will be a major story of the Mueller investigation but Fox will spend their time covering a small student protest on a college campus and the push back they got from liberals as an example of liberals not allowing free speech on campus.

[7:40] Media has changed considerably over the last one hundred years. What impact has sea ranch engines like Google had on the development of fake news?

Jordan: One example of how these creations have impacted our media consumption is a term that Mark Zuckerberg likes, which is information that is “relevant to us”. This is information that we would be predisposed to believe gives our personal sensibilities and opinions. This creates feedback loops where we’re just being exposed to information that we tend to believe or agree with ideologically. The new profit incentive is to keep us interacting.

[10:41] How do media outlets balance this dedication to the truth while allowing all people to access their platform?

Jordan: Facebook is shrewd enough that all of their talking points are related to democratic ideals. For example, their use of the term “voices” referees to the democratic ideal that we should allow more voices into the public discussion on an particular issue. This is a struggle for people to talk about democratic theory. While we say we are going to have “voices” involved in a conversation is not to say that this is inherently going to lead to a fruitful or productive conversation on a topic just because more sides are represented. Do we need more wars? Do we need more Alex Jones out there? Probably not. It is important to remember that outlets like Facebook benefit form having more Alex Jones type characters getting people going emotionally. This makes the media more sticky. It is interesting when they use these democratic ideals of “voices” to cover up their own interests, which is to create more emotional news which increase their profits.

[12:33] Given that, what do you see as the path forward?

Jordan: Whenever you have an explosion of new media formats and sources of information, you’re going to have an explosion of misinformation and fake news. At each time this has happened in history, the government has had to come in and regulate who can use the platforms to spread information. Therefore, those who say that the market can help clean up these news sources are simply wrong. Mostly because the markets have little financial incentive to limit certain sources of media as part of cleaning it up.

[15:36] In the Trump administration, do you see a place where government oversight can take place?

Jordan: The only way this would happen is if the democrats sweep in the midterms and the Trump administration ends up on the back end of the national mood. This would mean they would want to limit messages to try to get on the right side again. I simply don’t see this happening. The right has done a good job of making people think that regulation is simply bad across the board. It is going to be a difficult battle to get people to warm up to the idea of introducing government regulation to current mass media platforms like Facebook. The system we have today of fact checking media simply can’t keep up. For example, I heard in a recent sort of ad hoc way that we receive more information today than those alive in the 15th century would receive in an entire lifetime.

[19:17] What responsibility do journalists have in these situations?

Jordan: They have a huge responsibility. The purpose of freedom of the press has always been to limit the ability of those in power to get away with lying to the people. However, in order for them to get the public’s trust back, they have to show that they are working to find the truth rather than to protect the interest of their shareholders. The future for these journalists is at the local level. People really love their local news. While national coverage is an emotional wrestling match, it is the coverage of local affairs that people can relate to which gets them to come out and get involved in government. I think local media that can inform people of things that directly relate to them in their communities is how journalism can lead the fight against the current media climate that fake news is flourishing in.


How will we remember Charlottesville?



This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the Unite The Right rally and counter protests in Charlottesville, Virginia that claimed the life of Heather Heyer and set off a firestorm around President Trump’s remarks about who was to blame for the violence. One year later, the Robert E. Lee statue at the center of the controversy is still there, and it seems the conversation about what it stands for has stalled.

Brad Vivian

The Lee statue is part of a complicated public memory about the south’s Confederate past. These shared stories of the Civil War and what it means make it difficult to change the conversation and have a productive dialogue about how to move forward.

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.

We are excited to begin the second season of Democracy Works with such an important and timely topic. If you like what you hear, make sure to rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts.

Recommended Reading

Brad’s op-ed about Charlottesville and democracy in the Philadelphia Inquirer 

Vinegar Hill neighborhood, by the Virginia Foundation for Humanities

History of Market Street Park, now known as Emancipation Park

Brad’s book, Commonplace Witnessing: Rhetorical Invention, Historical Remembrance, and Public Culture

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What are your memories of the events in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017?
  • Do you think that the national narrative following the events was focused on the right issues?
  • What do you think leads to the development of an inaccurate memory of past events? Especially ones that tend to look at past actions through rose colored glasses?
  • How do you think the concept of public memory relates to democracy?
  • What do you think we can do to ensure that the story of past events maintains more truth over the years?

Interview Highlights

[2:20] What was it like growing up in Charlottesville and what went through your mind as you watched the events unfold there last summer?

Brad: It is sort of a closely held secret. It is a great college town. It has sort of this small town living with a sort of metropolitan feel to it. Sort of like State College. The town is part of this growing corridor from DC down to Richmond Virginia. A lot of those coming here to study from Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey are turning a once red state into a purple or even a light blue state.

[3:50] While you were growing up there, was the Robert E. Lee statue something people would talk about?

Brad: Everyone knew it was there but it wasn’t really a part of the discussion in the circle I was in, which consisted of the university. Surprising, after the riots, we didn’t really talk much about the statue. What we did talk about was Thomas Jefferson and his legacy there.

[6:20] What is public memory and how does it form?

Brad: It’s really a metaphor. For example, people say we have a collective memory of what the civil war was like. The way this is formed of long ago events is how they’re talked about in the immediate aftermath by those who experienced them. This then gets carried on throughout the ages. Part of these stories might have some accuracy to actual historical fact, but they don’t have to in order for this memory to form and take hold. There is a lot of fact but also mythology here. This sense of memory is very important in that it creates a personal connection to the event.

[10:00] What many don’t realize is that these statues didn’t go up until long after the end of the war. How does this speak to your concept of a public memory?

Brad: Public memory can become very political when a certain group wants to change the way that a particular story is told in public. In my view, this can be a very anti-democratic practice especially when this group tries to use the threat of force to effect this change.

[11:50] How do you have conversations around something like these monuments when so many have personal connections to wanting to protect and keep them?

Brad: One of the reasons this is so difficult to do has to do with the way the main stream media frames discussions. What the media does is light of these sorts of events is put attention towards what power holders say. In the case of Charlottesville, it was the comments by Trump that got all the attention and drove the narrative of the discussions after the event. Another problem is the softer mythology of the Civil War and its figures, such as Lee. For example, the textbooks in the south portrayed the war as a battle between two honorable sides. This is not a good framework for having a discussion as to what these statues actually mean. In order to get to important conversations such as what these statues really mean in terms of southern pride, we have to break the trend of the media coming in and setting the narrative around comments of those holding power.

[15:00] Where can people go to get these conversations away from the established narrative from the media?

Brad: One place to go would be southern black communities. There are millions in this community that don’t identify with the idea of confederate pride image of southern pride. We need to acknowledge that the south is a rather diverse place with different ideas of what the culture is and what pride of the south is.

[16:20] At what point does public memory start to form? For example, when will the memory of the events in Charlottesville begin to form?

Brad: I think it will be a relevant point for a while. Especially in black communities. I’m still concerned that we aren’t going to be able to have important conversations, such as one about the events in Vinegar Hill around the issue of desegregation. I think the people in the city will be debating this issue for a long long time. I know the city is still divided over it.


A democracy 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. These books are not what most people would call beach reading, but they are important to understanding what’s happening in the U.S. and around the world right now.

We know you probably don’t have time to read all of them. Hopefully this episode will help you choose one or two to tackle. Here’s the rundown of the books we discuss:

And here are a few others\ we recommend but didn’t have time to discuss in this episode:

Thank you to everyone who supported us on the first season of Democracy Works. Season two will begin in mid-August with a look at Confederate monuments and public memory on the anniversary of last summer’s riots in Charlottesville.


Bonus: A dose of optimism about the future of democracy



If you need a sense of hope about the future of democracy, you’ve come to the right place. Stephanie Keyaka, editor-in-chief of The Underground and one of the McCourtney Institute’s Nevins Fellows, is spending the summer interning for Zeke Cohen on the Baltimore City Council. She believes Baltimore is on the cusp of something big and is doing everything she can to help bring that change to fruition.

Stephanie Keyaka
Stephanie Keyaka

Stephanie’s spent her summer canvassing in support of an amendment that will give the council and the city’s residents more control over its budget and answering calls from city residents who are looking for help for problems ranging from the serious to the mundane. During the course of those conversations, she’s had the chance to deliver some optimism about the city’s future.

The Underground is an all-digital news platform at Penn State that covers campus and community events through a multicultural lens. Stephanie sees firsthand the power of the free press in a democracy and tries to instill a sense of passion and tenacity in the reporters she oversees.

Stephanie, like all of our Nevins Fellows, is extremely bright and very well spoken. It’s hard not to feel at least a little hopeful about the future of democracy with people like her poised to take the reins.


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.

Jud Mathews
Jud Mathews

If anyone can provide a definition, it’s Jud Mathews, an associate professor of law at Penn State. He has a law degree and a Ph.D. in political science (both from Yale, no less). Jud says we’re not in a constitutional crisis yet, but that constitutional norms — much like democratic norms — are eroding more and more each day.

Jud also cautions against using the term constitutional crisis too loosely because of the “boy who cried wolf” problem that we’ll become so desensitized that we won’t recognize one when it actually occurs. Beyond being a legal scholar, he has made the Constitution his life’s work. He’s passionate about what it represents and understandably upset to see its force as a roadmap for the country called into question.

If there’s one bright spot to take from this conversation, it’s that there are many dedicated public servants throughout the government who are committed to upholding constitutional norms and preventing a crisis from occurring.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you think were currently in a constitutional crisis?
  • If so, what role do you think citizens play in solving it?
  • In a situation similar to that described above where one branch ignores the constitutional order of another, how should we go about enforcing the rule of law?
  • Are you concerned that the pace at which current events develops today will prevent us from either identifying a constitutional crisis or being able to handle it when we spot it?
  • What role do you think the rising polarization of politics will have in being able to handle and correct a constitutional crisis if one were to develop?

Interview Highlights

[3:00] What is a constitutional crisis?

Jud: You can think of the constitution as a road map. One way to think about a constitutional crisis is that the government is going off the road or off the rails. Such a situation could be the fault of the public or it could be the fault of the document itself. For example, we might face a situation that the constitution does provide guidance for. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen very much in our system. It is also possible that the constitution does provide clear guidance, but we have a single actor who simply refused to follow this guidance and do what they want.

[4:30] Are there examples where we’ve been in such a situation in the past?

Jud: I think the biggest example that people would look at would be the secession preceding the Civil War. The constitution doesn’t really tell us what to do when a state wants to leave. This arguably led to a war over this issue. My definition is rather strict. Therefore, I wouldn’t say we’ve face many constitutional crisis type situations. One reason I’m strict on my definition is because of a potential “boy who cried wolf” problem. Here, someone complains of so many false emergencies that no one listens when there is an actual crisis. Another reason for the strict definition is that being in a crisis situation leads to serious uses of force potentially.

