about Us

The Democracy Works podcast is produced by The McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State and WPSU Penn State, central Pennsylvania’s NPR station.

The McCourtney Institute draws from the humanities and social sciences to examine democracy from multiple angles. This cross-discipline collaboration is evident in our research, education, and outreach efforts. 

We educate the next generation of democratic citizens through our Nevins Fellows program, monitor attitudes toward democracy with the Mood of the Nation poll, and host speakers and events that bring people from diverse backgrounds and points of view together to discuss the role of democracy in our society.  

For more information, visit democracy.psu.edu.

podcast team

Michael Berkman

Michael Berkman, McCourtney Institute for Democracy Director

Michael Berkman (Ph.D., Indiana University) is a professor in the Department of Political Science and the director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy. Berkman’s research focuses on American politics, particularly American state politics and policy. His most recent research, funded by the National Science Foundation, focuses on state Transitional Aid to Needy Families (TANF) programs. Along with Eric Plutzer, Berkman has published two books on state education policy: Evolution, Creationism and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (Cambridge University Press) and Ten Thousand Democracies: Politics and Public Opinion in America’s School Districts (Georgetown University Press).
Christopher Beem

Christopher Beem, McCourtney Institute for Democracy Managing Director

Christopher Beem is Managing Director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. He is also an Associate Research Professor of Political Science and Affiliate Faculty in the Rock Ethics Institute. He came to Penn State 2015 after holding positions in philanthropy and non-profit social services. He is the author or co-editor of five books, including The Necessity of Politics and Democratic Humility: Reinhold Niebuhr, Neuroscience and America’s Political Crisis. His next book, Democratic Vice, Democratic Virtues, will be published in 2022. Beem is a cohost of the Democracy Works podcast and a frequent contributor to The Conversation. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.
Jenna Spinelle

Jenna Spinelle, McCourtney Institute Communications Specialist

Jenna Spinelle is the Communications Specialist for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy. She is responsible for shaping all of the institute’s external communication, including website content, social media, multimedia, and media outreach. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Penn State and is an instructor in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. Prior to joining the McCourtney Institute, Spinelle helped market Penn State to prospective students and families in the University’s Undergraduate Admissions Office.
Candis Watts Smith

Candis Watts Smith, Associate Professor of Political Science, Duke University

Professor Smith's expertise highlights race and ethnicity's role in shaping the American political landscape. Her research agenda illuminates the ways in which demographic dynamics influence citizens' and denizens' of the U.S. understanding of their own identity, their political attitudes, and their policy preferences. Smith applies the knowledge gained from research to speak to issues that influence real people, including the effects racial attitudes on American politics, diversity issues, and access to resources that ought to be distributed equitably. Prior to her appointment at Duke University, she was a member of the Departments of Political and African American Studies at Penn State. She is a co-host of the Democracy Works Podcast and a TEDx alumna. She received her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D in Political Science at Duke University. Prior to coming to PennState, Smith had posts at Texas A&M University, Williams College, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research explores the political and policy ramifications of shifting demographics in U.S. Smith is the author of Black Mosaic: The Politics of Black Pan-Ethnic Identity (NYU Press, 2014), the co-author of Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter (NYU Press, 2019 with Tehama Lopez Bunyasi) and Racial Stasis: The Millennial Generation and the Stagnation of Racial Attitudes in American Politics (University of Chicago Press, 2020 with Christopher D. DeSante), and the co-editor of Black Politics in Transition: Immigration, Suburbanization, and Gentrification (Routledge, 2018 with Christina M. Greer).