As a piece in The Atlanticrecently 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.
One of the biggest headlines to emerge heading into the 2018 midterms is the record number of female candidates in local, state, and national races. While it’s easy to point to this a post-Trump reaction, there’s much more that goes into persuading women to run and helping them raise the money and build the relationships needed to make it into office.
Rebecca Kreitzer, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has been studying the groups that exist to help elect women into office. She and Tracy Osborn from the University of Iowa have counted more than 400 groups around the country modeled in the tradition of Emily’s List.
Much like the groups Lara Putnam described, this is grassroots-level politics in action with women working to promote each other and make their voices heard. As you’ll hear Rebecca describe, there are several reasons why it’s important for women to have a voice in the legislature. However, with so many groups operating at the same time, there are bound to be conflicts and missteps, which Rebecca has also studied.
This interview was recorded at the 2018 American Political Science Association State Politics and Policy Conference, which was held at Penn State in June.
Last week, we heard from Salena Zito about the segments of middle America who supported Donald Trump after voting for Barack Obama. This week, we talk with another Pittsburgh resident, Lara Putnam, about a different version of Middle America — the college-educated, middle-aged suburban women who have dusted off the organizing skills honed through decades of volunteering to affect change in their communities.
Lara is a Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author with Theda Skockpol of the article “Middle America Reboots Democracy.” in the journal Democracy. She argues that grassroots work is happening behind the scenes in “purple” suburbs, areas that are ignored in the red state/blue state and urban/rural media narratives.
Grassroots groups like those Lara observed in western Pennsylvania are mixing traditional organizing tactics with social media to raise awareness and push for change at the local and state levels, far away from the divisions that bog down national politics. To borrow a line from the article, “If your question is how the panorama of political possibility has shifted since November 2016, your story needs to begin here.”
Thank you to WESA and WYEP in Pittsburgh for allowing us to use their community studio to record this interview with Lara.
We have access to more information now than at any other time in history, but we trust that information less than ever before. A Gallup survey recently found that 58 percent of respondents felt less informed because of today’s information abundance. As with a lot of things in life, too much of a good thing might not be so good after all.
If you’ve followed any of the recent news about Facebook — from Mark Zuckerberg’s comments about Holocaust survivors to the decision to ban InfoWars — you’ve probably heard the company make claims about giving its community a voice and other things that sound very democratic. However, as Matt Jordan explains in this episode, that is not the case at all.
At the end of the day, Facebook is a company and its goal is to make a profit. The result of that, Matt argues, is an algorithm-fueled avalanche of information that mixes news with opinion and fact with fiction to reinforce existing thoughts and feelings rather than exposing us to new ideas and perspectives.
Matt has also spent time studying the history of the term fake news and found that it goes back much farther than Donald Trump. He talks about how fake news in 2018 looks different than it did in 1918 and what responsibility journalists and news consumers have to push back against it.
Matt is an associate professor of media studies at Penn State and co-director of the Social Thought Program. For a look at how journalists are working in this media landscape, check out our interview from last season with Halle Stockton of PublicSource, a nonprofit news organization in Pittsburgh.
Note: This episode was recorded before Alex Jones and InfoWars were banned from Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, and other platforms.
This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the Unite The Right rally and counter protests in Charlottesville, Virginia that claimed the life of Heather Heyer and set off a firestorm around President Trump’s remarks about who was to blame for the violence. One year later, the Robert E. Lee statue at the center of the controversy is still there, and it seems the conversation about what it stands for has stalled.
The Lee statue is part of a complicated public memory about the south’s Confederate past. These shared stories of the Civil War and what it means make it difficult to change the conversation and have a productive dialogue about how to move forward.
Joining us to unpack the public memory around Charlottesville is Brad Vivian. He is the director of the McCourtney Institute’s Center for Democratic Deliberation and a professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State. Brad studies public memory, particularly around Confederate iconography. He also grew up in the Charlottesville area and recounts some of his experiences there during the interview.
We are excited to begin the second season of Democracy Works with such an important and timely topic. If you like what you hear, make sure to rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts.
