We love talking with scholars and thought leaders on Democracy Works, but we’d also like to bring you the everyday stories of democracy in action. This the first installment in that series.
We visited the central Pennsylvania chapter of Moms Demand Action and heard how they are using the power of conversation to reframe the gun debate and reinvigorating a sense of civic engagement among members. A recent meeting also included a “government 101” presentation that covered the basics of how a bill becomes a law and the best way for someone to contact an elected official.
In this mini episode, you’ll hear from Lori Wieder, who is a founding member of the central Pennsylvania Moms Demand Action Chapter, and from Katie Blume, deputy political director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. Both Katie and Lori are firm believers — as we are — in the power that can come from everyone exercising their power as small-d democrats regardless of political affiliation.
Do you have a story of democracy in action? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org; we’d love to hear about it and consider it for a future Democracy Works episode.
This week’s episode seeks to answer one simple, but very important, question: Why is it so hard for people to talk to each other? There are a lot of easy answers we can point to, like social media and political polarization, but there’s another explanation that goes a bit deeper.
Laurie Mulvey, executive director of World in Conversation, is the perfect person to help us explore this question. World in Conversation has facilitated more than 10,000 dialogues over the past 15 years. They bring people from all walks of life together to have dialogues about important issues from climate change to race relations. In the process, they break down the misconceptions and preconceived notions that often get in the way of one person understanding — and relating to— someone else.
Of course, most dialogues do not happen in a controlled environment with a facilitator in the room. Laurie shares some advice for how to handle your next family dinner or other situation where things might get a little heated. She also shares how the World in Conversation is preparing the next generation of democratic citizens to overcome the partisan divides that bog down political discourse.
As we say in the episode, Laurie raises the optimism quotient of this podcast quite a bit.
One of the things we talked about in our episode with How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt is the “grinding work” that it takes to make a democracy function. School board meeting rooms around the country are some of the places where that happens at the grassroots level.
If you’ve ever been to a school board meeting, you know that they’re not always exciting. However, the work that these boards do directly impacts the schools, the children who attend them, and the community at large. Board positions are not full-time and the people who hold them are rarely career politicians. Rather, they’re everyday citizens who want to make an impact — exactly the type of people come together to make democracy work.
We talk about the role that school boards play in a democracy with Robert Asen, a professor of rhetoric, politics, and culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Asen is the author of Democracy, Deliberation and Education, which is based on a yearlong study of three school boards in Wisconsin. While the examples he references are specific to Wisconsin, it’s easy to hear the conversations and deliberations playing out at schools across the country.
The next census is still a few years away in 2020, but the U.S. Census Bureau is already hard at work on preparing to count the more than 325 million people in the United States. The census is one of the few democratic norms that’s required by the Constitution, and the data collected has wide-ranging uses.
The normally routine process has been disrupted this year by Trump administration, which is pushing for the reintroduction of a question about citizenship. As you may have heard, there’s a debate going on about whether this question is appropriate, and whether the resource-strapped Census Bureau will have time to implement it before 2020.
Jennifer Van Hook, Roy C. Buck Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State, served on the Census Advisory Board from 2007 to 2011 and is an expert on how census data is collected, how it’s evaluated, and how it’s used.
She talks about the process for creating and testing new questions, the implications of asking about citizenship, and some of the ways you might not realize census data is used. For more on Jenny’s research in this area, read her recent piece in The Conversation.
Political satire has been around nearly as long as politics itself and can provide a much needed laugh in times of crisis.
But, as you’ll hear from our guests this week, it’s much more than that. Satire is a check on people in power and helps to engage the public around issues that might otherwise go unnoticed — both of which are essential for a healthy democracy.
But, are we reaching a place where the comedy has become the news? The success of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and most recently John Oliver suggest that we might be heading in that direction. What about fake news? It’s all fun and games until you can’t tell the real news from the satire, and that’s concerning.
On the bright side, people who consume satire tend to be more well-informed about politics than those who do not, suggesting that one needs a solid foundation of what the news actually is in order to get the jokes that are being made about it.
Sophia, a Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at Penn State, writes regularly for Salon and recently appeared on StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Steve is a cartoonist at caricaturist who has drawn every president since Ronald Regan. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Washington Post just to name a few.
Tommie Smith is a true living legend. He won a gold medal in the men’s 200 meter event at the 1968 Olympics, setting a world record in the process. When he took the medal stand in Mexico City that day, he made history again by raising a black-gloved fist during the National Anthem.
