How conspiracies are damaging democracy



From Pizzagate to Jeffrey Epstein, conspiracies seem to be more prominent than ever in American political discourse. What was once confined to the pages of supermarket tabloids is now all over our media landscape. Unlike the 9/11 truthers or those who questioned the moon landing, these conspiracies are designed solely to delegitimize a political opponent — rather than in service of finding the truth. As you might imagine, this is problematic for democracy.

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

As you’ll hear, the new conspiricism is a symptom of a larger epistemic polarization that’s happening throughout the U.S. When people no longer agree on a shared set of facts, conspiracies run wild and knowledge-producing institutions like the government, universities, and the media are trusted less than ever.

This is not one of our optimistic episodes, but it’s one worth listening to.

Additional Information

A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy

A look at the science of conspiracy theories from The University of Chicago’s Big Brains podcast

Interview Highlights

[5:30] What is the new conspiracism and how does it differ from what we’ve seen in the past?

Nancy: In the past we’ve had conspiracy theory. That is an explanation that works the way any explanation works which is in terms of evidence and dots and patterns that often try to make the unbelievable believable and the unconceivable conceivable. What we have now is conspiracy without the theory. That is the two things have become decoupled. And we have claims of a conspiracy that come without the dots, without the patterns, without the evidence, without the argument.

[6:23] When did you begin to see this pattern emerge?

Russell: As scholars of parties, we-we kind of take an interest in conspiracism and conspiratorial thinking. Parties were-were thought of as conspiracies before the idea of a legitimate opposite took hold. That’s how parties were-were conceived.

We began to notice that um, that today’s conspiracism involves are assertion, like a one-word accusation like rigged, onstead of an effort to carefully explain the world as it is. It’s more of an effort to impose um, a kind of unreality and idiosyncratic understanding of the world on others, rather than to describe the world as it is.

[10:24] What’s the goal of the new conspiracism?

Russell: Often, the goal is certainly not to equip us to really understand our world so that we can navigate our way, you know, control you might say our fate more successfully. Classic conspiracism starts with something in the world that many people have hard time understanding, like the September 11 attacks. If you look at Pizzagate on the other hand, what is that trying to explain? It doesn’t take a world that’s hard to explain and make it more understandable. It takes a world that’s shared, that’s transparent and makes it one that is very disorienting, confusing, and disempowering.

Nancy: The validation of these claims has nothing to do with argument or evidence or dots or patterns. It has to do with the number of followers. And that, I think that explains part of the importance of social media for this kind of conspiracism. It’s obvious that it increases the scope of it and the speed of the spread of these things. But these Tweets and Facebook likes and so on actually allow you to measure that a lot of people are saying this.

[14:46] What is epistemic polarization and how does it relate to conspiracy?

Russell: Epistemic polarization bears on whether we think something really happened, or didn’t really happen. It gets at the basic factual question of how many people were there on the Washington mall on that particular day of the inauguration? And once we can’t even agree on the most elemental aspects of our shared reality, it starts to become really hard not just to compromise, it becomes really hard even to disagree intelligibly with each other.

[19:13] Is there an opportunity for things to go in a different direction?

Russell: One of things that Nancy and I think is really crucial is that people who really care about politics understand that this, this force the new conspiracism which might seem to help their cause really ends up destroying it. We’re hopeful that if we can reveal how, how universally destructive this is, people will understand that t’s not friendly to any cause, and that partisan officials will be more courageous in standing up to it.

[22:20] What role does the media play in spreading conspiracy?

Nancy: I think that what’s important about social media for this kind of conspiracism is, is just the numbers of people who like and retweet and tweet, because it’s what gives, it’s a form of political participation that gives them gratification and it gives validation to these crazy claims.

I will say that there are some studies that show that it’s not just social media, that we shouldn’t put all of our emphasis on it and trying to explain what happens. That Fox News for example has enormous audiences, and enormous audiences of people who aren’t necessarily paranoid and conspiracist or even going along with this stuff. And insofar as this is the news they get, or insofar as this is the discussion or the news that goes on in local, you know channels, where most people still get their news, through these things. It’s, dangerous and unstoppable so long as these privately-owned corporations that find that their profits go up when they do this.

[28:05] Can common sense serve as a counter to the new conspiracism?

Russell: If I say, looking back to the dawn of democracy, and Thomas Payne in his essay is that, you know modern democracy was founded on this conviction that the, that they might say, you don’t want to use the word common sense, the epistemic capacities of ordinary citizens are sufficient for, for them to understand the world in a way that equips them to make good decisions. We believe that this basic capacity is, we, we share the faith that is widely distributed across the entire population, and, and that it can prevail. And so we really do want to call on people to use their common sense in responding to things that seem too fabulous to be true. They just very well might be untrue.


Defending the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate



We are back with new episodes this week, and we’re starting with an interview that we recorded in New York City earlier this summer. David McCraw is the Deputy General Counsel of the New York Times and author of Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight for Press Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts.

The First Amendment and a strong Fourth Estate are essential to a healthy democracy. McCraw spends his days making sure that journalists can do their work in the United States and around the world. This includes responding to libel suits and legal threats, reviewing stories that are likely to be the subject of a lawsuit, helping reporters who run into trouble abroad, filing Freedom of Information Act requests, and much more.

Additional Information

David’s book: Truth in Our Times

Interview Highlights

[3:30] There was a lot of speculation about the future of the First Amendment after the 2016 election. How are things holding up today?

We have a free press if the people want it. It really, in the end, depends on having an engaged citizenry. Donald Trump has talked about changing the libel laws. That doesn’t really worry me a lot. I think it’s a long process, and it’s probably not going to happen. What really is important is whether people, average voters, are going to make use the free press we have.

[5:00] How often does someone threaten a libel suit vs. actually filing one?

It’s a really important point, because when we talk about libel, it was originally intended to fix people’s reputations. Somebody says something about you that’s untrue, hurts your reputation, you go to court, you get that fixed. And, that really hasn’t changed much. We get a lot of threats. Not a lot of threats, but we get threats. We get very few lawsuits. But, those threats are really designed to use litigation, the threat of litigation, to get us to say something other than what we think should be said to the American people.

[6:28] How does the New York Times v. Sullivan case impact press freedom?

At the end of the day, Times versus Sullivan is really, a fairly simple concept. And that is, a publisher has a right to make a mistake. That if a publisher gets something wrong, and actually, even if that statement hurts somebody’s reputation, that person, if that person’s a public figure or public official, can’t win a libel suit unless the person can prove that the statement was made with actual malice.

[10:40] Where does social media fit into this picture?

One of the things that I find very curious about the President is that, in the recent years, when he’s been involved in libel suits, it’s because he’s been sued. And, he’s been sued for things he’s said on Twitter. When he starts criticizing the libel laws, he’s completely lining up on the wrong side of the ball. He should be siding with me, because he needs those defenses.

[13:45] Tell us about the letter you wrote to Donald Trump’s lawyers in October 2016.

We published a story in which, two women claimed that they had been inappropriately touched by Donald Trump many years earlier. The story happened right after the controversy over the Access Hollywood tape. Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate, had appeared at the debate on a Sunday night and defended his reputation and his conduct towards women. This story followed that. They had posted their demand to us online.