[7:15] We’ve heard people around the president say that he is above the law. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Jud: There is a strong respect within the constitution for the idea that while the president isn’t completely above the law, he is subject to it only through his own actions in executing the law. Under the constitution, the executive is charged with ensuring that the law is effectively carried out. Because of this, there is little the other branches can do to control the executive. While this does not mean that the executive is above the law, it is not the place of another branch, such as congress, to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the executive. Given this level of power, it’s incredibly important that the executive respect the law. To ensure this is done, there are many norms in place to sort of curtail the actions of the executive. What concerns me with this administration is at best an indifference and at worst a hostility towards these constitutional norms.

[9:42] What happens when these norms are violated?

Jud: There isn’t law about what happens when these norms are violated. However, elections can serve as a control when these norms are violated. When an executive violates a particular constitutional norm, they can be voted out of office in a following election. There is also the impeachment process. This is largely a political control option. While the constitution does spell out specifically what can be the ground for impeachment, whether the house goes through with filing charges or not is largely a political decision.

[11:00] Another view of a constitutional crisis is when one branch doesn’t follow order from another. Could you speak to a situation like this in terms of a constitutional crisis?

Jud: I think something like this with the executive not following an action by the legislative, such as overriding a presidential veto, absolutely is a constitutional crisis. However, it is possible that this stems from a legitimate dispute between the branches as to what the constitution requires. This is also a situation where there is not really a great solution or end game. Here, one branch is going to have its power limited and look inferior to another. However, if nothing is done, then we all loose as the constitution is disrespected. Something similar to this happened during the Civil War when Lincoln disregarded an order by the Supreme Court to honor the right to habeas corpus. Eventually, the country fought through it and got past it. However, the court perhaps lost some power and legitimacy as a result of the executive never really being held accountable for this.

[14:00] Today we see the events in the news greatly outpace development of the law. How do you see this impacting respect for the constitution and law?

Jud: It seems as thought our political life is on fast forward right now. I think this has a numbing effect on those who watch the legal actions of the administration.

[15:00] As a constitutional scholar, how does it make you feel to see constitutional norms being eroded?

Jud: It does make me concerned. One thing I think the president has yet to understand and respect is the fact that we have a set of legal norms to protect the proper role of constitutional governance. Many of the factors that influence constitutional governance will never see the inside of a court. These important matter will be decided by those in the administration. To ensure that these decisions are proper and respect the constitution, there is a large number of procedures in place. The president simply doesn’t show a lot of respect for these procedures. That being said, I’m confident because there are still a lot of very talented dedicated public servants in departments all around the government.


What public sector unions can teach us about democracy



Earlier this year, images of teachers protesting for higher wages in Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma flooded the airwaves as teachers took action against years, if not decades, of stagnant wages being asked to do more with less in the classroom. Teachers are one visible example of a public sector union, but many other state and federal employees from bus drivers to accounts are part unions, too.

Paul Clark
Paul Clark

In fact, public sector union participation is higher than it is in the private sector. In theory, this means that public employees  can advocate for the resources they need to make public life better for everyone. However, only about half of the states give their employees the right to unionize, and unions within the federal government are limited in what they can bargain for.

Those bargaining rights could become even more limited as the Supreme Court prepares to rule in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which will decide whether people who are not members of these unions have to pay union fees.

To help sort through this, we talked with Paul Clark, the director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State and an expert on unions. This is a wide-ranging conversation that covers everything from the history of public sector unions (they’re newer than you might expect) to the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Janus case.

We also talked with Paul about the impact that public sector unions have on democracy and what happens if they continue to weaken. Even unions that don’t have the ability to bargain over wages have managed to get creative about making their voice heard, but that can’t last forever. These are some of the people who are out there every day doing what it takes to make democracy work, and any efforts to curb their collective power could weaken their ability to do so.

Recommended Reading

Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court ruling

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you support the idea of public sector employees being able to unionize?
  • Why do you think they should or should not have this right?
  • Do you think there is something uniquely different between private and public sector workers that impacts whether or not they should be able to organize?
  • Given that tax payers pay the salaries for public workers, should they have a seat at the table when dealing with public sector unions?
  • Paul discussed a pending Supreme Court case where public employees may no longer be required to pay membership dues to unions that they don’t want to join. Where do you fall on this issue?
  • Do you think union membership will increase or continue to fall going forward?

Interview Highlights

[6:00] What types of public employees unionize that people might not think of naturally when they think of public unions?

Paul: Unions represent public workers at all levels. This means there are public unions at the federal, state, and local level. There is a wide array of services provided by people who are member of public workers unions.

[7:00] How did those groups come to be unionized?

Paul: Private sector workers got the right to organize and strike in the 1930s. Public workers were specifically restricted from getting those rights. This meant that public workers salaries lagged behind those of private sectors because private sector salaries increased as a result of being able to unionize. However, in the 60s, as part of other social movements, we saw public sector unions finally get the same rights to organize as those in the private sector. This was done at the state level. However, even today, only about half of the states extend this right to public employees. At the federal level, these rights are limited.

[8:40] In the time since public workers could unionize, have their salaries caught up with those in the private sector?

Paul: These public unions have been successful in improving the conditions of their workers in the states where workers have been able to organize. Pennsylvania is a good example as they were the first state to allow public workers to organize and strike. Here, you can track the improvement in benefits of these employees since the 70’s.

[10:00] There is the idea amongst the public that going into public work is almost altruistic because such workers can usually make more in the private sector. Does this play into union efforts of public workers at all?

Paul: Yes, it does. But just because these workers feel the need to bargain for better wages to support their families does not mean there is any less of a sense of service in doing what they do for the public.

[11:40] In the private sector, union fights are seen as the people against “the man”. How does this relationship look in the public sector?

Paul: Just like in the private sector, the managing director in public positions make the critical decisions for those workers. Much like a democratic system, unions work to ensure that all the power isn’t held by a small few over the masses. Unions bring this democracy to the workplace.

[14:30] We’ve heard a lot about a decline in private sector union membership. Is this trend reflected in public sector unions?

Paul: One reason we’ve seen private membership decrease is that private companies have decided to take them on and limit their power. In 2010, we saw these efforts to limit private sector being turned towards public sector unions because public membership was on the rise. The first battleground for this was Wisconsin. There, we saw a number of laws passed aimed at limiting the power of public unions. This turned into a wave within other states to limit the ability of public unions to operate effectively. The result is that we’ve seen considerable decline in public union membership. The next step in this effort to weaken public sector unions is a Supreme Court case that could prevent unions from being able to charge all of those receiving benefits under it four dues to the union.

[19:14] In Arizona, we saw a teachers union endorse a political candidate. Can you speak to this new growth in the political activity of public unions?

Paul: Many aspects of public workers careers are impacted by public laws. Therefore, they have a strong incentive to become active in the political process. The interesting thing about the developments in Arizona is that this is a state where public workers aren’t able to organize. While there are technically workers unions in that state, they can’t be involved with setting salaries in any way. As a result tax cuts have passed unchallenged and the about of tax dollars going towards education has decreased over the years.

[22:00] Do you think it’s possible for a new public sector union to develop in 2018?

Paul: This would be a very ambitious goal given the current political climate. However, even without formal unions, you have individuals who can use their voice to advocate for these types of things. I think these cases are instructive in showing the importance of these unions. There is a correlation between states with the best education standards and the best benefits for their teachers.


Unpacking political polarization



Polarization is a term that’s thrown around among political pundits as one reason for the decline of American democracy — often without an explanation of what it really means. We’re even guilty of it on this show.

Boris Shor
Boris Shor

To set the record straight, we talk with Boris Shor, an assistant professor at the University of Houston and an expert on political polarization. Boris breaks down what polarization means, and how it looks different in the legislature and in public opinion. This is an important distinction that is often lost in the efforts to frame the narrative in a tweet or a soundbite.

He also argues that polarization is not always an negative, especially at the state level, and that it might not be time to blow up the entire party system just yet. While we hear a lot about polarization in the media and from politicians (who themselves are polarized), the rest of the country might be more in the middle than you think.

This conversation was recorded at the 2018 State Politics and Policy Conference, which was hosted by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and brought more than 100 political science scholars to Penn State.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Have you seen politics become more polarized where you live?
  • Do you think one side has become more polarized than the other?
  • Do you think this is a dangerous trend in politics?
  • Have you either questioned or changed your party identification recently due to increased polarization?
  • What do you think is responsible for the increase in political polarization in American politics?
  • Do you think this problem will get worse in the years to come?

Interview Highlights

[4:00] What is political polarization?

Boris: Primarily, it is an ideological separation between two sides. This can also mean that the division within a particular party is decreasing. This means that the party is becoming more homogenous in terms of ideology. The internal division of ideology within parties goes away as polarization becomes more severe.

[5:50] Do we see this pulling apart happening within the political parties?

Boris: We are seeing this happen in the legislature. IT has been happening for a while now. It is less clear if this is happening in public opinion. In the area of public opinion, we are seeing people be more set in their parties. For example, those who may have been republicans but shift over to the Democratic Party are now much more likely to remain in the Republican Party.

[7:00] What does this polarization mean for democracy?

Boris: We’re concerned specifically because of how many veto points there are within our system. At many points, opposition can shut down certain initiatives. As the two sides become more polarized, the chances of government shutting down become greater. This is usually from a small group. One example is the freedom caucus within the republican side of Congress. This is a very small portion of the body, but one that can shut down legislation. Things operate a little differently at the state level where they are fewer such veto points. Also, we have fewer super majority requirements at the state level. Another important aspect of state politics is that you often have single party dominated states. For example, California is dominated by democrats. Therefore, if you’re a democrat, you like polarization in California because that means you can pass more progressive policies easily.

[10:30] Officials in California changed their primary process. What this an attempt to curtail polarization?

Boris: Yes, it was. Those leading the effort, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, were concerned about not having a political home given that they were moderates. The idea was to get away from the party controlled primary process which usually gives us very partisan candidates in the general election. Under the new system everyone runs together. We studied this system to see if it really had a moderating effect. A problem we’re seeing is lower voter turnout in the primaries. In order for this new system to work, you need higher turnout. We’re also seeing the problem of lockouts where the party splits their vote between multiple candidates and end up without a candidate getting to the state of the general election. Our study shows that this process worked for democrats in California but not the republicans. However, where it has been successful in increasing competition.

[13:50] How does this new type of system work in a more polarized public?

Boris: We know that polarization is significant at the primary stage of elections. We know that there are usually Marco movements in political opinion within the public. For example, we’ll have a long run of leadership of one party or the other, but then people will simply want a change and go with the other side. Overall, I think public opinion is more moderate that that of elites in politics.

[16:00] What effect does gerrymandering have on polarization?

Boris: It probably has less of an impact on polarization than people would expect. A good example of this is the US Senate. These state boundaries have been set for a long time. However, we still see these elected officials being more and more partisan. The point of gerrymandering is to create districts where your party firmly controls. This should actually lead to the majority party in a certain district having to moderate itself a little since they’re trying to appeal to a larger portion of the electorate. So I don’t think polarization is the chief concern as it relates to gerrymandering.

[18:00] How can states ensure that those in office truly represent those who live there?