As you’ll hear, Tommie didn’t grow up in a political family and didn’t see himself as an activist when he enrolled at San Jose State University. That changed when he met Dr. Harry Edwards and became involved with Olympic Project for Human Rights, where he found his voice and used it to speak out against racial segregation in sports and elsewhere.
When Tommie and teammate John Carlos raised their fists on the podium in Mexico City, many interpreted the gesture as a symbol of the Black Power movement. However, as Tommie says, the action was not necessarily about one cause or movement. Rather, it was a symbol of a broader struggle for power and equality.
Tommie visited Penn State as part of a yearlong look at the events of 1968 organized by the College of the Liberal Arts.
For more on the relationship between athletes and protests, check out our episode with Abe Khan, who has studied this topic extensively and draws comparisons between Smith and modern-day athletes like Colin Kaepernick.
Over the past few months, the members of Generation Z have combined the tenets of traditional social movements with the power of social media to reimagine what it means to protest in a democracy. That energy was on display during the March for Our Lives events held around the world on March 24.
We interviewed several students from State College, Pennsylvania (where our podcast is based) who attended March for Our Lives events locally and in Washington, D.C. They speak passionately and articulately about what they believe in and how they’re working to carry forward the energy they’ve created.
In this episode, you’ll hear from:
Kyra Gines and Kayla Fatemi, high school students who organized the March for Our Lives in State College.
Lilly Caldawell and Lena Adams, who organized a walk out at their middle school.
Hannah Strouse and Cian Nelson, who attended the March for our Lives in Washington, D.C.
If what we saw and heard from these students is any indication, the future of our democracy looks very bright.
Daniel Ziblatt has done a lot of interviews since the release of How Democracies Die, the bestselling book he co-wrote with Steven Levitsky. But we asked him a question he’d never gotten before — about a line toward the end of the book when he refers to democracy as “grinding work.”
The idea that democracy isn’t easy is a central theme of this podcast. As How Democracies Die illustrates, it’s much easier to succumb to the power of an autocratic leader than it is to stand up and protect the institutions that serve as the guardrails of democracy. Ziblatt, a professor of government at Harvard, talks about how the book came about and the impact it’s had since it was released earlier this year.
This episode also starts a new feature on the podcast, where we end with a lightning round featuring our Mood of the Nation Poll questions. The poll is open-ended and allows Americans to respond in their own words to questions related to American politics. Some questions vary based on what’s going in the world, but we always ask these four:
What makes you angry?
What makes you proud?
What makes you worry?
What gives you hope?
We were very fortunate to speak with Daniel and encourage everyone to pick up a copy of How Democracies Die.
[5:40] Why did you and Steven write this book?
Steve and I, we teach together, we’ve taught lots of courses together, graduate courses on democracies and crisis, democratic breakdown and democratization around the world, I work on Europe and he works on Latin America. We haven’t primarily focused on the United States in our work, but during the course of the 2015-2016 campaign season, really the republican nomination process, we kept running into each other and talking about the tenor of the political rhetoric.
[7:02)] Where does Donald Trump fit into all of us? Did this process of democratic erosion that you describe in the book, did it start before Trump? Or was he kind of a symptom of it?
In many ways I think that there’s a tendency to focus on Donald Trump, the spectacle of Trump and the latest offensive Tweet and whatever people respond to, but really one of the points of our book is to say that these dynamics long preceded President Trump.
[8:14)] What role do you see parties playing in this process of democratic decline?
Parties are really at the center of the story for us. One of the lessons from the book is that throughout American history there’s been around, at least in the 20th century period for which we have opinion poll data, there’s been around 30% of the American electorate that supports demagogic type of politicians.
[11:10] Can you talk a little bit more about what role you see the assault on the press playing?
In one of the chapters in our book, we lay out the strategies authoritarian inclined politicians have used around the world, and this is, again, drawing in lessons from other countries, and once in office, elected authoritarians often, we kind of have a sports metaphor; they try to capture the referees of the the court system, sideline the opposition, and go after the free press.
[13:39] One of the counter arguments to all this is that Trump is all bluster but no action and people on the left are ringing their hands over nothing. What would you say to that?
In our book we have this what we call an authoritarian litmus test, which is a set of indicators, which are questioning the legitimacy of the media, questioning elections, threatening violence or condoning violence; these are all things that candidate Trump rhetorically embraced before the election.