I knew that we were going to post our response online. And so, while I do think I followed exactly what the law says in these situations, and summarized it accurately, it was pointed. And, it was pointed in part because I don’t like to be threatened. It was pointed in part because I think people expect us to stand up.

[17:20] What work do you do with Freedom of Information Act requests?

The Freedom of Information Act was signed into law on July 4, 1966 by Lyndon Johnson. And, Michael Schudson at Columbia has a great book about the rise of the right to know, which details this and other parts of the history of that concept, the right to know. But, that was the heart of it, that the public has a right to know what the government’s up to. And, that includes getting documents. What we’ve seen since then is the law being gnawed away until it’s taken much much away from what one would expect to get when filing a FOIA request.

[21:15] Civil servants are often painted with a very altruistic brush. It seems like that might not be the case here.

I had this epiphany at the beginning of the Obama administration when I was invited to go to a conference of FOIA officers and speak, therefore, meeting a lot of people I’d written angry letters to. And, it’s a lot easier to write angry letters to anonymous people when you don’t know what they look like. Now, you’re in a room with a bunch of them.

They were conscientious. They didn’t have the resources, and they didn’t have the power to do what needs to be done. What’s interesting is, as I’ve gone around and talked about this with people from other countries is, a country like Mexico actually has an office that overrides agencies, so that it takes it out of the political process, and some independent agency’s deciding. And, other governments, other countries have that same sort of setup.

[27:33] What should people to do protect the First Amendment moving forward?

At the end of the day, what I’m really interested in is, seeing an American public that listens to things they disagree with, read things they disagree with, and make discerning judgment. That’s a long ways away from where we are now. It’s hard because there’s so much information out there. But, to me, that’s the only real check is that, people are going to make wise decisions about policies because they’ve made wise decisions about the information they’ve chosen.

Somebody wrote to me, and the email started out with the ominous words, “Why did you write this book?” And, I assume that’s an email that’s going someplace whereas, a sensitive author with thin skin, I don’t want to know. But, it wasn’t. She was right. She’s, “Why did you write this book? Because you should be writing for young adults.” And, that’s really an important point. We need to start much earlier in helping children understand how to read and how to discern, and how to evaluate sources.

Tthe analogy I use is that, the Internet is to information what the Las Vegas buffet is to eating. You walk in, and there’s just incredible choices. Some of them are really bad for you, but they sure taste good for awhile. And, we just need to have people who say, “I’m not going to hang around the dessert table of cable news, and make my entire diet that.”

 

 


Standing up for science and fighting the climate wars [rebroadcast]



For the last of our summer rebroadcasts, we are revisiting the conversation with Penn State’s Michael Mann, a world-renowned climate scientist. We’ve just finished the warmest month in global recorded history, so it felt like a good time to share this episode.

We talk with Mann, a Nobel Prize winner and Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Penn State, 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 you reconcile the fact 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.

Additional Information

Michael Mann on Twitter 

Michael’s books:
The Madhouse Effect

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars


Tracing the past, present, and future of protests



Organizer and author LA KauffmanSince we started this show, we’ve had the opportunity to speak with several organizers, from Joyce Ladner in the Civil Rights movement to Srdja Popovic in Serbia to the students involved with the March for Our Lives. Today, we think of protests as a pillar of democratic dissent, but things didn’t necessarily start out that way.

L.A. Kauffman is a longtime organizer and author of the book How to Read a Protest: The Art of Organizing and Resistance. She traces the history of the modern protest movement since the March on Washington in 1963 and joins us to talk about what has — and has not — changed since then. If you are an organizer or have ever attended a protest, we think you’ll find L.A.’s insights interesting.

Additional Information

L.A.’s book, How to Read a Protest

Our episodes on protest and organizing:

Interview Highlights

[2:49] How was the 1963 March on Washington organized and what made it something that organizers today still look to?

This book and the 1963 march is about a particular kind of protest above all, which are mass mobilizations where huge numbers of people come together out in the streets. I hadn’t quite realized that before 1963, we never had anything on this scale in American history. It ended up bringing 250,000 people. One of the ways that the organizers compensated for those fears was by going on overdrive with an organizing model. We think of this as a high water point in American democracy, and yet the messages were so controlled, there was no room for individual voices there.

[6:00] What was it about that moment that lead to such a large event? Were there efforts to try something similar prior to that?

There was a march that was threatened during During World War II, but it never happened. The threat of a civil rights march over discrimination in the military forced FDR’s hand and led to desegregation. The scale of protests at the time were more like 25,000 or 50,000 people. No one had ever dreamed of an event that could bring together these large numbers of people.

[8:12] What compromises were necessary to make the march happen?

The very first idea of the 63 march in Washington was it was going to not just be a march, but it was also going to be an occasion for nonviolent civil disobedience. I mean, it was going to represent a real tactical escalation. And those plans got dropped almost immediately, as soon as the organizers began negotiating with the Kennedy Administration. The Kennedy Administration was walking a very complicated line, because they very clearly did not want the march to happen. And then once the march was clearly going to happen whether they agree to it or not, they did everything they could to control it. And part of that was by orchestrating the choreography of it so that it didn’t actually, they changed the march route, so that the march never went past the White House, or the Capitol.

 [10:04] How does that approach compare to today’s model of organizing?

There was more disunity behind the scenes in the 1963 march than the mythology would lead you to believe, There weren’t open divisions and splits among the players, but they were definitely very substantial differences of opinion about strategy and direction of the movement, and a lot of internal tension. Sometimes those things stay behind the scenes, and sometimes they split out in the open.

When I look at what happened with the women’s marches, my takeaway is the resilience of the grassroots. There were more than 300 local events around the country, which I think is quite extraordinary three years on, and shows how much a movement that has many leaders, many organizing centers, can persist in ways that maybe are hard for the national media to see and perceive, but they have very powerful effects when it comes to things like organizing, get out the vote operations in the midterm elections.

[12:49] What can we learn about a protest from the signs that people bring to it?

The moment that first got me working on this book was when I attended the 2017 women’s march in DC. I was immediately struck that there was a far higher percentage of homemade signs than I had ever seen before. And then I discovered the detail that I alluded to earlier about the 63 march, that whatever we may think of it, however many ways that they represent a high point of American democracy in this one interesting respect, in the messaging, it was a moment of total control because all of the signs were produced by the organizers, and you could not bring your own slogan to that march.

At the women’s march, there was such a power in what people did. They weren’t putting pressure on the Trump administration, per se. We were finding each other. It was a moment for people to come together in the streets, and feel a sense of community, engage in a political conversation, all those signs they mounted to like a rich political conversation in the streets, and feel a sense of collective power. Which in turn made possible the resistance organizing we’ve seen since.

[16:43] What motivates people to attend a protest?

I think people do sometimes go to protests with unrealistic ideas of what they’ll accomplish by going. And that are fed by, and a mass media myths about protest. They tend to think, to frame protest as short term pressure tactics, when that’s often not how they work. So, I think sometimes what happens is people come to a protest and they have some idea, they’re drawn because they want to take action. But then they have an expectation that just turning out once in large numbers is going to bring change.

And those of us who have been in the trenches for a long time, know that any protests, however large is usually just one step in an unfolding process of change. And you rarely see decision-makers shift or change based on one event. It’s usually a very long and protracted process to create change

[20:10] How do people in power respond?