Boris: Part of the problem is that we don’t know all of the relevant factors impacting political polarization. While we might not be able to impact the causes, we may be able to limit the effects, such as gridlock often caused by polarization. One way to do this would be eliminating the supermajority requirements in legislatures. However, this then leads to a debate about federalism and the idea of elections having consequences in that the majority who won gets to pass the policies they were elected to implement.

[20:00] What factors lead to “party switchers” which is someone moving from one party to another?

Boris: Party switching can be dangerous because you simply make a lot of enemies. What I think it points to is the importance of ideology. The increase in this phenomenon is a result of the parties becoming more and more polarized. Now we see moderates who simply don’t fit within what the respective parties have become.

[23:00] Following the 2016 election, some have proposed simply blowing up the traditional party structure. What do you think about that?

Boris: There is a reason we have two parties. This is due to the structure of our electoral system. What I’m more interested in is internal changes within the parties along ideological lines. For example, within the Republican Party, we’re still waiting to see if its going to become the party of Trump. There is reason to think this won’t happen given how trump candidates have faired in state elections. Switching over to democrats, here we are seeing the party becoming more polarized with prospective 2020 candidates now all supporting Medicare for all or single payer healthcare.


What should voting look like in the 21st century?



Across the U.S., the process to register to vote and cast a ballot is different in every state. And we’re not just talking about minor details. The entire registration process and timeline can vary widely from one state, as do the regulations surrounding campaign finance and electoral maps.

Kathy Boockvar
Kathy Boockvar

Pennsylvania tends to fall on the more restrictive side of things, and Governor Tom Wolf is trying to change that. Earlier this year, he announced the 21st Century Voting Reform Plan, which includes same day voter registration, changes to the absentee ballot process, as well as campaign finance reform.

Kathy Boockvar, Senior Advisor to the Governor on Election Modernization, has spent the past few months traveling to each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to build consensus the plan. We talked with her about using technology to increase voting access without compromising voter data in the process, and about the criticism from Pennsylvania Republicans that the voting reform plan is a convenient tactic for a Democratic governor in an election year.

While this episode talks specifically about Pennsylvania, the compromises that must be made across counties and municipalities exists everywhere and is indicative of why states are sometimes referred to as “laboratories of democracy.” It’s also an insight into the hard work that it takes to make large-scale change to one of the most fundamental parts of democracy.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Are there any problems that you’ve noticed in your state’s voting procedures?
  • If so, what improvements would you like to see your state enact?
  • As voting systems move more towards technological advancements, are you worried about data security?
  • Do you think the systems we currently use have been influenced by foreign entities?
  • Do you think there is a political motivation behind the efforts in Pennsylvania to changing voting procedures including the redistricting campaign?

Interview Highlights

[4:30] What do you think of when you hear the term “electoral modification”?

Kathy: We have a chance to advance both our technology as it relates to voting, as well as enabling more people to get to the polls. One example is the replacement of our aging voting machines. Also, we want to improve the way in which we register people to vote.

[5:40] Can you talk a little about how the governor’s voting plan came about?

Kathy: The governor is dedicated to ensuring that everyone has access to vote. Globally, we actually have a very low level of voter turnout. This plans includes not just the effort to increase vote turnout but also to address campaign finance reform and redistricting efforts. So there is a lot of work to do.

[6:30] Is there something you’re trying to tackle first?

Kathy: Absentee voting is one area we are addressing now. The State department has been working with the counties to work on improving this process, such as not requiring an excuse to be able to vote absentee. The way people travel and commute has change. We think this should lead to an updated voting procedure. We think we can really streamline the entire process

[8:00] It sounds like a daunting task. What do you think has contributed to the inability to make these changes in the past?

Kathy: There are many important partnerships between the state and local municipalities. This change doesn’t happen in a vaccine and requires cooperation with all of these small local governments.

[9:00] Do you find that concerns are different throughout the state, such as between urban areas like Philadelphia as compared to more rural areas?

Kathy: Every county is different from the next. Due to this, we aren’t going to find a magic solution that makes everyone happy. Therefore, coming to an agreement is going to require a lot of give and take between everyone.

[10:30] Do you look around the country and see the process of any particular state as a goal to reach here in Pennsylvania?

Kathy: All of the aspects of the plan we’re trying to instill have been introduced in other places. I’ve spoken with those in other states to discuss what they’ve done to improve their operations, such as updating the voting machines. Another example is same day registration, which has been adopted by many other states including D.C. This gives us a lot of great models to work from.

[11:30] Some have expressed concerns about Russia being able to hack the older voting machines. Is this a concern of yours?

Kathy: What a lot of people don’t realize is just how many security measures we have in place to protect the election. Also, that we are constantly expanding these. It is actually very difficult to conduct wide spread hacking of our system because of these checks. However, another problem is the age of our machines. One problem this brings is that newer operating systems may not be supported by these older machines going forward.

[13:20] Can you speak a little about the redistricting effort that we’ve seen?

Kathy: I think it’s becoming rather clear that the way in which these lines have been drawn does not reflect the intentions of the founders. Also, it doesn’t serve the best interests of the voters themselves. Therefore, we strongly support a change of the procedure to put the decision making in the hands of those who aren’t directly invested in the outcome of the redistricting. We also support not having political considerations involved in the process of drawing the lines. These efforts should get us back to the original intentions of having nice square districts that group similar communities together.

[15:00] How do you strike a balance between using technology to advance the system while also keeping voter information safe?

Kathy: Data security is going to be an issue we have to worry about for a long time going forward. This impacts every area of our life from medical information to our voting information. In terms of voting information, it is important to remember that there are many checks in place protecting your information. Also, it is important that people know that their voting results are never connected to the internet. Our systems are never linked up to any network. All results are personally delivered to the higher ups who officiate and confirm the election results.

[17:20] Republican opponents of the governor have claimed that this effort he is engaged in is simply a political move. Could you speak to that a little?

Kathy: The governor has been dedicated to this effort for decades well before he became governor. At the same time, we’re realistic about the political climate here and we realize that this won’t all pass this year. It is important to start this conversation. Given that we’re a battle ground state, it is concerning that we rank around the middle of the pack on voter turnout.

[21:00] What motivates you in this work?

Kathy: You never feel more connected to the idea of democracy than when you’re working to expand those who participate in the process via voting. The conversations with the individual counties is absolutely a part of that process in Pennsylvania. The people involved in this are very committed to making sure every vote is counted.


When the “business of business” bleeds into politics



What is the role of a corporation in a democracy? If you asked Milton Friedman, the answer would be none at all. He famously said in the 1970s that the only corporate social responsibility a company has is to turn a profit for its shareholders.

Forrest Briscoe
Forrest Briscoe

Some 40 years later, the answer to that question looks very different. Companies are increasingly stepping up to fill what they perceive to be a void left by polarized and paralyzed government. In the past year, we’ve seen Patagonia advocating to protect national parks from the Trump administration and Dick’s Sporting Goods banning the sale of assault weapons after the Parkland shooting. These organizations wield a lot of power, both financially and in swaying public opinion.

Forrest Briscoe, a professor of management in Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, has been studying the gradual closing of the gaps between business, government, and civil society and talks with us about what it means for employees, for companies, and for consumers.

The echo chambers we experience among our friends and our media may be bleeding over into the workplace — which has some serious implications for democracy. In a tight job market, a company’s political beliefs may even be a deciding factor when someone is considering multiple job offers.

The space between business, government, and civic life is closing faster than you think. We argue that it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but something that we should be aware of as workers, consumers, and democratic citizens.

Interview Highlights

[5:00] How have we gone through this change of corporations being single minded on profit to now being concerned with activism?

Forrest: We’ve come from a time where the idea of business doing something other than business would detract from their efforts of profit. A key characteristic which has changed over time is the fact that business and government aren’t these completely separated spheres like they used to be years ago.

[6:36] What are the factors that would impact a businesses decision to get involved with a certain cause?

Forrest: Sometimes companies will be forced to change because they’re being targeted by activists. However, we’re now seeing those at the top of companies wanting to actually reach out to these social movements. So we’re seeing effects work in both directions. Also, companies might see profit opportunities by embracing a certain cause or campaign. Another persuasion tactic is this use of benchmark competition that some movements have tapped into. For example, we see that LBGTQ groups have created rankings of the most friendly companies to their cause. This touches upon an driving interest amongst businesses, which is to beat their competition in some benchmark test.

[13:00] Do you think there is a danger in companies becoming too homogenous in political views as they get more and more involved in politics?

Forrest: Yes, and this is something we’ve been trying to study in our research. Any institution can have a varying amount of diversity along lines of political ideology. If this is paired with functional communication, it can be productive like a democracy. However, without the right culture, you can have a Balkanized effect where the company struggles with constant conflict along these ideological differences. I also worry about companies becoming too aligned with partisan ideas. If this continues, we could see a worsening of the partisan divided if our companies join the divide along with those in government.

[16:00] Can you address the consumer side of this issue?

Forrest: With boycotts, I think their increased numbers, but remoteness as to actual buying habits could reduce their overall effectiveness. There is also a new phenomenon known as “buycotts” where people are supporting those who they agree with ideologically by only doing business with the.


Michael Mann’s journey through the climate wars



Michael E. Mann in the studio with Jenna Spinelle.

This episode is not about climate change. Well, not directly, anyway. Instead, we talk with Nobel Prize winner and Penn State Distinguished Professor of Meteorology Michael E. Mann about his journey through the climate wars over the past two decades and the role that experts have to play in moving out of the lab and into the spotlight to defend the scientific process.

Doing so is more important now than ever, he says, as corporation-funded think tanks continue to churn out information that deliberately sows skepticism among the public about our role in climate change. But it does beg the question: How do square the idea that in a democracy, everyone’s vote is equal but everyone’s opinion is not?

Mann was part of the team that created the now-infamous hockey stick graph that showed how quickly the rate of warming on the planet had accelerated during the latter half of the 20th century. In the 20 years since graph was published, he’s had his email hacked, been called to testify before Congress, and been hounded by Internet trolls long before social media existed.

He chronicled those experiences in his 2012 book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. Despite it all, he’s more passionate than ever about spreading the good word about science and cautiously optimistic that things might turn out ok after all.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you think we have a problem in America with having rational and logical fact based discussions?
  • If so, why do you think this has grown to be a problem?
  • Do you think your political affiliation impacts your opinion on this issue and whether or not you’re willing to change your position on it?
  • Can someone subscribe to an ideology yet disagree with that ideology on this particular issue or any particular issue?

Interview Highlights

[6:00] In 2012, you wrote a book where you expressed cautious optimism that we were heading in a positive direction on climate change. Do you still have that same level of optimism?

Michael: Even today when there is cause of pessimism in the area of climate science, we are seeing progress on this issue at the state and local level. Also, we’re seeing progress on this issue of climate science in the private sector where corporations are taking it upon themselves to improve their practices. For example, when Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement, state and local leaders joined a pledge signifying there were still on board with the initiative. Given all of these efforts, we would still likely meet the goals under the initiative regardless as to whether we officially leave the agreement or not. However, meeting the Paris agreement is not enough to control global temperatures below dangerous levels. In order to accomplish this, we’ll have to do even more. However, we are starting to see a positive bend downward in global temperatures.