[18:04] You also say in the book that democracy is “grinding work” which ties back to the whole theme of this podcast, Democracy Works, so can you talk about what that phrase means to you?
It’s important to have big goals and big vision in politics, but it’s also about behaving in responsible ways. It’s a distinction between process and policy. At the end of the day, one has to remain committed to the process and forge alliances with people they may disagree with. That’s hard work and it’s grinding work.
Mood of the Nation Poll Questions
What makes you angry?
When people can’t even engage in a debate and hear each other.
What makes you proud?
Citizens showing up to public libraries to discuss the future of democracy.
What makes you worry?
Levels of distrust among citizens.
What gives you hope?
The anti-gun movements in high schools in Florida.
Pennsylvania received a new congressional map earlier this year, closing the books on what was widely considered one of the most egregious examples of partisan gerrymandering after 2010 census. Chris Satullo sees that decision as winning the battle against gerrymandering, but not the war.
Satullo, a civic engagement consultant for the Committee of Seventy, is involved with several initiatives to sustain the changes that were enacted this year and ensure that a fair map is drawn after the 2020 census.
The Committee of Seventy works closely with two organizations, Fair Districts PA and Draw the Lines PA. Fair Districts is a nonpartisan grassroots advocacy group working to ensure that the map doesn’t revet back to a gerrymandered state in 2021, while Draw the Lines aims to “fix the bug in the operating system of democracy” by empowering students and other groups to draw new maps.
We talked with Chris about how Pennsylvania’s map became so gerrymandered, what drove the desire to change it, and how people across the Keystone State can get involved with the effort to create a better map. In many ways, this effort embodies the essence of Democracy Works — people coming together build something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
[5:50] What are Committee of 70, Fair Districts Pennsylvania, and Draw the Lines Pennsylvania, and how do those groups work together?
The Committee of 70 is a non-profit that is Pennsylvania’s oldest “good government group” founded more than 100 years ago in Philly. Fair Districts PA is a grassroots organization that was formed about a year and a half, two years ago, to work specifically on the redistricting, anti-gerrymandering front. Draw the Lines PA is a new initiative of us here at Committee of 70 which looks to connect with and support and sustain the work of Fair Districts PA.
[8:04] Why did it take so long for this effort to come to fruition, to get the map changed?
What changed dramatically in the last twenty years is the advent of computer technology and big data. Mapping software and big data about individual voters buying habits, not just election and political habits.
[9:44] If the 2016 election had gone a different way, would we be sitting here talking about this right now?
I’d like to assure you that Committee of 70, and I personally would’ve been talking about this issue because, it’s been a concern of mine as a journalist covering these legislatures for a long time.
[12:34] So what are you hoping people will do [with the map tools]? Why should people want to take part in this work?
What we want to show people is that, if you have the right tools in your hand, it is not difficult, in fact it is relatively easy, to draw a common sense map of Pennsylvania.
[15:06] How does the product of all this work make its way to the people who are responsible for what the states new map will look like?
A big focus of Draw the Lines will be getting this opportunity and this software and these tools into classrooms across Pennsylvania, both secondary school and colleges, professional schools, law schools and the like.
[19:40] Do you think we’re heading for a crazy decade ahead of maps changing all the time and all these challenges, and people not knowing what’s what or where their districts are or where things stand?
In the short term, yes, a lot of confusion. In the long term, I think what we’re seeing is the first glimmers of voters beginning to realize how significant this issue is in how disappointed and frustrated they are with what they get out of their State governments and out of Washington D.C.
[21:00] If people only have to time to do one thing, what should that be?
Right now they should contact their representatives in the State Legislature, both Senate and House, and tell them they want them to vote for the Constitutional Amendment.
Can philanthropy save local journalism? Are the calls of “fake news” from Washington impacting the work of journalists in other parts of the country? We discuss those questions and the role of the free press in a democracy with Halle Stockton, managing editor of PublicSource in Pittsburgh.
PublicSource is a nonprofit journalism organization in the style of ProPublica, funded primarily by Pittsburgh’s foundation community. Halle talks about how PublicSource’s funding model impacts its reporting, ways that the organization is breaking the fourth wall to engage with readers, how the team responds to allegations of “fake news” while doing in-depth reporting, and why they’ll never write clickbait.
[6:00] What is PublicSource and what is your role there?
Public Source is a non-profit independent, digital first media organization, so in human speak that means that we are focused on in depth and investigative journalism in the Pittsburgh region.