There’s a dominant discourse that tells us that protest doesn’t work. Which very effectively discourages people from participating in protest, because they feel it’s pointless. People are always really surprised when I tell them that there is more people taking part in protest now  than there were in the height of the Vietnam era. Because there again, we have this myth, we have these ideas about these events that have been made larger than life.

[25:21] Where do things go from here?

There’s a lot of new openings and possibilities now, but as always, they rely on active engaged participation by people. And it’s not clear to me right now. We saw, I think a solid turnout for the women’s marches. The energy levels were not as high as they were two years ago. You wouldn’t expect them to be. But the real question for me is whether we’re going to see a new upsurge now going into the spring as we build on these new openings.

 


A conversation about conversation [rebroadcast]



This week, we are revisiting another episode from the Democracy Works back catalog. This discussion is a nice companion to our episode with Timothy Shaffer on civility.

Laurie Mulvey
Laurie Mulvey

This 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, 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.

 

 


Politics and Polls: Blue state federalism



Politics and Polls show logoDemocracy Works summer break 2019 continues with an episode from Politics and Polls, a podcast produced by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. The show’s hosts are Sam Wang and Julian Zelizer. If you enjoyed our conversation with Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro about states suing the federal government, you’ll want to check out this episode that dives deeper into the concept of federalism.

In recent history, federalism has been favored by the Republican party, while Democrats have aimed to nationalize certain policies. But given Republicans’ current control of the federal government, progressive Democrats may need to aim to achieve their policy goals at the state level.

Daniel Hemel joins this episode to discuss what he calls “blue state federalism” and how states themselves can be “laboratories of democracy.” Hemel, a law scholar, explains how states can set precedents for the federal government with regard to social issues. For example, Massachusetts did this by legalizing gay marriage and through adopting Romney-care, a precedent to the Affordable Care Act.

Hemel is assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School. His research focuses on taxation, nonprofit organizations, administrative law and federal courts.

Additional Information

Politics and Polls podcast

Our conversation with Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro


The Pledge: Are you scared of the cafeteria lady?



Our summer break continues this week with an episode of The Pledge, a podcast about people who are taking an active role in improving democracy in the U.S. The show’s first season features a group of women working in grassroots political organizing in Alabama.

This episode tells the story of Oni Williams. As a resident of one of Birmingham’s poorest neighborhoods, Oni regularly visits barbershops and strip clubs to speak with members of the community, inform them of their rights, and encourage them to speak out. She is a stellar example of what democracy in action looks like.

Since this episode was recorded, Oni announced that she’s running for Birmingham City Council in a special election to be held October 8.

Listen to the rest of The Pledge at thepledgepodcast.com.

For more on the impact of grassroots organizing on democracy, listen to our conversation with the University of Pittsburgh’s Lara Putnam on how middle America is rebooting democracy.

 


How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt on the “grinding work” of democracy [rebroadcast]



How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt
Daniel Ziblatt

Our summer break continues this week with a rebroadcast of one of our very first episodes, a conversation with How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt. He spoke at Penn State in March 2018. Both the book and the conversation are worth revisiting, or checking out for the first time if the episode is new to you.

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 last year.

One final thing: Nominations are now open for the 2019 People’s Choice Podcast Awards. Democracy Works won last year in the Government and Organizations category, and we would love to keep the momentum going this year. Visit podcastawards.com by July 31 to submit your nominations.


A democracy summer reading list [rebroadcast]



Democracy Works is taking a few weeks off for the summer. While we do, we are going to share some older episodes you might have missed, along with a few from other podcasts we think you’ll enjoy. First up is our democracy summer reading list, which we recorded last summer but holds up well today. Since we recored this, we’ve been lucky to have a few of the authors on the show — David Frum, Salena Zito, and E.J. Dionne.

Here’s the rundown of the books we discuss:

And here are a few others we’ve read since last summer that are also worthy of your time:

Finally, if you enjoy Democracy Works, consider checking out The Politics Guys. This podcast is hosted by a bi-partisan groups of academics and other experts who provide a weekly rundown of the biggest news and events in American politics and interview experts from a variety of fields. Check it out at politicsguys.com.

 


Answering your questions about democracy



Is the United States really a democracy? What will the EU look like in 50 years? What should 2020 candidates be doing to demonstrate civility? Those are just a few of the questions we received from Democracy Works listeners around the country and around the world. We close our third season by answering some of your questions about democracy and the topics we’ve covered on the show.

We’ll be on summer break for the next few weeks. New episodes resume August 12. In the meantime, we’ll be rebroadcasting some of our older episodes you might have missed and sharing episodes from other podcasts we think you’ll enjoy.

Additional Information

The Market as Prison article by Charles Lindblum – for more on the relationship between democracy and plutocracy

Books we recommend reading this summer:

Episodes mentioned:


Congressional oversight and making America pragmatic again



Charlie Dent
Charlie Dent

We tend to think about congressional oversight in very academic terms — checks and balances, the Framers, etc. But what does it actually look like on the ground in Congress? To find out, we’re talking this week with Charlie Dent, who served Congress for more than a decade until his retirement in 2018. He argues that amid all the talk about subpoenas, impeachment, and what Congress is not able to do, we’re losing sight of the things they can do to hold the executive branch accountable.

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

Dent was the chair of the House Ethics Committee and a member of the Homeland Security Appropriations committees. These days, he is a CNN political analyst and senior policy adviser at DLA Piper. He was a recipient of the 2019 Penn State Distinguished Alumni Award, which is the university’s highest honor presented to alumni.

Additional Information

Charlie Dent on Twitter

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Is there still room for moderates in politics? If so, where can they have the most impact?
  • What do you make of Charlie’s argument that the U.S. now operates like a Parliamentary system?
  • What do you think the Republican Party will look like post-Donald Trump?

Interview Highlights

[6:00] Can you describe the district you represented and your decision to leave office?

I represented a district in eastern Pennsylvania largely the Lehigh Valley for my first four terms and for my, my last three terms, the district included parts of south central Pennsylvania. It was what we’d call a swing or marginal district, had a pretty good mix of urban, suburban, rural communities. It was, in many respects, a bellwether for the country in terms of how it  performed from an election standpoint. dI anticipated early on that House Republicans would be in the minority in the new session of Congress that they’re in now. The current administration was also a factor. Just dealing with the never ending drama and chaos.

[9:44] Now that you’ve had some time away, are there things you wish you would have done differently to speak out against things like increasing polarization?

I think about that quite a bit. There’s only so much you can do as one person to change the direction that the herd is moving in. Increasingly, Republicans in Congress are hesitant to speak out against President Trump because they’re concerned about a primary challenger, which has created a political paralysis. In my view, we have two political parties now — a pro-Trump party and an anti-Trump party. It’s no longer about ideology or specific policies, which is always what the Republican Party has been known for. It’s now about loyalty to a man. You have to figure out how to manage that and work within it.

[15:38] Have Republicans who oppose President Trump resigned themselves to holding their breath until the next election?

Yeah I think that’s true. Although if you’re a member of Congress in a swing  district you simply can’t be labeled as a generic Republican or a generic Democrat. You have to develop your own brand. That was always my advice to my colleagues. You don’t survive that way in those types of districts. The fact that these elected officials can’t always be seen as rubber stamps for the President is something we should be talking more about.

[17:06] What does congressional oversight look like in practice?