Ah, summer. Time to kick back and relax with a good book or two. If you’ve been to a book store or the library lately, then you’ve probably seen at least a few books on democracy on the shelves. The 2016 presidential election spurred a lot of conversation about the current state of our democracy and where things go from here. These books are not what most people would call beach reading, but they are important to understanding what’s happening in the U.S. and around the world right now.
We know you probably don’t have time to read all of them. Hopefully this episode will help you choose one or two to tackle this summer. Here’s the rundown of the books we discuss:
Thank you to everyone who supported us on the first season of Democracy Works. Season two will begin in mid-August with a look at Confederate monuments and public memory on the anniversary of last summer’s riots in Charlottesville.
This is one we’ve been wanting to do since we started the podcast. The term constitutional crisis is frequently used but often misunderstood. Like democracy, it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it.
If anyone can provide a definition, it’s Jud Mathews, an associate professor of law at Penn State. He has a law degree and a Ph.D. in political science (both from Yale, no less). Jud says we’re not in a constitutional crisis yet, but that constitutional norms — much like democratic norms — are eroding more and more each day.
Jud also cautions against using the term constitutional crisis too loosely because of the “boy who cried wolf” problem that we’ll become so desensitized that we won’t recognize one when it actually occurs. Beyond being a legal scholar, he has made the Constitution his life’s work. He’s passionate about what it represents and understandably upset to see its force as a roadmap for the country called into question.
If there’s one bright spot to take from this conversation, it’s that there are many dedicated public servants throughout the government who are committed to upholding constitutional norms and preventing a crisis from occurring.
Earlier this year, images of teachers protesting for higher wages in Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma flooded the airwaves as teachers took action against years, if not decades, of stagnant wages being asked to do more with less in the classroom. Teachers are one visible example of a public sector union, but many other state and federal employees from bus drivers to accounts are part unions, too.
In fact, public sector union participation is higher than it is in the private sector. In theory, this means that public employees can advocate for the resources they need to make public life better for everyone. However, only about half of the states give their employees the right to unionize, and unions within the federal government are limited in what they can bargain for.
Those bargaining rights could become even more limited as the Supreme Court prepares to rule in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which will decide whether people who are not members of these unions have to pay union fees.
To help sort through this, we talked with Paul Clark, the director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State and an expert on unions. This is a wide-ranging conversation that covers everything from the history of public sector unions (they’re newer than you might expect) to the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Janus case.
We also talked with Paul about the impact that public sector unions have on democracy and what happens if they continue to weaken. Even unions that don’t have the ability to bargain over wages have managed to get creative about making their voice heard, but that can’t last forever. These are some of the people who are out there every day doing what it takes to make democracy work, and any efforts to curb their collective power could weaken their ability to do so.
Polarization is a term that’s thrown around among political pundits as one reason for the decline of American democracy — often without an explanation of what it really means. We’re even guilty of it on this show.
To set the record straight, we talk with Boris Shor, an assistant professor at the University of Houston and an expert on political polarization. Boris breaks down what polarization means, and how it looks different in the legislature and in public opinion. This is an important distinction that is often lost in the efforts to frame the narrative in a tweet or a soundbite.
He also argues that polarization is not always an negative, especially at the state level, and that it might not be time to blow up the entire party system just yet. While we hear a lot about polarization in the media and from politicians (who themselves are polarized), the rest of the country might be more in the middle than you think.
This conversation was recorded at the 2018 State Politics and Policy Conference, which was hosted by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and brought more than 100 political science scholars to Penn State.
What is the role of a corporation in a democracy? If you asked Milton Friedman, the answer would be none at all. He famously said in the 1970s that the only corporate social responsibility a company has is to turn a profit for its shareholders.
Some 40 years later, the answer to that question looks very different. Companies are increasingly stepping up to fill what they perceive to be a void left by polarized and paralyzed government. In the past year, we’ve seen Patagonia advocating to protect national parks from the Trump administration and Dick’s Sporting Goods banning the sale of assault weapons after the Parkland shooting. These organizations wield a lot of power, both financially and in swaying public opinion.