[7:37] How does PublicSource fit into Pittsburgh’s media landscape?
Public Source is fitting in in a way that people are seeing it as a more straightforward platform for the type of news that they’re not getting elsewhere and the type of voices they’re not getting elsewhere.
[8:48] What role does the community itself play in that, in terms of feedback you get?
We engage with the community quite a bit via social media but also in person. A couple of the ways that we interact with people, are one, through educational events we call citizens tool kits.
[13:35] How do you strike the balance between catching people’s attention and writing hard-hitting stories?
We’re never going to fall victim to clickbait. That’s just something that we’ve decided we cannot do. We firmly believe that people’s stories, seeing other people going through things is catchy enough.
[14:50] Are you and your team feeling the impact of the attacks agains the media that are coming from Washington?
Surprisingly enough, even in Pittsburgh, it started off as sources kind of laughing about it like “oh are you the fake news?” but even in the past few months when we’ve had some really important stories drop, those institutions who we’ve pressured in those stories through our reporting, we have heard rumors about them trying to cast us as fake news.
[16:38] What role do foundations play at PublicSource?
There’s a firewall between, just like in newspapers, between business and news, there’s a firewall between foundations and news, although it’s not totally the same.
[19:06] What impacts have you seen from your reporting?
One of the most recent ones was with Chatham University, it’s a small university in Pittsburgh, it used to be all female, and recently moved to co-ed, and we reported on a policy in their honor code. It was a policy that treated self-harm as a disciplinary matter. The stories of students who had been expelled or dismissed from campus housing for incidents of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and suicidal attempts , those had been never told.When we put tit [the story] out, within 24 hours the university launched a task force to review it [the policy].
[21:18] Where do you see PublicSource going looking forward?
There are a lot of opportunities. Right now, we’re really focused on the Pittsburgh region. I think in the future there’s opportunity and possibility that we could have somebody in Harrisburg covering state governmental issues in the Public Source way.
From Watergate to Benghazi to Robert Mueller, U.S. history is full of congressional hearings. You’ve no doubt heard about them in the news, but do you know what those House and Senate committees actually do and what their role is in a democracy?
Following the interview, Michael and Chris discuss how congressional investigations tie back to separation of powers and why the ability for one branch to check another is critical to democracy.
[7:46] Your research shows that there were 12,000 days of these investigative hearings. What were they doing during that time?
Sometimes they were listening to themselves talk, which is what we often sort of derive from when we watch these things. It’s supposedly questions, and mainly the member talking for most of their time, and they get a little bit of response from the witnesses. But I think that’s almost exactly what they’re for.
[9:00] How much leeway do these committees have?
Committees have very significant leeway to investigate almost anything they want, which is why the Benghazi investigation is a great example.
[10:31] Can you give us some examples of when those checks by the legislative to the executive have been successful?
So back in the 1970’s, we were having a policy debate that’s immediately relevant to what’s going on right now. This was the Church committee, which was founded to investigate abuse in the intelligence agencies.
[12:00] Why should my taxpayer dollars go to fund these things as opposed to things that might have a more direct impact on the average citizens day to day life?
We know what Congress’s approval rating is, it’s abysmal, and it’s almost always been abysmal. It’s almost always been lower than either of the other two branches. So what is the public view on investigations? We went into the field with another survey in which we basically just asked the question about whether Congress should investigate, and whether people support this idea.
[15:18] Why would there be a need for the House and the Senate to both investigate the same issue?
Inter-chamber rivalry, right? The fact that “I’m a member of the House, why on Earth would I want to let the Senate do this? I want my own input.” And vice versa.
[17:06] How do the House and Senate investigations on Russia differ from the work that Robert Mueller is doing?
It’s very interesting, and it’s a matter that’s continually being litigated. What areas does Congress want to punt on, and leave to the special council, versus where do they think duplication, even, can be profitable?
[21:59] Do you, in this climate that we’re in, do you think that we’ll see an independent council come back around again?
It’s interesting. The number of Republicans who have expressed publicly support for the idea of legislation protecting Bob Mueller, essentially post ex-factum, making him an independent council, yet I don’t see any calls by really by many on either side of the aisle for reinstituting the independent council statute so I doubt that we’re going to see that.
[22:40] What is the difference between open and closed testimony?