In some respects, oversight is a serious responsibility of Congress, and it’s done on a daily basis. When I was on the Homeland Security committee, we spent a lot of our time really looking at what the department was doing. At that time, it was a relatively new department and there were growing pains so we exercised a lot of oversight. A lot of it wasn’t particularly glamorous or sexy, but it was necessary. Now I find that oversight seems be more about getting your name on television as opposed to the hard, mundane work of analyzing what these departments are doing and how they’re spending money.

[21:05] How do you explain the shift toward prioritizing partisanship over the institution?

I believe, in many respects, we no longer have a system of separation of powers, but a system of separation of parties. Whichever party controls the presidency, it seems like their obligation is to protect the president above defending institutional interests. It flies in the face of what Madison intended and it’s been a big problem. They’re behaving, in many respects, as if they’re operating in a parliamentary system rather than this system of separation of powers and checks and balances that we have.

[24:06] Where do we go from here?

I would always tell my constituents, “You elected me to be a member of Congress, not to be in the executive branch.” Until voters insist on change, things won’t change. I talk a lot about the pragmatism that’s necessary to get things done. You can be ideologically or philosophically conservative or liberal and and that’s fine, but at the same time, I worry about the capacity to be pragmatic. We need people who can set aside the things they disagree on, find common ground, and move forward.


Will AI destroy democracy?



Jay Yonamine
Jay Yonamine

Some political scientists and democracy scholars think that it might. The thinking goes something like this: inequality will rise as jobs continue to be automated, which will cause distrust in the government and create fertile ground for authoritarianism.

Jay Yonamine is uniquely qualified to weigh in on this issue. He is a data scientist at Google and has a Ph.D. in political science. He has an interesting perspective on the relationship between automation and democracy, and the role that algorithms and platforms play in the spread of misinformation online.

In some ways, this conversation makes the counterargument to our conversation with Penn State’s Matt Jordan about the relationship between social media and democracy. The conversation with Matt is worth revisiting for two perspectives on some of the most complicated questions facing democracy today.

Additional Information

Episode with Matt Jordan: Facebook is not a democracy

Profile on Jay from Sync Magazine

The Fourth Age by Byron Reese – a look at the relationship between technology, humanity, and democratic values

Yuval Noah Harari on the relationship between technology and tyranny in The Atlantic

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What do you see as the relationship between AI and democracy?
  • Should Google and other platforms regulate the contact that users see?
  • Do you feel that you have control over the content you see on Google and other sites?
  • Are you concerned about AI’s impacts on democracy?

Interview Highlights

[3:40] How do you define AI?

AI is has to be something that’s not just a human brain relying on itself. Most of the time, when folks think about AI, what they mean is computers, which is to say a computer is doing the thinking or doing the analysis as apposed to a human brain. How I think of intelligence is the ability to make nontrivial, falsifiable, accurate predictions. I think most folks would agree that the act of a robot by itself is not necessarily artificial intelligence, but  the AI aspect of a robot would actually still be the, sort of computer engine that interprets the world and makes predictions

[6:25] What is the relationship between AI and democracy?

A few things have happened simultaneously that might not be as causal as maybe we might believe. There’s definitely been an increase in populist-based politicians in the United States and abroad and a move towards more heavy handed political ideologies. And then of course there’s also been a fairly rapid growth in the prevalence of AI and machine learning in our day-to-day. It’s not clear that those two are connected, but you can see the reasons why people draw their connections. And I think primarily they revolve around news, and around platforms, and around the increase ease of sharing information, and around the increase ease of sharing disinformation.

[8:26] Does one influence the other?

What’s interesting to me as a political scientist and someone who has studied the history of political institutions and political dynamics is for almost all of history, increased access to information and increased access to create and assimilate information has almost always driven an increase in what you might call liberal democratic values. Free speech, democracy, things that have generally been held up as good. And it’s almost always been some autocratic force that has fought against the spread of information that’s going back to the printing press.

What’s interesting now is we’re seeing for the first time, the possibility of that actually shifting. We’re now starting to see that the ease of access to information and the ease of creating and assimilating information might actually now be contributing to the spread of more antidemocratic values.

[10:03] Is AI’s impact on democracy being discussed at tech companies?

The degree of regulation is definitely a hot issue. It’s an immensely complicated issue and one with no easy answers. There’s folks who are arguing for increased regulation ti decrease the spread of misinformation, create a better informed populous, aversion to some of the antidemocratic stuff that we’ve been seeing.

But the counter to that is that you don’t want some centralized control over what can be shared and by whom. And so there’s definitely merits to that argument as well. And it’s an immensely complicated challenge. If you’ve got a team of experts in the room and, and gave them, a handful of pieces of content, I suspect they would have a hard time even reaching consensus. And then when you imagine that scale that a lot of companies operate at it’s, it’s tens of thousands of hundreds of thousands of millions of pieces of content a day, a week, a month.

[13:24] How are companies balancing these big issues with their day-to-day work?

What a lot of companies are trying to do is, hire or create teams and departments and groups whose full time job is just to think about these types of ethical issues. And then create scenarios where those voices have sufficient authority or discretion to actually impact product roadmaps. Companies are big, complex organisms and it’s hard to introduce that type of, of thinking in a really productive way. It’s not like there’s a blueprint where you can say, “Oh, well this is how company A did this in ’98” and now there’s someone who wrote a book on the best practices for introducing ethics and normative guidelines into an AI-based product.

[18:31] How should candidates be talking about these issues in 2020?

It’s very easy to be optimistic about the societal benefit of technological adaption here’s the self driving story where it’s feasible to imagine a world where 50 years from now there’s one one hundredth of the car fatalities that there are today. So that I think is a pretty easy, legitimate story to tell about the benefits of innovation. The counterargument is that when someone comes up with some new device, it displaces a meaningful number of jobs and what do you do with those people? To go back to self-driving cars, we could see a very quick reduction in the number of truck drivers that are needed in the coming years, which is a major industry in a lot of places.

The optimist would say that new jobs will be created to do things like work on the self-driving cars and trucks and do additional road maintenance because the quality of the roads will become increasingly important, but it remains to be seen whether that will actually happen and those jobs will actually be created.


The 2019 version of Democracy in America



Lindsay Lloyd of the George W. Bush Presidential Center
Lindsay Lloyd. Photo by Grant Miller

If Alexis de Tocqueville visited America today, what would he have to say about the condition of our democracy?

We hear a lot in the news and on Twitter about how support for democracy is waning. We’re perhaps even a little guilty of it on this show. But, what do everyday Americans think? Some of the biggest names in politics from across the ideological spectrum teamed up to find out. The Democracy Project, an initiative of the George W. Bush Center, Penn Biden Center, and Freedom House, found that people support the ideal of democracy, but worry that the United States is not living up to that ideal in practice due to factors like economic inequality and the decline of civics education.

Lindsay Lloyd, director Bush Center’s Human Freedom Initiative and part of The Democracy Project, joins us this week to discuss the report and what its findings mean for citizens across the United States. We’ve collaborated with the Bush Center on several projects in the past few months and highly recommend checking out their podcast, The Strategerist.

Additional Information

The Democracy Project report

Our episodes on economic inequality and civics education

The Strategerist podcast from the Bush Center

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • How does your perception of democracy align with The Democracy Project’s findings?
  • What do you make of the report’s recommendations for action?
  • Do you agree with Lindsay that there is strong support for democracy-based initiatives in Congress?
  • What role should the U.S. play in promoting democracy in other countries?
  • Have your feelings about democracy changed since 2016? Or 2018?