[9:00] In an era of government gridlock, we’ve seen an increase in private activism from companies and individual activist. Can you speak more to this?

Michael: This is perhaps the primary reason for optimism. In this atmosphere of hostility towards fact based discussion and action, we’ve seen a rebirth of citizen engagement on this issue. The science march in DC is a good example of this. We can’t just sit back after publishing the articles and let the government sort of figure it out. That doesn’t work anymore.

[10:30] You talk in your book about scientists having to come out and be advocates of facts. Can you speak more about that challenge?

Michael: I would have been happy to have been left alone in the lab doing what I love to do, which is scientific study and solving problems. The last thing on my agenda was the idea that I’d get in the debate over human caused climate change. It is not what I signed up for. However, whether I liked it or not, I was thrust out into the public arena when we published the hockey stick graph. It is an uncomfortable place to be. Partly because this isn’t what we’re trained for. We are trained to live in a world where facts and logic rule the day. When you leave this sphere, the rules of engagement are completely different. Here, facts and logic don’t play the same role as they do in the field of science. Here, rhetoric wins over logic. If you’re going to succeed as a scientists in this political sphere, you have to adapt how you convey information to the public in an adverse atmosphere. Over time, I’ve become comfortable in this role.

[14:00] What is the Serengeti Strategy? How was it used against you and then how did you turn it back against those who disagree with you?

Michael: It is an analogy for how critics of climate science attack those who stray from the pack of climate science. I coined that phrase after a trip to the Serengeti where we say a group of Zebras lined up side to side. Our guide informed us that this is a strategy for confusing predators. With a wall of stripes, the predators don’t have a single target to lock in on. Essentially, it is a defense strategy. The critics know they can’t take down something like an entire government panel on climate change, but they can single off a particular scientist and go after them.

[16:45] At any point during the attacks you experienced did you question what you were doing?

Michael: I was very confident in our science. Also, the fact that dozens of other studies have supported our original findings, I’m even more confident in the work we were doing at that time.

[17:30] In light of the Serengeti Strategy, is there a belief within the scientific community that you have to sort of present a unified front?

Michael: I don’t think so. There is robust within the field about different approaches to study and to solving the problem. Scientists spend most of their time arguing about advancing the science between what is known and what isn’t know. It is by disagreeing and challenging popular opinion that advances and new discoveries are reached. This is also how people get funded. However, this is often used by opposition to argue that we’re just in this for the money. That is just not the case.

Another important thing to point our is the significant of a scientific organization coming out with a definitive statement about the impact of climate change. Usually, the scientific communities strays from such strong statements. The fact that there is enough agreement from a diverse field for an institution to make this statement is something people should take note of.

[20:40] Do you have an opinion on the idea that in a democracy all votes are equal but opinions are not?

Michael: There is an attack on expertise and fact based debates. While this is a new issue broadly speaking, this is something we in the climate science community have been dealing with for years. All of the tools used against our research years ago are the same ones we’re seeing be employed today along a broad range of topics at the national level. What I think we’ve seen is that the environment around discrediting our work has metastasized to infect our entire body politic.

[24:00] What do you think is the treatment or cure for some of the problems we’re seeing in fact based debate nationally?

Michael: Ultimately, the only real solution is democracy and the democratic process. This includes people getting out to vote. If we allow special interests to continue to outweigh the voters, we’ll see a continued push back against our efforts.

[26:00] Can you speak about a time where you saw someone’s opinion on climate science change after speaking with you?

Michael: There have been some great examples. An employee of the AEI, which is a Coke brothers front group, came to the realization that he had been fighting for the side of evil. He is still a republican, but he is now trying to be on the right side of the science. I’ve come across many skeptics, which is not inherently a bad thing. All good scientists are skeptics. However, being skeptical in the fact of overwhelming evidence is not good skepticism. There have been many instances where I’ve had people come to me after a lecture and tell me that they are a least questioning their prior position. This is all we can ask for. We can’t want to replace one sort of evangelism with another. We want people to be able to critically evaluate the evidence. We have to help them to be able to do that.


Can young people revive civic engagement?



Peter Levine head shot
Peter Levine

Peter Levine is one of the country’s leading scholars in the area of civic engagement. He is the Associate Dean for Research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life and author of “We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America.”

The very idea of civic engagement has changed drastically in the past decade or so as communities form online instead of in person. Does this mean young people are more likely to become engaged in civic and political issues? And, will that engagement translate into votes? Peter and his colleagues study these questions and will be watching closely heading into November’s election.

The interview with Peter also touches on what today’s young people can learn from their predecessors 50 years ago. We heard from Tommie Smith about the struggles he faced in 1968; Peter reflects on how civic engagement looks different today and how students today can keep activism alive.

For more information on Peter’s work, visit the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at civicyouth.org or his website at peterlevine.ws.

Interview Highlights

[7:00] What do you think about the activism of Generation Z?

Peter: I am excited about what they’re doing. I would attribute a lot of this to good civil education. I also think its relevant that they’re coming to age in an era of political energy and engagement. While I wouldn’t say this is exactly the dawning of generation z, I would say it is the beginning of a very interesting time in American history.

[8:15] How can people find a common ground to facilitate discussions on difficult topics?

Peter: I wish I had a good answer for this. For example, the gun debate is a good one to have but I’m not sure how much change it can lead to. I think the kids protesting for gun control have the right to do that. However, they shouldn’t be carrying the burden to do so. Also, it isn’t their responsibly to lead a balanced debate on the topic. They are allowed to advocate for their specific stance on the issue.

[11:00] We are in a very important anniversary year of 1968. What can youth activists learn from their predecessors fifty years ago who found themselves in a contentious time?

Peter: The most inspiring stories to me are the high points of the civil rights movement during that time. There is also a lot to be learned from that movement. For example, it’s important to teach students that Rosa Parks wasn’t just some tired old woman who had simply had enough. We should teach kids that in fact she was a long time activist with the NAACP, and that this was a planned political action. This teaches kids how to operate activism today.

[12:20] How do you ensure that proper history is being thought to kids?

Peter: There are several problems with ensuring accurate teaching of this history. One problem is that its presumed that this civil rights movement was led by a relatively small number of individuals. Most of them being men. Also, it is incorrectly described to children as a rather spontaneous movement and development. When it reality, it was a long fight that is still being fought today.

[13:00] Do you thin that social movements today still need the sort of big movement leaders of the 60’s?

Peter: This is difficult to balance. Especially given the fact that we’re in a time of celebrity politics where our president is in the position due mostly to his celebrity status before taking office. On the other hand, we have social movements that are almost allergic to any one figure being the leader. They don’t’ like to structure themselves with strong leaders. Occupy Wall street would be a good example of this disdain for structured leadership within a movement. There is absolutely a less prominent role within these movements than the movements of the 60’s. It feels like a rapidly shifty terrain where we have an increased value of celebrity along side of movements that are focused on not having specific leadership structures.

14:30: Another key question about youth engagement is whether or not they’ll vote. What is your take on this aspect of the issue?

Peter: I do think they’ll boost youth turnout. However, it will be an increase from a terrible point in the last election. This turnout will also make a difference in terms of who will win these races. For example, the different results in the 2006 and 2014 midterm races can be explained by the variation in youth voting. I think the Parkland kids have a potential to impact turnout by a few percent specifically because of their focus on getting out the vote.

[16:10] Why do you think the youth turnout in the 2016 race was the lowest we’ve ever seen?

Peter: It had been pretty bad for a long long time. There are many relevant factors leading to this. Part of the problem is that there isn’t a concerted effort to getting out the youth vote. Many tend to ignore the youth vote. While we see good youth turnout in the presidential races, this dips considerably in mid term races. This is due partly to the fact that smaller local races don’t have the resources to target the youth vote. Also, it is easier for young voters to get to the information they want without having to come in contact with information about their local races. This negatively impacts their interest and therefore their participation in these races. Also, young people are less connected to large institutions that would have informed them of these local races.

[17:45] Do you see anything coming up to replace these traditional institutions that used to get the youth involved in voting?

Peter: I think there is a variety of possible replacements. From social media to apps, there are many places for young people to gather. However, none of them have the infrastructure or business model of the traditional media outlets or churches from the 50’s. It is mostly a question of how to transform these possible replacements into more substantive long term institutions. I don’t think we have that yet. The channels available now weren’t designed specifically to be these new institutions. This is also causing a problem.


Bonus: Democracy In Action #1



We love talking with scholars and thought leaders on Democracy Works, but we’d also like to bring you the everyday stories of democracy in action. This the first installment in that series.

We visited the central Pennsylvania chapter of Moms Demand Action and heard how they are using the power of conversation to reframe the gun debate and reinvigorating a sense of civic engagement among members. A recent meeting also included a “government 101” presentation that covered the basics of how a bill becomes a law and the best way for someone to contact an elected official.MOMS Demand Action logo

In this mini episode, you’ll hear from Lori Wieder, who is a founding member of the central Pennsylvania Moms Demand Action Chapter, and from Katie Blume, deputy political director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. Both Katie and Lori are firm believers — as we are — in the power that can come from everyone exercising their power as small-d democrats regardless of political affiliation.

Do you have a story of democracy in action? Drop us a line at democracyinst@la.psu.edu; we’d love to hear about it and consider it for a future Democracy Works episode.


A conversation about conversation



This week’s episode seeks to answer one simple, but very important, question: Why is it so hard for people to talk to each other? There are a lot of easy answers we can point to, like social media and political polarization, but there’s another explanation that goes a bit deeper.

Laurie Mulvey
Laurie Mulvey

Laurie Mulvey, executive director of World in Conversation, is the perfect person to help us explore this question. World in Conversation has facilitated more than 10,000 dialogues over the past 15 years. They bring people from all walks of life together to have dialogues about important issues from climate change to race relations. In the process, they break down the misconceptions and preconceived notions that often get in the way of one person understanding — and relating to— someone else.

Of course, most dialogues do not happen in a controlled environment with a facilitator in the room. Laurie shares some advice for how to handle your next family dinner or other situation where things might get a little heated. She also shares how the World in Conversation is preparing the next generation of democratic citizens to overcome the partisan divides that bog down political discourse.

As we say in the episode, Laurie raises the optimism quotient of this podcast quite a bit.

Interview Highlights

[6:06] Why is it so difficult for people to engage in dialogue today? 

Laurie: What I think happens is that we end up needing facilitators. Just like in sports we need referees. Here they would be dialogue referees.

[6:55] What are the elements of a good dialogue?

Laurie: Candidness and disagreement with respect is important. Having mutual respect is especially important. When we don’t talk with an understanding of each other’s positions they aren’t as productive and they don’t show us as much.

[14:00] What impact do you think social media has had on our ability and willingness to engage in dialogue? 