The use of closed sessions, the frequency of it has been going way down over the years. The intelligence committees though are always the exception. It’s because of the act creating them after the Church committee that sort of gave members of the intelligence committee access to different folks within the intelligence community and different levels of classified information that other members are not able to, that they’ve always conducted a bit more of their business in secret than other committees.
[24:35] What do these committees look like moving forward?
You’re exactly right. If you look at time diaries of members of Congress they’re spending a lot less time on committee and a lot more time raising money, and fundraising and campaigning. That said, one of the beauties of investigations for the people who end up spearheading it is that, it might serve their reelection prospect.
No matter how much of a sports fan you are, you probably remember seeing Colin Kaepernick kneeling during National Anthem. President Trump took the debate to a whole new level when he said that anyone who does not respect the National Anthem and the flag should be fired.
Kaepernick and those who followed him are the most recent example of athletes using their sports as a means to protest, but history is filled with others who have come before them.
In this episode, we talk with Abe Khan, assistant professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and African-American Studies at Penn State, about the impact Kaepernick’s actions had on NFL culture and the broader role that protest plays in a democracy.
Michael Berkman and Chris Beem draw parallels between modern-day sports protests and Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights protests, and discuss the public’s feelings on protests as reported in the McCourtney Institute’s Mood of the Nation Poll.
[6:28] Help us remember what happened with Colin Kapernick and where the issues have gone from there:
Kapernick’s first kneel came at the end of August in 2016, it was actually at the end of a preseason football game. It actually didn’t start as a kneel.
He used two phrases that came, at least in my mind, to define the substance of the protest. One is, bodies in the street.And the other is people getting away with murder.
[8:54] How did the protest spread after Kapernicks initial demonstration?
So I’ll admit to being surprised about how quickly the Kapernick situation spread, but the number of athletes included 48 NFL players, 8 NBA teams, 14 WNBA players, including the entire squad of the Minnesota Links, a gold medal swimmer, 45 high school teams, 22 colleges, a middle school, and a youth football team in Beaumont Texas. 34 states, 4 countries.
[10:10] To wrap up this section about the history of the protest, where do things stand now?
One thing that emerged immediately after this was of course huge outrage, especially among NFL players.
Where were at is essentially a split in the players coalition, because I think that the NFL saw that the players coalition as an opportunity to co-op the force of the protest. Eric Reid (one of the earliest players to join Kapernick) and Michael Thomas (player for the Miami Dolphins) left the players coalition after the NFL promised to spend 100 million dollars promoting an agenda on criminal justice reform. This was seen as a bribe.
[12:03] Let’s talk about that, NFL culture. Sports is is kind of the one non-partisan place in our society.
The problem is, is that all of the political place in sport had been consumed by simplistic and idealized images of the nation, especially in the 1980’s and 90’s. There’s been patriotic symbolism in sports forever.
Patriotism and nationalism frequently get coded as a-political. That underwrites a form of attack on the method of protest. So to the extent that the anthem ritual is apolitical, disrupting the ritual will always be seen as an inappropriate intrusion of politics into sport.
[13:04] Who were some of those [athlete protesters] that came before him [Kapernick]?
Athletes have always used moments of patriotic ritual to express dissent. Of course the most famous example is John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the 1968 Olympics.
[14:40] Kapernick and these other athletes are effectively “on the job.” What effect, if any, do you see this having on their actions?
The recognition that athletes are on the job is often used as the ground from which to criticize the protester.
[17:13] Do you think that Kapernick and those who have followed him were successful in making their points?
I think that the answer there is yes but I can understand those who say no.
[18:38] How do you think history will look back on Kapernick and the impact that he’s had?
It’s true that the problem of police violence and accountability got lost in the shuffle about free speech and angry screeds about patriotism but that, it seems to me, is a limited metric of success.
From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, this is Democracy Works. In this episode, hosts Michael Berkman and Chris Beem take a few minutes to explain why we wanted to start this podcast and what we hope to achieve through our interviews and conversations.
They also explain the meaning behind the name Democracy Works. It’s about people coming together to build things that are greater than the sum of their parts. Much like workers throughout Pennsylvania’s history built ships and trains at iron and steel works, each of us has a role to play in building and sustaining a healthy democracy.
Building and sustaining a democracy is hard work. It’s not glamorous and often goes unnoticed in the daily news cycle. On Democracy Works, we talk to people who are out there making it happen and discuss why that work is so important. Each episode include an interview about an issue and discussion about what that means for democracy.
We are excited about launching this podcast and hope you’ll join us to see what’s in store.