Interview Highlights

[5:19] What is the Democracy Project and how does it relate to the Bush Center’s mission?

The Bush Center opened in 2009 and one of the areas we work in is democracy and human rights. Historically, it’s been focused outside the United States. A few years ago, we noticed that something was happening in American democracy regarding partisanship and wanted to see what we could do about it. We partnered with the Penn Biden Center and Freedom House and launched a public opinion project related to American democracy. We did focus groups with constituent groups around the country, as well as a national public opinion poll.

[7:10] How are people feeling about the state of democracy in the U.S.?

There was a flurry of articles in early 2017 suggesting that people living in democratic societies were looking for alternatives, particularly among young people. We did not find that in our survey. The people we talked to overwhelmingly felt it was important to them to live in a democracy. On the flip side, our respondents felt that America’s democracy was weak and getting weaker and isn’t delivering in the way it traditionally had.

[9:04] What role do you see the Bush Center playing in addressing the issues identified in the research?

The second half of the survey covered perceptions of democracy outside the U.S. We’re starting a bipartisan working group to look at support for democracy and human rights overseas. It’s taken a hit under the Trump administration and we believe it’s important that the U.S. speak out when human rights abuses are happening and continue to support democracy around the world. Our adversaries are advocating for authoritarianism and democracies need to advocate for their point of view. We found that respondents agreed and found that having a more democratic world makes America safer and makes the world safer.

[11:35] Who do you see as your allies in this work?

There’s still strong support across party lines in Congress for democracy-related initiatives. The Trump administration proposed cutting the budget for groups like the National Endowment for Democracy and Congress has put it back in and, in some cases, increased funding. Newer democracies are also very interested in this work, countries that were formerly under authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.

[16:25] President Trump is not mentioned anywhere in the report. Did he come up at all in the focus groups?

We intentionally did not ask about approval of the President because it’s not a political poll. He did come up in the focus groups, including one group of people who supported the President in 2016 and another group who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. His name came up early and often, but nothing particularly surprising. The President has some strong supporters and some strong detractors. But, it’s also important to remember that democracy is about more than what happens in the White House. Democracy needs to deliver at the local level, or else confidence in the system suffers.

[19:58] Did you see any evidence of polarization in your work? Is it still possible to find middle ground?

One of the complications is that people think that getting rid of partisanship means everyone needs to agree with them. It’s of grave concern, but we did still hear from people who were in the middle. It’s much less of a concern at the local level, where local officials are often nonpartisan. There’s frustration across the board that Washington can’t solve problems. Ideas are examined based on who’s proposing them, rather than on their merits. In the end, most people don’t care who’s behind a proposal, they just want to see it get done. Both of the parties have seen a hollowing out — the days of Rockefeller Republicans and blue democrats are largely gone. One way people change that is by voting in primaries for candidates who support compromise and trying to find middle ground on issues.


What neoliberalism left behind



Wendy Brown
Wendy Brown

Much like our conversation with Patricia Roberts-Miller on demagoguery last week, neoliberalism is one of those fuzzy words that can mean something different to everyone. Wendy Brown is one of the world’s leading scholars on neoliberalism and argue that a generation of neoliberal worldview among political, business, and intellectual leaders led to the populism we’re seeing throughout the world today. But is it mutually exclusive to democracy? Not necessarily.

Wendy joins us this week to help make sense of what neoliberalism is, and where things stand today. We were lucky enough to get an advance copy of her book, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, which will be released in July. It’s a follow up to her 2015 book, Undoing the Demos, and you’ll hear her talk about how her thinking has changed since then.

Wendy is the Class of 1936 First Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches political theory. You might also recognize her from Astra Taylor’s documentary, What Is Democracy? If you enjoy this episode, we recommend checking out the Political Theory Review podcast, produced by Jeffrey Church at the University of Houston.

Additional Information

Wendy’s books: In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, Undoing the Demos

Wendy’s website 

Our episode with David Frum

The Political Theory Review podcast

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What do you see as the relationship between neoliberalism and democracy?
  • Do you think it’s possible for two to coexist?
  • What do you see as the future of neoliberalism? Will Millennials and Generation Z move in a different direction?

Interview Highlights

[5:45] How do you define neoliberalism and how is it related to democracy?

North Americans are a little bewildered by the term, and we don’t have it as part of our everyday lexicon although I think it’s finally beginning to seep in. But having said that, I also want to suggest that we understand it at a social and political level and not just an economic level. We recognize it as the undoing of the Keynesian welfare state and the substitution of free market policies, low taxes, everyone’s responsible for themselves and getting rid of all the social supports except for a bare minimum safety net, but I want to add that it’s also a whole from of governing reason.

[7:45] How does neoliberalism relate to authoritarianism?

One of the things I felt compelled to understand with our hard right turn in the West over the last several years with Trump and Bolsonaro and Brexit and so forth was the connection of that to neoliberalism. One thing you can say is rising inequality and open borders produces rage about being at the bottom end of that inequality and also about immigrants, but there was something else on the horizon that I had never noticed, which is that the neoliberal scheme was not just to substitute markets for social policy.

It was also to substitute traditional moral values for understandings of social justice and institutions of social justice. And so part of what we’re experiencing now is what I call the kind of scorpion tail of neoliberalism — the lashing out against the inequality and the continued insistence that traditional morality, moral values, and traditions more generally from white supremacy to patriarchal families, religion in the public sphere, that those are more appropriate governors of human conduct than any state-mandated practices of equality or inclusion.

[11:04] How did neoliberal ideas make their way from academics to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher?

First, there was a very serious economic crisis often called a crisis of profitability in the 70s that was also often seen as a crisis of the welfare state. Too much taxation, unions that were too strong, corporations that were too large and lazy, and a real problem of stagflation. It was a moment where you could strike with a new set of ideas. At the same time, neoliberalism had already been experimented with extensively in Latin America. The IMF was already solidly neoliberal, so bringing it up to the north wasn’t so difficult once Reagan and Thatcher were in power.

[14:37] What will Millennials and Gen Z make of neoliberalism?

Millennials and Generation Z are living in a kind of schizophrenic subjectivity that comes from the rejection of capitalism and the sluggish, dinosaur-like pace of parliamentary or constitutional democracy that is now so deeply corrupted by neoliberal money and corporate power. One of the things I see coming from these generations is the rejection of those two things as the necessary coordinates of the political and economic future, and I think all the hope rests there.

[17:46] Is there a way for neoliberalism and democracy to coexist?

Why I’m impatient with a neoliberal conception of democracy as a way to redress either the gross inequality or the serious existential dangers that we face now is that it’s basically saying, “Go join something, go feel like you’re part of something,” but let the major powers that shape our lives run through markets that presumably run through no hands at all. We rather desperately need to get our hands on those powers.

[20:37] Is it possible to move past the neoliberal worldview given that it’s been dominant over the past generation?

Yes. The Keynesian system lasted for fifty years. No one thought it could be taken apart and everyone thought it was here to stay. The question for the neoliberals was always to try to figure out how to keep it from getting worse and how to prevent this straight on drive toward complete socialism, and keep some markets in the picture. So, one generation is not a lot of time. The second thing I want to say is that we are obviously in a very serious political crisis where there’s an impatience with the current system and a belief that it’s not serving people or the planet. not just the left and right edges, but left and right mainstreams now um, the impatience with the- with the current system, and the belief that it’s not serving people, or the planet, is very strong.