Laurie: Personally, I don’t notice much of a difference. We actually have a lot of conversations. However, they’re either with like minded people or they are a “hit and run” type conversation with people who don’t think like us. The only change that social media has brought is that we’re doing this with people from our living rooms.

[15:40] We have seen our culture become more polarized politically. Have you seen this reflected in the conversations you lead?

Laurie: We try to find polarizing topics and get different sides represented in our conversations. Therefore, I’m not sure if we see an increase in the extent of the polarization. Actually, we try to get people in our conversations to say the things that are controversial. At this point, the polarization becomes apparent. However, I don’t think this is real. I dont’ think most people live in this polarity that we like to talk about.

[17:40] How can we take the work you’ve done working with conversations and apply it in the real world such as at dinner table talks?

Laurie: It is important to be in the mindset for listening. The mindset you need to be in is ‘tell me something I dont’ already know’. However, I strongly believe that even in these settings we need a facilitator to help navigate the conversation.

[19:24] What skills does someone need to be a good facilitator? 

Laurie: Fundamentally, you have to be able to talk all sides. You have to find what is true in all sides of a conversation. As long as you can do that, you can sort of fumble through everything else.

[20:22] Is there a certain point in a conversation where you would advise people to end a conversation? 

Laurie: I think we all know intuitively that there is a time to end a heated conversation.

[21:30] Given all of the conversations you’ve been a part of, are there any memories that really stick out?

Laurie: There was one conversation between Israelites and Palestinians where one guest from Palestine said he couldn’t even go in the room. But by the end of his time working with me his greatest challenge was that he came to understand so much about the Israelis perspective that he wasn’t sure what it meant given his position as a Palestinian. I do the work because the people who have the hardest positions will get the most out of it.


Ten thousand democracies



One of the things we talked about in our episode with How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt is the “grinding work” that it takes to make a democracy function. School board meeting rooms around the country are some of the places where that happens at the grassroots level.

Robert Asen
Robert Asen

If you’ve ever been to a school board meeting, you know that they’re not always exciting. However, the work that these boards do directly impacts the schools, the children who attend them, and the community at large. Board positions are not full-time and the people who hold them are rarely career politicians. Rather, they’re everyday citizens who want to make an impact — exactly the type of people come together to make democracy work.

We talk about the role that school boards play in a democracy with Robert Asen, a professor of rhetoric, politics, and culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Asen is the author of Democracy, Deliberation and Education, which is based on a yearlong study of three school boards in Wisconsin. While the examples he references are specific to Wisconsin, it’s easy to hear the conversations and deliberations playing out at schools across the country.

Asen visited Penn State to deliver the 2018 Kenneth Burke lecture in the McCourtney Institute’s Center for Democratic Deliberation.

Interview Highlights

[6:00] What are the factors that motivate people to join a school board?

Robert: What connects people to these groups are often times their own experiences, including those with their children. There were others who didn’t have children at the school, but saw the school board as an opportunity to get involved with their community.

[7:30] Did you find that people joined the school board because there was a particular change they wanted to see?

Robert: It wasn’t the case for everyone, but there were some who wanted to see particular policy be passed. Across the districts we looked at, there was a more general sense of bringing about change in an effort to improve the schools. They were more focused on improving the lives of students rather than any one particular issue.

[8:40] While these board members are voted on, they are not what we would think of as politicians. How does this play out?

Robert: One of the things that separates these governing boards from other types of elected positions is that these members are not politicians. They don’t have dedicated staff or resources. Many of these members also worked another full time job. This was an additional burden they decided to take on. There are many democratic institutions in our society run by people without formal government education or training. However, they manage to succeed nonetheless. There really is a strong sense of connection to community here. These board members very much see themselves as part of the community working to improve things for citizens.

[11:10] How are these members successful without being career politicians?

Robert: What I mean when I say they succeed is that they are able to make what they believe to be the best decision for the community moving forward. To be successful in this type of setting is to have a sense of what is it that they want to achieve. In this case, they succeed because they’re in communication with education professions and are able to reach their collective goals.

[12:30] Surely there is a good amount of compromise being reached in order to get things done. Can you speak to this in your research?

Robert: There was one example in particular that comes to mind here. One district was considering a proposal from a student group to create a gay student alliance. One board member spoke about his personal experience with this group given that his own son was friends with one of the students trying to create the group. He described him as just your average kid. He described them as normal good kids rather than some political revolutionaries looking to upend the community. He also talked about his own teenage years and how he and his friends might have acted inappropriately around this subject. He spoke about how times are changing and the fact that these kids just wanted a way to meet and be recognized in a group. Here, it was more about practicality winning in the end.

[14:50] What about school boards enables them to tackle difficult issues that other institutions can’t?

Robert: School boards certainly do struggle with deliberation and decision making. However, there are different approaches taken here to solve difficult problems than say within state and federal institutions. The way that polarization manifests at the local level is much different than at the state or national level. We know that communities can sort of segregate themselves naturally along racial and economic lines. This leads to small or medium school districts that may be completely contained within these homogenous areas along what can be rather divisive lines. There is also a unique sense of community. These members feel as though they are a part of the communities that they are impacting with their decisions. This goes a long way towards these bodies reaching important decisions for their institutions.

[19:20] How do school boards work with district administration?

Robert: That is usually the most important and difficult relationship for a school board. When these two work together, a lot can be accomplished. However, when they’re at odds, that can undermine all of the decisions within a district. Everyone has to negotiate their roles. When these relationships begin to break down it is because of a collapse or misunderstanding of each others roles.


It’s good to be counted



Jennifer Van Hook
Jennifer Van Hook

The next census is still a few years away in 2020, but the U.S. Census Bureau is already hard at work on preparing to count the more than 325 million people in the United States. The census is one of the few democratic norms that’s required by the Constitution, and the data collected has wide-ranging uses.

The normally routine process has been disrupted this year by Trump administration, which is pushing for the reintroduction of a question about citizenship. As you may have heard, there’s a debate going on about whether this question is appropriate, and whether the resource-strapped Census Bureau will have time to implement it before 2020.

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. She talks about the process for creating and testing new questions, the implications of asking about citizenship, and some of the ways you might not realize census data is used.

Additional Information

Jenny’s piece about the Census in The Conversation

2020 Census website

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you think it is necessary for a democracy to have this sort of information that the census gathers?
  • How often do you think the census should be performed?
  • Do you think the citizenship question should be added to the census? Why or why not?
  • If you could add a question to the census, what would it be?
  • Do you plan on participating in the 2020 census? Why or why not?

Interview Highlights

[6:06] What do you see as the role the census plays in a democracy?

Jennifer: It is fundamental for a representative democracy. The United States was actually the first nation in the world to require that a census be conducted. This was done because they wanted to distribute power according to population within the states. The number of representatives each state gets in the House is proportionate to the population. Therefore, the census is very important.

[7:28] In addition to determining representation in Washington, what are some of the other purposes of the census? 

Jennifer: One of the other uses is the civil rights legislation that has been passed since the 60’s. This helps tell us if certain groups are under represented. This information can show us if certain groups are being discrimintated against within society. The people conducting the census are expected to be non-partisan. Therefore, they collect the information while not saying anything about the data. They simply give it to the public because they want to stay out of the politics of this information.

[9:20] In the era of “fake news” and people being able to cherry pick their facts, how will the census be viewed and used going forward? 

Jennifer: The staff that conducts the census takes considerable measures to strip the data of any political leanings. One way this is done is by having multiple authors for all reports to prevent any one bias from impacting how data is reported. They also work in large teams with multiples checks for each bit of data collected.

[10:40] There are reports that the there is underfunding for the census. How will the organization continue to meet its standards with this funding issue? 

Jennifer: There is no set director of the census bureau. This lack of direction could cause a problem. One of the thing people have been worried about is the ability of the bureau to conduct out reach and inform people about the census. For example, many people don’t realize that the bureau can’t share its information with Ice. This is significant to share with immigrants who might fear participation in the census out of immigration police fears. This goes to the importance of building trust amongst the public to get them to participate.

[12:35] How does the bureau actually go about counting everyone in the country?

Jennifer: Everyone gets a postcard in the main informing them they have to participate. If you don’t respond to that, you might get follow up contact. This is the most expensive part of the process. If people don’t respond to the first contact, and they have to be contacted again, this is where the cost can really increase for the census process.

[13:25] How does the bureau use past experiences to improve the process? 

Jennnifer: They do but it takes a lot of time. They try to improve their operation. However, this is difficult given the size of the debarment. It is difficult to turn on a time and change the way they conduct their business. Any small change takes a lot of time.

[14:30] What goes into deciding on the wording of a question for the census? 

Jennifer: Every part of the question is tested. The introduction of a new question typically takes several years because of all the test to make sure people interpret the question correctly as intended. We also consider a question from the standpoint of its impact on people’s willingness to participate in the census in light of it. In terms of the citizenship question, this has become more of a hot button topic especially given the anti-immigrant rhetoric in society today. This means that the field test questions done in the past for this topic might have to be changed because we just don’t know how people will respond to it this time.

[16:37] Wilbur Ross has said that he thinks the benefit of the citizenship question will outweigh the potential risks of lower response rates. Do you agree with that? 

Jennifer: No, I don’t. I don’t think the bureau has shown that this question is really necessary. Typically, questions that make the census form have to be dictated by law as being necessary. So you can’t just add questions because you think they wont’ harm the utility of the census. Every question has to be there because it is required. There is another survey called the American Community Survey. They have been collecting citizenship information for years. This data has been used to enforce the voting rights act. I’m not aware of any problems with this survey being used to gather citizenship information.

[17:50] Can you talk about how this survey differs from the census survey? 

Jennifer: It is a much longer survey. The questions change from year to year. It is administered to roughly 3.5 million people every year. It provides more detailed information on an annual basis for the population. It provides us with more specific information even down to the county level.

[19:37] How is census information used to impact federal policy?

Jennifer: It is particularly useful when we need to know something about the populations health. One example would be looking at the changing life expectancy. This information wouldn’t be known without procedures like the census. It is the backbone of our federal statistical system.

[21:20] What would you say to someone about why they should participate in the census? 

Jennifer: It is good to be counted because we don’t know about our population unless we measure it.


Satire is good for more than just a few laughs



Political satire has been around nearly as long as politics itself and can provide a much needed laugh in times of crisis.

Sophia McClennen
Sophia McClennen

But, as you’ll hear from our guests this week, it’s much more than that. Satire is a check on people in power and helps to engage the public around issues that might otherwise go unnoticed — both of which are essential for a healthy democracy.

But, are we reaching a place where the comedy has become the news? The success of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and most recently John Oliver suggest that we might be heading in that direction. What about fake news? It’s all fun and games until you can’t tell the real news from the satire, and that’s concerning.

On the bright side, people who consume satire tend to be more well-informed about politics than those who do not, suggesting that one needs a solid foundation of what the news actually is in order to get the jokes that are being made about it.

Steve Brodner
Steve Brodner

We discuss the current state of political satire and where it might be heading with Sophia McClennen and Steve Brodner.

