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

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

  • 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

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

  • 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.


Viktor Orbán’s “velvet repression” in Hungary



John Shattuck
John Shattuck

This episode begins a four-part series examining the state of democracy around the world. First up is Hungary, a country that’s often referred to in a group of countries in central and Eastern Europe that are seeing authoritarian leaders rise to power. You might have heard of Viktor Orbán or know that the country is in some way associated with George Soros, but beyond that, it’s not a place many of us spend a lot of time thinking about.

We could not have found a better guest to help us make sense of what’s happening there. John Shattuck is the former President and Rector of Central European University, which Hungary’s Prime Minister recently forced out of the country. He is currently Professor of Practice in Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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

Additional Information

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

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

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

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

[10:42] Who is Viktor Orbán?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


A brief history of “people power”



James Miller
James Miller

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

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

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

Additional Information

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

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The power of local government



Peter Buckland
Peter Buckland

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

Peter Buckland is the Chair of the Board of Supervisors in Ferguson Township, Pennsylvania. You’ll hear him describe the area and the structure in the interview, but really Ferguson Township could be just about any municipality in America. He outlines three ways that citizens and local government can work together to create more informed and more vibrant democracy at the local level:

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

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

Additional Information

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

Ferguson Township, Pennsylvania

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

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Using the tools of democracy to address economic inequality



Chris Witko
Chris Witko

Democracy and inequality have been at odds for as long as democracy as has existed. As the gap between rich and poor widens, so too does trust in political institutions and faith in democracy itself.

Chris Witko, associate director of Penn State’s School of Public Policy and author of The New Economic Populism: How States Respond to Economic Inequality, argues that states can step in to address economic inequality while the federal government is embattled in political polarization.

Witko argues that democracy and capitalism will never fully be reconciled, but lessening economic inequality will go a long way toward strengthening democracy.

Additional Information

The New Economic Populism: How States Respond to Economic Inequality

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

Penn State School of Public Policy

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


What is democracy? A conversation with Astra Taylor



Astra Taylor
Astra Taylor

We begin our third season with a fundamental question: What is democracy?

Astra Taylor grapples with this question in a documentary of the same name and a forthcoming book. We talk with her this week about what she learned from traveling the world and talking with people from all walks of life. As you’ll hear, she did not set out to make a documentary about democracy, but kept coming back to that question.

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

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

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

Additional Information

What Is Democracy? 

Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss it When It’s Gone

The Debt Collective

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Trump on Earth: The Red State Paradox



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

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

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

 


It’s good to be counted [rebroadcast]



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

Jennifer Van Hook
Jennifer Van Hook

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

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

Jennifer Van Hook, Roy C. Buck Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State, served on the Census Advisory Board from 2007 to 2011 and is an expert on how census data is collected, how it’s evaluated, and how it’s used. She talks about the process for creating and testing new questions, the implications of asking about citizenship, and some of the ways you might not realize census data is used.

Additional Information

Jennifer’s piece about the Census in The Conversation

2020 Census website

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When states sue the federal government [rebroadcast]



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

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro

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

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

Since taking office in January 2017, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has been involved with more than a dozen suits brought against the federal government on matters ranging from family separation at the border to EPA emissions regulations. Though Shapiro is a Democrat, he says his chief motivation in joining these suits is the rule of law and a commitment to do what’s right for people of Pennsylvania.

Whether or not you agree with Shapiro’s politics, he does present an interesting take on the role that states play as a check on the federal government. This power is a unique part of the American experiment and speaks to the power of democracy in the states.

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

Additional Information

Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General

Federalist 51

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

Mark Kissling
Mark Kissling

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

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

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

Recommended Reading

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

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

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


2018: The year in democracy



Michael Berkman

From gerrymandering to record voter turnout, it’s been a busy year for democracy. This doesn’t mean that everything has been positive, but there’s certainly plenty to reflect on. This week, Michael Berkman and Chris Beem take a look a look back at some of the biggest democracy-related stories of the year and look at what’s in store for next year.

Chris Beem

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

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

Related Episodes


The complicated relationship between campaign finance and democracy



Caroline Hunter
Caroline Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Information

Federal Election Commission website

Citizens United v. FEC

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

What is the mission of the FEC?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How has your work changed since the Citizens United ruling?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could this be the future of political donations?

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

Do you have any interaction with members of Congress?

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

Do you think that relationship has an impact on democracy?

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


Bonus: Capturing the nation’s mood



Eric Plutzer
Eric Plutzer

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

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

Responses in this episode

Anger

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

[5:02] Brad Vivian, Penn State

Pride

[8:14] Forrest Briscoe, Penn State

[10:19] David Frum, The Atlantic

Worry

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

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

Hope

[20:10] Sophia McClennen, Penn State

[20:43] Michael Mann, Penn State

Additional Information

Mood of the Nation Poll


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



Penn State Provost Nick Jones
Penn State Provost Nick Jones

Land-grant universities were once known as “democracy’s colleges,” places where people who were not wealthy elites could earn the education necessary to make better lives for themselves and contribute to the greater social good in the process. The The United States does not have a national university, but the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 established a public university in each state.

Penn State, Pennsylvania’s land-grant university, is the home of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and this podcast. We invited Nick Jones, the University’s Executive Vice President and Provost, to join us this week for a conversations about the tension between staying true to the land-grant mission and ensuring that the university remains financially stable as funding from the state remains flat or declines.

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

Recommended Reading

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

Land-Grant Universities for the Future

Land-grant universities as “democracy’s colleges”

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

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Norman Eisen’s love letter to democracy



Norman Eisen
Norman Eisen

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

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

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

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

Additional Information

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

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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