Demagogues are more common than you think



Patricia Roberts-Miller
Patricia Roberts-Miller

When you think of the word “demagogue,” what comes to mind? Probably someone like Hitler or another bombastic leader, right? Patricia Roberts-Miller is a rhetoric scholar and has spent years tracing the term and its uses. She joins us this week to explain a new way of thinking about demagoguery and how that view relates to democracy. She also explains what she’s learned from what she describes as years of “crawling around the Internet with extremists.”

Patricia is a Professor of Rhetoric and Writing and Director of the University Writing Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of two new books on demagoguery. Demagoguery and Democracy is a short book in the style of On Tyranny that covers the basics of her argument in about 100 small ages. Rhetoric and Demagoguery is a longer, more academic book for those looking for more on the rhetorical roots of demagoguery and its relationship to democratic deliberation.

Additional Information

Patricia’s books: Demagoguery and DemocracyRhetoric and Demagoguery

Patricia’s website

Episode on civility with Timothy Shaffer of Kansas State University

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • After listening to Patricia, do you feel better equipped to notice demagoguery in media you consume, or even in your own language and writing?
  • What do you see as the relationship between demagoguery and democracy?
  • Do you see parallels between the increase of demagoguery and the decline of civility we discussed with Timothy Shaffer?
  • Can you think of a time when you’ve tried to appreciate the other side’s point of view in a conversation or something you read? Did doing so change your perspective?

Interview Highlights

[5:18] How do you define demagoguery and why is it bad for democracy?

It’s useful to think about it as reducing all political issues or even all issues to questions of identity. And specifically in-group versus out-group. And it’s oriented toward providing a lot of certainty and reducing nuance. When you have a culture that is reasoning about everything in that way, you can’t actually explore multiple solutions. What I have to say about demagoguery in politics is pretty similar to what people will say about how a business should come up with a good business plan or how people should make decisions about health. It’s just better decision making.

[7:04] How does the media landscape influence the culture of demagoguery you describe?

We’re in an economy of attention and what matters most is w- whether you are doing things that get viewers and get likes, and get clicks and shares, and all that. It’s extremely difficult to do a good argument on Twitter, one that takes into consideration the nuance of a situation, what other people have said, represents the opposition fairly.

[10:44] Why is demagoguery so often associated with political leaders?

Because demagoguery is about reducing politics to identity. And so if you’re thinking about politics in terms of identity you’re going to be looking for a person on whom you can blame bad politics. And it better not be you. Right? So I think that’s one reason that we really like that notion the demagogue who is the source of all of our problems. And often when you have a culture of demagoguery, at some point somebody will come up.

[13:14] What are some strategies people can use to identify demagoguery?

We assume that demagoguery is going to be vehement, and we assume it’s going to be aggressive. And so we have a tendency to make that judgment on the basis of affect. The affect of the person speaking, but also our own. Do we feel threatened? And if we don’t feel threatened then we’re not likely to think of it as demagoguery. So I think, but what that means is that you don’t recognize the demagoguery on behalf of your in-group. People have to perspective shift and imagine how would we feel about this if we were in the other group? Would we feel threatened by it under those circumstances? How would we feel if exactly that same argument was made about our group? Um, how would we make, how would we feel about that kind of argument? Would we assess it as a rational argument if it was made on the part of the opposition?

[16:16] Is there ever a time when it’s not worth trying to understand the other person or side’s point of view?

One of the things you always have to figure out about anyone you’re interacting with is whether they are open to change and persuasion. One of the problems with conspiracy theories is by definition they’re not. They have a way of discounting any kind evidence that doesn’t conform to their beliefs. Often, the people don’t believe in climate change have an almost 19th century notion about a scientist is, and what science is. So if a mechanical engineer tells them that climate change is a hoax they’re like, “There’s a scientist who doesn’t believe in it.” Without understanding that a mechanical engineer is not actually an expert on either of those areas.Sometimes I get really interesting insights into people’s beliefs from doing that. And sometimes it’s sort of like kicking over a rock and just going, “Ew.”

[21:50 ] Do you think we’ll be able to move beyond the “us vs. them” rhetoric to a more deliberative model?

I’m really worried, but I’m hopeful that at least Facebook is starting to take this really seriously, and try to think through some better strategies that they have. What we actually need to emphasize is understanding other points of view. Instead of just relying on the facts I’ve been given by my in-group, to see what the facts are on other sides. And to see, especially why they reject the facts.


What does the Mueller report mean for democracy?



Laura Rosenberger
Laura Rosenberger

By now, you’ve no doubt head all about the report issued by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the drama in Washington that’s ensued in the time since its release. But, if you only focus on the information about collusion and obstruction in the Trump administration, you are missing a whole other part of the story about Russian interference in democracy leading up to the 2016 election. Laura Rosenberger and her colleagues at the bipartisan Alliance for Securing Democracy have been working to raise awareness about this threat since the 2016 election.

Laura joins us this week to discuss what she learned from the report, and where the efforts to combat Russian interference stand. She is our first repeat guest on the podcast. We last spoke with her in the fall of 2018, just before the midterm elections, during a live event at the National Press Club.

Additional Information

Alliance for Securing Democracy

Our conversation with Laura in fall 2018

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Whose should be taking the lead on combating Russian interference in our democracy?
  • What role does the government have to play? Social media platforms? Everyday citizens?
  • Do you think that Russian interference will influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential election?

Interview Highlights

[5:15] What did you learn from the Mueller report?

I think it is one of the most important things to remember is that Special Counsel Mueller was appointed to investigate a number of different things. One of them was Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. We learned through the course of his investigation, including through some indictments that he brought against Russian officials and entities, some of what he was finding, but the report definitely added to that. In many ways, I would say his report and the investigation that he led really built on what we found and saw from the findings of the intelligence community and its own assessment of the Russian interference operations, as well as investigations by a number of bipartisan committees in Congress.

[9:58] Are you seeing any evidence that calls to respond to Russian interference are being heeded?

I think we have seen some incremental steps. I think that maybe we are in a slightly better position than we were in 2016, but I think that we have a whole lot of progress that we still need to make if we’re actually going to better protect our democracy against the threats that we face. I think the social media companies need to do a whole lot more to take this issue on in a very systemic way, really going after the root of the problem. I worry right now that some of the approach is too focused on eliminating what they’ve dubbed harmful content.

[11:35] Who do you see as your allies in these efforts?

I think there’s a lot of really great folks out there trying to work on different components of this problem. One of them, there’s a really robust community of researchers that have been taking on this problem and trying to better understand it and provide information. I think transparency and exposing these kinds of operations is one of the really important things that we can do to help combat them.

[14:20] Did we see any changes in election security between 2016 and the 2018 midterms?

We definitely have seen some steps being taken around the midterm elections, including better information sharing between the federal government and state and local officials, getting more information to those officials to be able to ensure that they understand the threat picture, getting a little bit more funding to them, although the funding that was given to them was really for addressing existing vulnerabilities even before the Russian attempts were made.