Sophia, a Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at Penn State, writes regularly for Salon and recently appeared on StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Steve is a cartoonist at caricaturist who has drawn every president since Ronald Regan. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Washington Post just to name a few.

Interview Highlights

[7:02] What is the role of satire in a democracy?

Sophia: It doesn’t have that big of a role because it usually comes into the picture when things aren’t going that well. Satire emerges in moments of crisis. Today it is playing an extremely big role. Largely because the news media has shifted in how it informs the public.

[8:01] What about the nature of a crisis makes satire more popular and come out more in political conversations?

Sophia: Satire tends to come about when people are faulty or are doing stupid things. Satire is typically a contrarian position.

[8:42] What are creators of satire trying to accomplish?

Sophia: Satire is typically used to get the audience to think critically. The idea is to get people out of the binary option mindset. Many see the satirist as someone trying to tell them what to think. However, what they’re actually doing is trying to call out the way in which a conversation it being framed and recommend a change to that.

[10:05] What do we know about the types of people who consume satire?

Sophia: People who consume satire tend to be smarter. They also seem to be more creative on average. Part of the reason for this is the fact that satire depends on irony, which is art of playing with language. In terms of irony, the ability to hear a word and be able to comprehend that it has multiple meanings is a sign of an ability to be brighter and more creative.

[12:07] Is there a “my team, your team” dynamic in the application of satire to politics?

Sophia: It is suggested that we have a better ability to detect irony if it confirms our political positions.

[12:38] Where does the First Amendment fit into the creation and use of satire in politics? 

Sophia: Following the ruling in the Falwell v. Hustler case, satirists were found to be protected under the First Amendment under a particular clause of creativity. This differs from what a newspaper might be able to get away with. A key component is how the creators frame their comment. A key in Huslter was the fact that the intent of the offensive comment was to make fun of the individual rather than attempt to make a factual claim regarding their actions.

[15:38] What other effects have you seen satire bring about?

Sophia: Satire does have “boundary heightening effects”. This is the idea that it is ok to make fun of certain groups depending on ones particular membership in that group. When you cross into different groups, this can anger members of that group, or supporters of a particular individual that those members support. Therefore, one downside to satire is that it can deepen certain political gaps.

17:20 Would one then be accurate in saying that satire increases political polerization?

Sophia: Yes, this will absolutely happen. Satire does have a blowback effect on those who think the system is working. This is because the purpose of satire is often to attack the current system and the norms in which a particular issue is addressed in. However, there is research that suggests that the use of satire can create political energy and momentum and a shared narrative.

[19:40] Have you done any research looking at how satire has evolved? 

Sophia: While it has changed, I’m not sure I would use the word evolved because that suggests that it is getting better. In light of the changes we’ve seen, it might be nice if there was still a difference between the news and satire. One measurable change is how news gathering and satire have merged. Today, many people use satirical displays and shows as their first source of news. Memes are also shaping public narratives. This mergering of news and satire is one that isn’t going away. In fact, it is increasing.

[21:00] Do you have any thought on where political satire might go from here? 

Sophia: One problem going forward will be the relationship between satire and “fake news” because satirical headlines, if not understood as satire, can become taken as hard reporting and as factual. For example, the top shared “fake news” of last year was a headline that read “Pope Francis Endorses Trump.” We’re in a situation now that things are  being shared around for the reason of tricking the audience come dangerously close to looking like satire news headlines. Years ago John Stewart on the Daily Show was referred to as creating “fake news”, and that wasn’t an insult at the time.


Tommie Smith: From sharecropper to Olympic protester



Tommie Smith with the Democracy Works podcast team (Jenna Spinelle, Michael Berkman, Chris Beem)

Tommie Smith is a true living legend. He won a gold medal in the men’s 200 meter event at the 1968 Olympics, setting a world record in the process. When he took the medal stand in Mexico City that day, he made history again by raising a black-gloved fist during the National Anthem.

As you’ll hear, Tommie didn’t grow up in a political family and didn’t see himself as an activist when he enrolled at San Jose State University. That changed when he met Dr. Harry Edwards and became involved with Olympic Project for Human Rights, where he found his voice and used it to speak out against racial segregation in sports and elsewhere.

When Tommie and teammate John Carlos raised their fists on the podium in Mexico City, many interpreted the gesture as a symbol of the Black Power movement. However, as Tommie says, the action was not necessarily about one cause or movement. Rather, it was a symbol of a broader struggle for power and equality.

Tommie visited Penn State as part of a yearlong look at the events of 1968 organized by the College of the Liberal Arts.

For more on the relationship between athletes and protests, check out our episode with Abe Khan, who has studied this topic extensively and draws comparisons between Smith and modern-day athletes like Colin Kaepernick.

 

Interview Highlights

[5:10] What was your family like? Did you come form a political family? Did you talk politics at dinner or attend political rallies? 

Tommie: No, Just the opposite. My family was a sharecropper background. My father actually had no education. My parents met in Texas and we were just sharecroppers. We had no political background, but there were issues in society and the system that we knew nothing about because of where we were. We worked from grass roots up until I got to the junior or senior year of high school, and that is the time social change began. I was just in time to see it. Before I read about it, I lived it. When I read about it, I remember those times. Not in the south, but in California which shadowed the south in terms of the field work.

[6:52] Were you drawn there (San Jose State) because of Dr. Edwards? How did all of those pieces come together? 

Tommie: There were many colleges looking to recruit me. The last two colleges out of about thirty six were San Jose and USC. I visited USC. It was a little big. They shouldn’t hav taken me to Disney Land. It scared the heck out of me. I’m used to two story buildings and that was really high up. I’m from the area of cabins and not buildings. They put me on a blind date which was a no-no. San Jose State was what I wanted academically because I wanted to become a school teacher. So I made a trip to San Jose. It was simple and the buildings were short. It was also a small city.

[8:29] Tell me about meeting Dr. Edwards and making this transition into becoming an activist.

Tommie: Once I started school, he was one of the first people I met at San Jose State. He was a senior as I was coming in as a freshman. The first thing he told he was that there’s no way you can come here with me being here and not carry a book. Whenever I see you, carry a book even though you don’t read just so I think you’re reading. So I got a feel for him and his educational power when I first got there. That helped me tremendously. So I started carrying a book. Then I started carrying two books. Then I started reading the first one. Then I began to read the second one, and they would become interesting because he would start asking me questions. I was a fast learner because I had to be because I didn’t know very much once I got to San Jose State. Believe in something bigger that you that way you wouldn’t have any problem learning because someone else would help you. That faith of believing in rather than doing myself was my shot right there.

[9:56] Given that you came from this simple background and your parents weren’t very political, what did they think as you started to take on this more activist role and become more political yourself? 

Tommie: My mom and my dad didn’t know enough about the educational process, especially on the political side to ask me questions about what I was doing. They heard about it. There were people in town who would let them know that Tommie is doing pretty good. The town was a predominantly white town and they (the family) would receive a lot of threats because of what there son was doing and saying. I heard these things through my younger brothers and sisters. I was trying to make a decision as to what I should do. I learned how to take shots and how to take abuse on both ends and still make a path in the center and that’s what made me stronger in my competitions and my academic needs while in college.

[11:47] Jumping forwards to the 1968 Olympics, can you talk about some of the different pressures you were facing going into that final meet? 

Tommie: My personality was very quiet in college. I talked very little unlike now. Sometimes I didn’t talk at all during the day even in class. When I started talking, that was freedom for me because I became free to do things, which moved me into using competition and athletics to expound upon my feelings and the necessity in society for equality. Because of my athleticism, I had a platform to speak sensibly because I had a background of doing to others as I wanted done to me. Unfortunately, this was not the situation so I had to fight for that equality. This took me to the Olympic Project for Human Rights which was started by Dr. Edwards on the campus of San Jose State. I was recruited to talk about competitions, but this also gave me the opportunity to talk about the advancement of man equally. And that it what got me in trouble. But those getting in trouble for this are some of the most important people you can be around. This brought the pride of not being afraid to talk about those things. That’s highlighted a lot of issues even today. Today, young people are standing up because they’re no longer afraid.

[14:25] Do you think it’s easier today for young people to stand up and make their voices heard than it was for you and your colleagues?

Tommie: There is not such thing as easy because it saddens the human being to think that you’re being overlooked. There is also a sacrifice in speaking out for young people because they are being disallowed to do things because they’re standing up for the right of students to move forward. My personal thought, you can’t turn back. There is no relaxing. You have to continue. Those who are being active just to cause problems must be outnumbered by those looking to use this to make advancements socially in life to take the whole rock and move forward.

[17:10] The National Anthem is not a short song. What was going through your mind during that? 

Tommie: It is an hour and a half long. That is what it felt like. I was praying during that time. Even though you’re praying and hoping people see this as an ultimate value through sacrifice, that thought doesn’t help that tired arm sticking in the air with the glove on it. This implied the power that is needed for us to move forward as a society. This was not about black power or black panther. This was about human rights. The black love indicated a sight of power. The ramification of that particular move ratifying it as a positive gesture, not a gesture of hate. It takes too much energy to hate. The idea of the glove represented power. Being a black athlete, they saw it as black power. Fine, but it was not “black power” in the sense of implicating voice. The rolled up pants with the socks represented poverty and the need to end poverty. The bowed head represented prayer. I did what I did because I thought there was a need for me to do it.

[21:54] Do you think that the needle on politics crossing over into sports has moved at all over the last 50 years?

Tommie: Politics has been a part of sports since people started sitting down and watching it. If you don’t think that sport has a place for politics then you’re missing the excitement of sport because sport is politics even more so now. At the olympics the flag of each nation was shown. That was a prideful thing because you got to meet other athletes. Athletes then were used for the sensation of making money for the olympic committees. They (heads of committees) were driving nice cars while the athletes were suffering for their lunchmeat at school. Even those on full scholarship like I was. Avery Brundage was a racist person, but he didn’t know anything else to do.

[27:15] What was it like for you emotionally to go from being vilified to being praised and honored?

Tommie: I’m from an area where I was vilified as a child in the fields seeing my parents taunted. My mother died in 1971 because of pressure from that and other things around her. Vilification came way before Mexico City. So when I was vilified following the games I just resorted back to how I handled it back then.

 

 


Generation Z and the future of democracy



Over the past few months, the members of Generation Z have combined the tenets of traditional social movements with the power of social media to reimagine what it means to protest in a democracy. That energy was on display during the March for Our Lives events held around the world on March 24.

Kayla Fatemi speaks at the State College March for Our Lives event.
Kayla Fatemi speaks at the State College March for Our Lives event.

We interviewed several students from State College, Pennsylvania (where our podcast is based) who attended March for Our Lives events locally and in Washington, D.C. They speak passionately and articulately about what they believe in and how they’re working to carry forward the energy they’ve create

In this episode, you’ll hear from:

  • Kyra Gines and Kayla Fatemi, high school students who organized the March for Our Lives in State College.
  • Lilly Caldawell and Lena Adams, who organized a walk out at their middle school.
  • Hannah Strouse and Cian Nelson, who attended the March for our Lives in Washington, D.C.