One of the things, though, that’s really concerning to me is in the wake of the Mueller Report, one of the things that he had in there that was new was talking about a county in Florida that had it’s networks penetrated by Russian cyber hackers. In the wake of that, there’s been a big dispute between the federal government and the state of Florida about whether that was true, whether there was evidence of that, claims that the FBI hadn’t shared what they needed.

[19:29] What changes do you think we’re most likely to see between now and the 2020 election?

Since 2014 we’ve basically seen an ongoing effort by the Russians that has had different chapters at different times. Sometimes targeting different elections and different election cycles, sometimes targeting different issues that are highly divisive in the media. It’s important to understand that these operations are ongoing and they evolve at different points in time. Some of the things that I’m worried about that we might see in terms of evolution targeting the 2020 elections, first is we’ve seen the Internet Research Agency getting even better at insinuating itself to different activist groups. We are a very fertile target surface for our adversaries to take aim at. I think that we’ve got to really turn that table around to ensure that we’re better protected.

[24:01] What would you recommend our listeners do if they are concerned about Russian interference in our democracy?

Voting is something everything can do and it’s also really important for people, as on any other issue, for peoples elected officials to hear from them if this is an issue that they’re concerned about. Dozens of bipartisan pieces of legislation were introduced in the last Congress to address these tactics by the Russians, and we have seen none of them become law. It’s also really important for people to engage in critical thinking on any piece of information. That includes online, and that includes elsewhere. It’s really easy in the political campaign context, when people are very emotional and you’re really trying to make a point, it’s very easy to hook onto something that we agree with, that we think is a really solid thing, even if we don’t know who’s saying it or what their interest or motivations may be, or where the information came from.


School segregation then and now



Crystal Sanders
Crystal Sanders

It’s been 65 years since the Brown v. Board of Education changed public schooling throughout a large portion of the United States. In his opinion, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that public education was important to democratic society and the “very foundation of good citizenship.” Integrated schools, the Court argued, would expose children to new cultures and prepare them for an increasingly diverse world.

How do you balance the public good against the inherent desire every parent has to do what’s best for their children? It’s a question that schools across the country are still wrestling with today.

Erica Frankenberg
Erica Frankenberg

To help us understand the history of integration and the Brown decision’s impacts on public policy, we’re talking this week with two experts at Penn State. Crystal Sanders is an associate professor of history and African American studies and director of the Africana Research Center. She’s an expert on 20th century African American history. Erica Frankenberg is a professor of education and demography and director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights. She is an an expert on the connection between school segregation and public policy.

Crystal and Erica co-chaired a conference at Penn State on the 65th anniversary of the Brown decision.

Additional Information

Brown@65 Conference

Brown v. Board of Education opinion

Our episode on school boards with Robert Asen of the University of Wisconsin-Madison

A note to our listeners in the New York City area: Jenna Spinelle will be participating in a panel called “Podcasts to the Rescue! An Emerging Medium for Learning About Civics, Government, and the Social Contract” on Thursday, May 30 at the Metropolitan New York Library Council. The event is free and open to the public. We would love to meet you!

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • What is the relationship between school segregation and democracy?
  • Did you attend an integrated or a segregated school? How did that impact you once you finished school?
  • How should the education system change to become more integrated?
  • How is the re-segregation that Erica and Crystal affecting students in the U.S.? How is it impacting the country more broadly?

Interview Highlights

[5:52] What was the political climate when the decision of Brown v. Board of Education was made

There were many people on the ground; black teachers, black principals, black parents who had been organizing for generations for quality educational opportunities for their students. Decades prior March 1954, black parents were mobilizing to ensure that their students had the resources to ensure that their students to get to school.

[7:43] How was the Brown decision received?

There was a massive resistance at the beginning. The reason because Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 for sending troops to Little Rock was essentially because the rest of the world was watching and laughing at us. We see white parents taking their kids out of public schools, we see entire school system shutting down, as was the case in Prince, Edward County, Virginia. It takes a very long time before we even began to see real implementation. We are seeing now a widespread re-segregation across the country.

[9:37] What are some of the factors that are causing re-segregation?

One of the things that most people might not be aware of is that more than 25 states allow communities to secede from a school system and create their own new school system. Across the country, but especially in wealthy suburbs and Southern states, we see wealthy white communities pull out from school systems and create their own new school system that allows them to maintain racial segregation.

[12:24] A lot of the conversation around school segregation focuses on the South. What was going on in other parts of the country?

It’s important to think about how School desegregation look different in the South versus the North. In northern states there were a lot of ways in which structures were used to create segregated schools. There was the first two decades after the Brown decision in which there were a lot of questions legally as to how Brown would apply outside of the South. When we think of re-segregation today, whether we’re talking about the north or the south, we have to look at housing patterns. We have to look at the lack of affordable housing and the ways in which we still have very weak fair housing laws, and that has been detrimental to ensuring that our public schools are as diverse and inclusive as they can and should be.

[15:56] What’s the relationship between school integration and the public good?

I believe that most Americans still believe that public education is a public good. I don’t believe that most Americans believe integration is a public good. Those are two separate things. There’s still some investment in public education, but there is no investment in integration as a public good.

[17:59] What do we know about the outcomes of integrated schools?

There are social and psychological benefits of integrated schools for all students. Students from integrated schools are less likely to have racial stereotypes and prejudice formation. There are important benefits in terms of being more likely to live and work in diverse spaces as an adult. Some research even finds you’re more likely live in more integrated neighborhoods.

[23:11] Are there particular cities or communities that that have been particularly successful at integration?

No district is perfect, but some communities are intriguing. Jefferson County, Kentucky had court-ordered desegregation in the 1970’s, and in 2000 the court said they had met the requirements. The Wake County school system in North Carolina has done a phenomenal job by ensuring that they have diverse schools across the district. They created a plan that used race to ensure that all of the high schools in the district had proportional levels of different populations.


What Serial taught Sarah Koenig about criminal justice — recorded live at Penn State



Sarah Koenig spent a year inside Cleveland’s criminal justice system for season three of the Serial podcast. Along the way, she met some interesting people and had a birds-eye view of what justice (and injustice) look like for lawyers, judges, defendants, police officers, and the countless others who pass through the building’s courtrooms each day.

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

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

Additional Information

Serial podcast

Cornell’s Peter Enns about the U.S. as the world’s most punitive democracy

UNC’s Frank Baumgartner on race and policing

A note to our listeners in the New York City area: Jenna Spinelle will be participating in a panel called “Podcasts to the Rescue! An Emerging Medium for Learning About Civics, Government, and the Social Contract” on Thursday, May 30 at the Metropolitan New York Library Council. The event is free and open to the public. We would love to meet you!

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • If you’ve listened to Serial season 3, what did you find most surprising?
  • Which part of the criminal justice system do you think is most in need of reform?
  • How should that part of the system change?
  • How much discretion should judges have when it comes to sentencing?
  • What kind of data is needed to understand how to reform the criminal justice system?
  • What is the relationship between law and justice?

Interview Highlights

[2:45] What about this season of Serial do you think captured people’s attention?

We tried to do what we know how to do, right? Which is to know how to make it narrative, as narrative as we could, and to introduce difficult concepts kind of slowly and not overload you with information. It’s become a topic that people are talking about and caring about in the last however many years and that’s personally a thrill to me, but I think that helps. The timing of it helped.

[3:54] Does season 3 relate to season 1?

A lot of people after season 1 were like “Well, what does this mean about the whole system? Can you extrapolate?” And it felt like, well that, no you can’t extrapolate off of one case that is pretty extraordinary. So it really did feel like, well let’s just go look and see the ordinary stuff. What is the baseline functionality of our system in a very, kind of day to day, mundane way, honestly. Let’s treat the courthouse as an office.

[6:10] What did you learn about the police in Cleveland?

So it was just a very typical, I mean if you read about for example, what’s happening in Baltimore, what’s happened in some other places. And it seems like the places where there has been any successful, true successful outcome from those consent decrees, I think Seattle has actually had a pretty good result if I’m not mistaken. It’s where they get buy-in from the police union, and it’s hard. In a place like Cleveland it’s very hard. It’s very old school. It’s very like, “Don’t tell me how to do my job, I put my life on the line every day.”

[9:40] What do people in Cleveland think about the idea of community policing?

They see the value of it and they think it’s valuable and they don’t want to be the people who, in a place like Cleveland, all you do is just get in your car and just race from call to call to call to call. And half the time, you’re at a call trying to deal with something and you get a call for a more major thing and so you’re ripped away, so then that person that you’re trying to help is like, there goes my guy. So, it’s bad for everyone, that kind of policing. They, they want it and they want, I think, to be able to have real interaction with people in communities.

[14:03] Judge Gaul comes up in several episodes throughout the series. Tell us about him.

His dad had been in county politics. He was getting near retirement age, so he was like mid-60’s. He’d been on the bench a long time, and in Cleveland, in Ohio, you know, county judges have an extraordinary amount of of discretion and latitude.I mean, it’s sort of like a cliché of the courthouse, but like they really do treat it as their own little kingdom. And so he had his style and his way of berating almost every defendant who came before him. He saw it as tough love. That’s how you get elected in Cuyahoga county. No one pays attention to judicial races, so you see the Democratic name, it’s an Irish name, you’re like, it’s vaguely familiar because there’s like ten thousand people named Gaul in the county and you’re like, “Oh yeah, that guy. I’m sure he’s fine.” And so that’s how these people stay on the bench forever.

[20:40] What did you learn about the way probation works in Cleveland?

Half the docket when I was watching would be a probation violation. Most of them were for things like staying out after curfew or going out of state for a funeral somebody’s funeral smoking weed. They’re having to come back through the thing and if you piss off the judge, especially, someone like Judge Gaul who has a temper, you can end up incarcerated. Part of the hugely frustrating thing we saw in Ohio, but I think this is again true in lots of parts of the country, there’s no data. We don’t keep data on this stuff. Nobody is tracking outcome say for when is probation is effective and when people start to slide off and violate more.

[27:50] What do you make of the momentum around electing progressive prosecutors to reform the system?

The focus that we have lately on progressive prosecutors and the big money that’s going into these prosecutors races across the country is fantastic, but it is one piece of the puzzle. This system is enormous and it has many different machines working at once. They do not often interact with each other well or at all. I get a little nervous when we start saying, “Oh, we’ve, we’ve figured out how to fix it, just elect a bunch of progressive prosecutors.” My fear is, yes, you can elect progressive prosecution, but you can also unelect those same prosecutors. So I would rather see a more systemic change.

[30:15] Where can young people have the biggest impact in criminal justice reform?

I would say like those kinds of agencies that are so unsex and it just feels like why would I want to go be a government bureaucrat and like a thankless job? If you’re asking where you can make a difference, boy, wouldn’t it be fantastic to have, um, the smartest, most compassionate, most energetic brains be working on juvenile crime.


Send us your questions!



We are excited to announce our first ever Democracy Works listener mailbag episode! We’ve covered a lot of ground on the show over the past year, but there’s still many more questions to answer — and we would love to hear yours. We’ll be recording the show in a few weeks and publishing the episode before we take a summer break.

If you have a question about the show or anything we’ve covered, or about democracy more broadly, here’s how to send them to us:

If you have a question for a particular guest we’ve interviewed, please send those too. We’ll try our best to get a written or recorded answer from them. Looking forward to your questions!


Is it time to revive civility?



Timothy Shaffer
Timothy Shaffer

There are a lot of calls these days to “revive civility” in politics. While there are plenty of examples of uncivil behavior, there’s far less agreement about what civility should look like in 2019. Timothy Shaffer joins us this week to talk about work being done to create a new definition of civility and a playbook to put that definition into practice.

Shaffer is an assistant professor in communication studies at Kansas State University, assistant director of the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy, and principal research specialist at the National Institute for Civil Discourse. He is the editor of a new book called A Crisis of Civility? Political Discourse and its Discontents.

Additional Information

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you think we are in a crisis of civility? If so, does the crisis exist among citizens, politicians, or both?
  • What do you see as the relationship between civility and democracy?
  • What do you think is the best approach for making political discourse more civil?
  • Who do you look to as a model of civility in politics?
  • What is the right balance between deliberative democracy and policy changes?

Interview Highlights

[3:50] How do you define civility?

There is no one single notion of civility. In our book, the first chapter puts forward two ways to think about it: civility as politeness and civility as responsiveness. As someone who studies this work and engages it in practical situations and settings, it’s important that we think about civility as being more than just kind of minding your manners or abiding by the rules or the expectations of kind of a dominant society.

[5:48] Given that definition, what does it mean to “revive” civility as we’ve heard people call for lately?

I would say somewhat of an analog to that is the language of civic renewal, which gets used quite a bit. If we’re trying to revive something or trying to renew something, it presupposes that there-there was something in the past. And I think part of the Revive Civility campaign, um, from the National Institute for Civil Discourse I think is rooted more in this notion that we have, in recent times, seen the increases in various studies and people’s experience, right? People are recognizing, noticing, that politicians, as well as just folks in their neighborhoods and in their communities, are really ratcheting up some of the-the kinda partisan divisions and rancor.

[14:20] How do you connect exercises in democratic deliberation with more tangible policy outcomes?

One example I’ll point to is the Citizens Initiative Review, which creates those kinds of conditions where ordinary people come together and hear expert testimony, wrestle through ideas that are gonna show up on a ballot initiative, and at the end of a few days, they come out and make these statements about how they’ve, have come to a decision. A historical example I’ve researched is a cooperative extension program run by the USDA in the 1930s and 40s. They created these discussion guides on a whole host of topics, things like soil erosion and taxes and imports. They held meetings that gave people in these communities a chance to participate in discussion, but also paired that with formal land-use planning processes.

[18:40] What’s the relationship between civility and free expression? How do you have one without limiting the other?

the tension between um, free-speech and this notion of civility I don’t think has to be kind of, it’s, it’s over here or it’s over there. Uh, the, the capacity to create conditions for kind of expression of contentious views is really important. Uh, I think where we start to, to see some rub is the, the expectation of kind of “safe spaces” um, where if, if people are feeling uncomfortable or, or maybe even challenged or attacked, that if you know, we set that as a ground rule, for example, that is going to become a very significant tension that we have to acknowledge.

[22:05] Is there anyone you look to as an example of modeling civility in politics?

I don’t have an immediate go-to as kind of like, here’s the classic example of someone who ought to be our kind of exemplar. Given the state of things as they have been recently and it seems like it will continue for a bit, I will point to someone like Senator John McCain. He embodied the notion that you can have your strong views but you can engage and, and recognize when you need to give a little bit or also when you might be wrong.

 


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.