If what we saw and heard from these students is any indication, the future of our democracy looks very bright.

Interview Highlights

[6:34] Kyra on activism and motivation for the march for our lives event.

With everything happening this year, it felt natural to set up these events and continue to make our voices heard. I want to do what I can within my constraints. I can’t vote for a number of years, but I can work with those who can and who set up events like this I can go up there, I can make a speech, and I can make my voice heard. I will continue to do so until I can hear and see change.

[7:48] Kayla on activism and the movement towards creating change.

One good thing about the United States in the right to free speech and the right to express ourselves and to vote. Democracy for us is voting in those who will be advocating for our lives. This was something I felt I had to do. I think many other students had the same feeling after watching the Parkland students who are our peers. We are a different generation than the millennial generation. We are a lot more vocal and a lot less afraid. We’ve seen a lot of things happen (school shootings) and if something is going to happen we are going to have to do it ourselves. Our generation is finally becoming old enough where we can go out there and do these sort of things. We are continuing to work on voter registration. We also have another school walkout scheduled for April 20th, which is not sponsored by the school.

[10:19] Lena Adams from Delta Middle School on how students created a similar march at their school.

We worked really hard at getting to participate in the walkout without any school suspensions. The majority of our school walked out to support changes in gun legislation and to memorialize the victims (Parkland). I thought that was really cool.

 [10:48] Lilly Caldawell on the student protest at Delta.

After Parkland, I had heard about the walkout and I wanted to start something similar at our school. I’ve seen some of my friends here today which is awesome. I think it’s amazing that it is the youth, even middle school students who are really starting to notice and take action. This will bring attention to politicians that they need to take more action. We can’t just say ‘thoughts and prayers’ in hopes that will fix the situation.

Interview with Hanna Strouse and Cian Nelson

[11:48] Can you describe your first impression of the March For Our Lives in Washington D.C.? 

Hanna: I had been to the Woman’s March before so I sort of expected a large crowd, but I thought it was actually tighter when I was actually out there in it, which I was not expecting at all.

Cian: There were just so many people. It made me feel good to be around people who shared my opinions. It made me feel good to stand up for something I believe in for once.

[13:44] As you’ve had a chance to reflect on your experiences, are there any moment in particular that stand out to you? 

Hanna: All of the speakers were amazing. I respect them so much. They’re my age and they’re speaking infant of 800,000 people. To be honest, all of them are doing outstanding things, and that is really resonating with me. Our generation is going to be the one that really hammers hard on this whole gun control thing. We are going to be the ones really standing up for this change.

Cian: It made me feel really good to be a part of generation Z. The one speech that really stood out to me was from Emma Gonzalez and her six minutes of silence representing all the time it took for those seventeen lives to be taken. It was sort of outstanding and horrifying at the same time.

Hanna: It (six minutes of silence) felt awkward. I was confused, but when she said this was the amount of time it took for seventeen of her classmates to die I realized that was no time at all. It felt like forever when it was silent. Imagining your in a classroom where you have to stay quiet during that amount of time is terrifying.

[15:53] Is there any characteristics of your generation that you think will maybe take things in a different direction or reach progress we haven’t seen thus far?    

Cian: Generations are becoming more progressive over time in my opinion. Our generation is the tech generation. We’re the only generation to not remember a time before the internet. We know how to utilize it. We’re set to become the most educated generation yet.

Hanna: I also feel that we’re fed up with the things that have been happening. I’m 18 and I know so much about what is happening in our government, and it is making me angry that nothing is being done to prevent things like Parkland. It just makes us angry. With this digital age, we have this opportunity to put out our anger for more people to see, which is really helping.

[17:12] So tell us about your family growing up. Are you from political households and have you guys talked about politics a lot? 

Hanna: So my family is very political. My dad is involved in the local government, so I started to get really into it. I wanted to know what he was talking about so I would research what he was saying and I made my own opinions. My family is very liberal, but I feel that we do have some differences in our opinions and in how we approach things.

[17:56] Have you noticed in these past couple of weeks since the shooting any change or increase in activism amongst your friends or other people at school?

Hanna: There are first time protestors, but I feel like it hasn’t changed very much. Our generation is stigmatized for being lazy and unengaged. But I feel like we have that stereotype because we are afraid to engage because everyone tells us we can’t.

[21:16] Do you sense any division among your generation about the best way to move forward and see the change you want to have happen? 

Hanna: There are some divisions. I know there are some people calling for a total gun ban. I know others who are calling or an assault rifle ban. I know some who are just calling for background checks. I feel any of those options would do amazing things, and would save so many lives. It’s just a matter of how far you’re willing to push it.

Cian: This might be unrealistic, but I think we should go as far as Australia and Japan.

Hanna: Also, the say they (Australia and Japan) handle giving guns is very interesting. If you look at Japan, they have to go through a background check, a physical health screening, a mental health screening, and then they do classes. They then have police who make sure you’re storing them correctly. Why don’t we do that here. It has saved so many lives in Japan.

[22:48] Did being at the march and hearing from the students talk about the communities who are not represented make you reconsider your own background and your own privilege? 

Hanna: I know that I’m have a lot of privilege because I’m a white American. While, as a woman, I couldn’t walk a city street at night, I could do it during the day time. I wouldn’t be shot for walking down the block. I know that this is a really big problem for people of color. Many of them don’t feel safe in their cities. That is so saddening to me. I have no idea how that must feel,

Cian: I know that I’m a white straight male. I feel like I don’t have any right to complain about anything and that I should just let minorities do the talking. I agree with that because they’re the ones experiencing these tragedies and inequality.

Hanna: I do think it’s amazing that the face of this movement is a bisexual Cuban female. That just speaks volumes at to how diverse the movement is going to be. The fact that we have someone not male, white, or straight as the leader is kind of amazing.

 

 


How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt on the ‘grinding work’ of democracy



Daniel Ziblatt
Daniel Ziblatt

Daniel Ziblatt has done a lot of interviews since the release of How Democracies Die, the bestselling book he co-wrote with Steven Levitsky. But we asked him a question he’d never gotten before — about a line toward the end of the book when he refers to democracy as “grinding work.”

The idea that democracy isn’t easy is a central theme of this podcast. As How Democracies Die illustrates, it’s much easier to succumb to the power of an autocratic leader than it is to stand up and protect the institutions that serve as the guardrails of democracy. Ziblatt, a professor of government at Harvard, talks about how the book came about and the impact it’s had since it was released earlier this year.

This episode also starts a new feature on the podcast, where we end with a lightning round featuring our Mood of the Nation Poll questions. The poll is open-ended and allows Americans to respond in their own words to questions related to American politics. Some questions vary based on what’s going in the world, but we always ask these four:

  • What makes you angry?
  • What makes you proud?
  • What makes you worry?
  • What gives you hope?

We were very fortunate to speak with Daniel and encourage everyone to pick up a copy of How Democracies Die.

Interview Highlights

[5:40] Why did you and Steven write this book?

Steve and I, we teach together, we’ve taught lots of courses together, graduate courses on democracies and crisis, democratic breakdown and democratization around the world, I work on Europe and he works on Latin America. We haven’t primarily focused on the United States in our work, but during the course of the 2015-2016 campaign season, really the republican nomination process, we kept running into each other and talking about the tenor of the political  rhetoric.

[7:02)] Where does Donald Trump fit into all of us? Did this process of democratic erosion that you describe in the book, did it start before Trump? Or was he kind of a symptom of it?

In many ways I think that there’s a tendency to focus on Donald Trump, the spectacle of Trump and the latest offensive Tweet and whatever people respond to, but really one of the points of our book is to say that these dynamics long preceded President Trump.

[8:14)] What role do you see parties playing in this process of democratic decline?

Parties are really at the center of the story for us. One of the lessons from the book is that throughout American history there’s been around, at least in the 20th century period for which we have opinion poll data, there’s been around 30% of the American electorate that supports demagogic type of politicians.

[11:10] Can you talk a little bit more about what role you see the assault on the press playing?

In one of the chapters in our book, we lay out the strategies authoritarian inclined politicians have used around the world, and this is, again, drawing in lessons from other countries, and once in office, elected authoritarians often, we kind of have a sports metaphor; they try to capture the referees of the the court system, sideline the opposition, and go after the free press.

[13:39] One of the counter arguments to all this is that Trump is all bluster but no action and people on the left are ringing their hands over nothing. What would you say to that?

In our book we have this what we call an authoritarian litmus test, which is a set of indicators, which are questioning the legitimacy of the media, questioning elections, threatening violence or condoning violence; these are all things that candidate Trump rhetorically embraced before the election.

[18:04] You also say in the book that democracy is “grinding work” which ties back to the whole theme of this podcast, Democracy Works, so can you talk about what that phrase means to you?

It’s important to have big goals and big vision in politics, but it’s also about behaving in responsible ways. It’s a distinction between process and policy. At the end of the day, one has to remain committed to the process and forge alliances with people they may disagree with. That’s hard work and it’s grinding work.


What can Pennsylvania voters do about gerrymandering?



Chris Satullo
Chris Satullo

Pennsylvania received a new congressional map earlier this year, closing the books on what was widely considered one of the most egregious examples of partisan gerrymandering after 2010 census. Chris Satullo sees that decision as winning the battle against gerrymandering, but not the war.

Satullo, a civic engagement consultant for the Committee of Seventy, is involved with several initiatives to sustain the changes that were enacted this year and ensure that a fair map is drawn after the 2020 census.

The Committee of Seventy works closely with two organizations, Fair Districts PA and Draw the Lines PA. Fair Districts is a nonpartisan grassroots advocacy group working to ensure that the map doesn’t revet back to a gerrymandered state in 2021, while Draw the Lines aims to “fix the bug in the operating system of democracy” by empowering students and other groups to draw new maps.

We talked with Chris about how Pennsylvania’s map became so gerrymandered, what drove the desire to change it, and how people across the Keystone State can get involved with the effort to create a better map. In many ways, this effort embodies the essence of Democracy Works — people coming together build something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

For more from Chris, check out his podcast, 20 by Seventy.

Interview Highlights

[5:50] What are Committee of 70, Fair Districts Pennsylvania, and Draw the Lines Pennsylvania, and how do those groups work together?

The Committee of 70 is a non-profit that is Pennsylvania’s oldest “good government group” founded more than 100 years ago in Philly. Fair Districts PA is a grassroots organization that was formed about a year and a half, two years ago, to work specifically on the redistricting, anti-gerrymandering front. Draw the Lines PA is a new initiative of us here at Committee of 70 which looks to connect with and support and sustain the work of Fair Districts PA.

[8:04] Why did it take so long for this effort to come to fruition, to get the map changed?

What changed dramatically in the last twenty years is the advent of computer technology and big data. Mapping software and big data about individual voters buying habits, not just election and political habits.

[9:44] If the 2016 election had gone a different way, would we be sitting here talking about this right now?

I’d like to assure you that Committee of 70, and I personally would’ve been talking about this issue because, it’s been a concern of mine as a journalist covering these legislatures for a long time.

[12:34] So what are you hoping people will do [with the map tools]? Why should people want to take part in this work?

What we want to show people is that, if you have the right tools in your hand, it is not difficult, in fact it is relatively easy, to draw a common sense map of Pennsylvania.

[15:06] How does the product of all this work make its way to the people who are responsible for what the states new map will look like?

A big focus of Draw the Lines will be getting this opportunity and this software and these tools into classrooms across Pennsylvania, both secondary school and colleges, professional schools, law schools and the like.  

 

[19:40] Do you think we’re heading for a crazy decade ahead of maps changing all the time and all these challenges, and people not knowing what’s what or where their districts are or where things stand?

In the short term, yes, a lot of confusion. In the long term, I think what we’re seeing is the first glimmers of voters beginning to realize how significant this issue is in how disappointed and frustrated they are with what they get out of their State governments and out of Washington D.C.

[21:00] If people only have to time to do one thing, what should that be?

Right now they should contact their representatives in the State Legislature, both Senate and House, and tell them they want them to vote for the Constitutional Amendment.


Fake news, clickbait, and the future of local journalism



Can philanthropy save local journalism? Are the calls of “fake news” from Washington impacting the work of journalists in other parts of the country? We discuss those questions and the role of the free press in a democracy with Halle Stockton, managing editor of PublicSource in Pittsburgh.

Halle Stockton
Halle Stockton

PublicSource is a nonprofit journalism organization in the style of ProPublica, funded primarily by Pittsburgh’s foundation community. Halle talks about how PublicSource’s funding model impacts its reporting, ways that the organization is breaking the fourth wall to engage with readers, how the team responds to allegations of “fake news” while doing in-depth reporting, and why they’ll never write clickbait.

Halle is a Penn State alumna and was the 2018 Hearst Visiting Professional in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.

Interview Highlights

[6:00] What is PublicSource and what is your role there?

Public Source is a non-profit independent, digital first media organization, so in human speak that means that we are focused on in depth and investigative journalism in the Pittsburgh region.

[7:37] How does PublicSource fit into Pittsburgh’s media landscape?

Public Source is fitting in in a way that people are seeing it as a more straightforward platform for the type of news that they’re not getting elsewhere and the type of voices they’re not getting elsewhere.

[8:48] What role does the community itself play in that, in terms of feedback you get?

We engage with the community quite a bit via social media but also in person. A couple of the ways that we interact with people, are one, through educational events we call citizens tool kits.

[13:35] How do you strike the balance between catching people’s attention and writing hard-hitting stories?

We’re never going to fall victim to clickbait. That’s just something that we’ve decided we cannot do. We firmly believe that people’s stories, seeing other people going through things is catchy enough.

[14:50] Are you and your team feeling the impact of the attacks agains the media that are coming from Washington?

Surprisingly enough, even in Pittsburgh, it started off as sources kind of laughing about it like “oh are you the fake news?” but even in the past few months when we’ve had some really important stories drop, those institutions who we’ve pressured in those stories through our reporting, we have heard rumors about them trying to cast us as fake news.

[16:38] What role do foundations play at PublicSource?

There’s a firewall between, just like in newspapers, between business and news, there’s a firewall between foundations and news, although it’s not totally the same.

[19:06] What impacts have you seen from your reporting?

One of the most recent ones was with Chatham University, it’s a small university in Pittsburgh, it used to be all female, and recently moved to co-ed, and we reported on a policy in their honor code. It was a policy that treated self-harm as a disciplinary matter. The stories of students who had been expelled or dismissed from campus housing for incidents of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and suicidal attempts , those had been never told.When we put tit [the story] out, within 24 hours the university launched a task force to review it [the policy].

[21:18] Where do you see PublicSource going looking forward?

There are a lot of opportunities. Right now, we’re really focused on the Pittsburgh region. I think in the future there’s opportunity and possibility that we could have somebody in Harrisburg covering state governmental issues in the Public Source way.


Checking the President’s power



From Watergate to Benghazi to Robert Mueller, U.S. history is full of congressional hearings. You’ve no doubt heard about them in the news, but do you know what those House and Senate committees actually do and what their role is in a democracy?

Doug Kriner
Doug Kriner

We address those questions and more with Doug Kriner, professor of Government at Cornell University and co-author of Investigating the President: Congressional Checks on Presidential Power. Doug studies the impact of congressional investigations as a check on the executive branch, and how committee activity differs when the government is united and divided.

Following the interview, Michael and Chris discuss how congressional investigations tie back to separation of powers and why the ability for one branch to check another is critical to democracy.

Interview Highlights

[7:46] Your research shows that there were 12,000 days of these investigative hearings. What were they doing during that time?

Sometimes they were listening to themselves talk, which is what we often sort of derive from when we watch these things. It’s supposedly questions, and mainly the member talking for most of their time, and they get a little bit of response from the witnesses. But I think that’s almost exactly what they’re for.

[9:00] How much leeway do these committees have?

Committees have very significant leeway to investigate almost anything they want, which is why the Benghazi investigation is a great example.

[10:31] Can you give us some examples of when those checks by the legislative to the executive have been successful?

So back in the 1970’s, we were having a policy debate that’s immediately relevant to what’s going on right now. This was the Church committee, which was founded to investigate abuse in the intelligence agencies.

[12:00] Why should my taxpayer dollars go to fund these things as opposed to things that might have a more direct impact on the average citizens day to day life?

We know what Congress’s approval rating is, it’s abysmal, and it’s almost always been abysmal. It’s almost always been lower than either of the other two branches. So what is the public view on investigations? We went into the field with another survey in which we basically just asked the question about whether Congress should investigate, and whether people support this idea.

[15:18] Why would there be a need for the House and the Senate to both investigate the same issue?

Inter-chamber rivalry, right? The fact that “I’m a member of the House, why on Earth would I want to let the Senate do this? I want my own input.” And vice versa.

[17:06] How do the House and Senate investigations on Russia differ from the work that Robert Mueller is doing?

It’s very interesting, and it’s a matter that’s continually being litigated. What areas does Congress want to punt on, and leave to the special council, versus where do they think duplication, even, can be profitable?

[21:59] Do you, in this climate that we’re in, do you think that we’ll see an independent council come back around again?

It’s interesting. The number of Republicans who have expressed publicly support for the idea of legislation protecting Bob Mueller, essentially post ex-factum, making him an independent council, yet I don’t see any calls by really by many on either side of the aisle for reinstituting the independent council statute so I doubt that we’re going to see that.

[22:40] What is the difference between open and closed testimony?

The use of closed sessions, the frequency of it has been going way down over the years. The intelligence committees though are always the exception. It’s because of the act creating them after the Church committee that sort of gave members of the intelligence committee access to different folks within the intelligence community and different levels of classified information that other members are not able to, that they’ve always conducted a bit more of their business in secret than other committees.

[24:35] What do these committees look like moving forward? 

You’re exactly right. If you look at time diaries of members of Congress they’re spending a lot less time on committee and a lot more time raising money, and fundraising and campaigning. That said, one of the beauties of investigations for the people who end up spearheading it is that, it might serve their reelection prospect.

 


Is Colin Kaepernick a good democrat?



Abe Khan
Abe Khan

No matter how much of a sports fan you are, you probably remember seeing Colin Kaepernick kneeling during National Anthem. President Trump took the debate to a whole new level when he said that anyone who does not respect the National Anthem and the flag should be fired.

Kaepernick and those who followed him are the most recent example of athletes using their sports as a means to protest, but history is filled with others who have come before them.

In this episode, we talk with Abe Khan, assistant professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and African-American Studies at Penn State, about the impact Kaepernick’s actions had on NFL culture and the broader role that protest plays in a democracy.

Michael Berkman and Chris Beem draw parallels between modern-day sports protests and Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights protests, and discuss the public’s feelings on protests as reported in the McCourtney Institute’s Mood of the Nation Poll.

Interview Highlights

[6:28] Help us remember what happened with Colin Kapernick and where the issues have gone from there:

Kapernick’s first kneel came at the end of August in 2016, it was actually at the end of a preseason football game. It actually didn’t start as a kneel.

He used two phrases that came, at least in my mind, to define the substance of the protest. One is, bodies in the street.And the other is people getting away with murder.

[8:54] How did the protest spread after Kapernicks initial demonstration?

So I’ll admit to being surprised about how quickly the Kapernick situation spread, but the number of athletes included 48 NFL players, 8 NBA teams, 14 WNBA players, including the entire squad of the Minnesota Links, a gold medal swimmer, 45 high school teams, 22 colleges, a middle school, and a youth football team in Beaumont Texas. 34 states, 4 countries.

[10:10] To wrap up this section about the history of the protest, where do things stand now?

One thing that emerged immediately after this was of course huge outrage, especially among NFL players.

Where were at is essentially a split in the players coalition, because I think  that the NFL saw that the players coalition as an opportunity to co-op the force of the protest. Eric Reid (one of the earliest players to join Kapernick)  and Michael Thomas (player for the Miami Dolphins) left the players coalition after the NFL promised to spend 100 million dollars promoting an agenda on criminal justice reform. This was seen as a bribe.

[12:03] Let’s talk about that, NFL culture. Sports is is kind of the one non-partisan place in our society.

The problem is, is that all of the political place in sport had been consumed by simplistic and idealized images of the nation, especially in the 1980’s and 90’s. There’s been patriotic symbolism in sports forever.

Patriotism and nationalism frequently get coded as a-political. That underwrites a form of attack on the method of protest. So to the extent that the anthem ritual is apolitical, disrupting the ritual will always be seen as an inappropriate intrusion of politics into sport.

[13:04] Who were some of those [athlete protesters] that came before him [Kapernick]?

Athletes have always used moments of patriotic ritual to express dissent. Of course the most famous example is John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the 1968 Olympics.

[14:40] Kapernick and these other athletes are effectively “on the job.” What effect, if any, do you see this having on their actions?

The recognition that athletes are on the job is often used as the ground from which to criticize the protester.

[17:13] Do you think that Kapernick and those who have followed him were successful in making their points?

I think that the answer there is yes but I can understand those who say no.

[18:38] How do you think history will look back on Kapernick and the impact that he’s had?

It’s true that the problem of police violence and accountability got lost in the shuffle about free speech and angry screeds about patriotism but that, it seems to me, is a limited metric of success.


What is Democracy Works?



From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, this is Democracy Works. In this episode, hosts Michael Berkman and Chris Beem take a few minutes to explain why we wanted to start this podcast and what we hope to achieve through our interviews and conversations.

They also explain the meaning behind 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.

Building and sustaining a democracy is hard work. It’s not glamorous and often goes unnoticed in the daily news cycle. On Democracy Works, we talk to people who are out there making it happen and discuss why that work is so important. Each episode include an interview about an issue and discussion about what that means for democracy.

We are excited about launching this podcast and hope you’ll join us to see what’s in store.