Forrest Briscoe, a professor of management in Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, has been studying the gradual closing of the gaps between business, government, and civil society and talks with us about what it means for employees, for companies, and for consumers.
The echo chambers we experience among our friends and our media may be bleeding over into the workplace — which has some serious implications for democracy. In a tight job market, a company’s political beliefs may even be a deciding factor when someone is considering multiple job offers.
The space between business, government, and civic life is closing faster than you think. We argue that it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but something that we should be aware of as workers, consumers, and democratic citizens.
The very idea of civic engagement has changed drastically in the past decade or so as communities form online instead of in person. Does this mean young people are more likely to become engaged in civic and political issues? And, will that engagement translate into votes? Peter and his colleagues study these questions and will be watching closely heading into November’s election.
The interview with Peter also touches on what today’s young people can learn from their predecessors 50 years ago. We heard from Tommie Smith about the struggles he faced in 1968; Peter reflects on how civic engagement looks different today and how students today can keep activism alive.
For more information on Peter’s work, visit the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at civicyouth.org or his website at peterlevine.ws.
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.
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? Specifically; the question of citizenship status
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.
18:44 In addition to civil rights issues, in what other way is the census information used?
Jennifer: It is also used to distribute funds. It is also used for business planning such as where they should locate their businesses based on where populations are moving.
19:37 How is census information used to impact federal policy?
Jennifers: 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.
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.
7:02 What is the role of satire in a democracy?
Sophia: It doesn’t have that big of a role because it usually comes into the picture when things aren’t going that well. Satire emerges in moments of crisis. Today it is playing an extremely big role. Largely because the news media has shifted in how it informs the public.
8:01 What about the nature of a crisis makes satire more popular and come out more in political conversations?
Sophia: Satire tends to come about when people are faulty or are doing stupid things. Satire is typically a contrarian position.
8:42 What are creators of satire trying to accomplish?
Sophia: Satire is typically used to get the audience to think critically. The idea is to get people out of the binary option mindset. Many see the satirist as someone trying to tell them what to think. However, what they’re actually doing is trying to call out the way in which a conversation it being framed and recommend a change to that.
10:05 What do we know about the types of people who consume satire?
Sophia: People who consume satire tend to be smarter. They also seem to be more creative on average. Part of the reason for this is the fact that satire depends on irony, which is art of playing with language. In terms of irony, the ability to hear a word and be able to comprehend that it has multiple meanings is a sign of an ability to be brighter and more creative.
12:07 Is there a “my team, your team” dynamic in the application of satire to politics?
Sophia: It is suggested that we have a better ability to detect irony if it confirms our political positions.
12:38 Where does the First Amendment fit into the creation and use of satire in politics?
Sophia: Following the ruling in the Falwell v. Hustler case, satirists were found to be protected under the First Amendment under a particular clause of creativity. This differs from what a newspaper might be able to get away with. A key component is how the creators frame their comment. A key in Huslter was the fact that the intent of the offensive comment was to make fun of the individual rather than attempt to make a factual claim regarding their actions.
15:38 What other effects have you seen satire bring about?
Sophia: Satire does have “boundary heightening effects”. This is the idea that it is ok to make fun of certain groups depending on ones particular membership in that group. When you cross into different groups, this can anger members of that group, or supporters of a particular individual that those members support. Therefore, one downside to satire is that it can deepen certain political gaps.
17:20 Would one then be accurate in saying that satire increases political polerization?
Sophia: Yes, this will absolutely happen. Satire does have a blowback effect on those who think the system is working. This is because the purpose of satire is often to attack the current system and the norms in which a particular issue is addressed in. However, there is research that suggests that the use of satire can create political energy and momentum and a shared narrative.
19:40 Have you done any research looking at how satire has evolved?
Sophia: While it has changed, I’m not sure I would use the word evolved because that suggests that it is getting better. In light of the changes we’ve seen, it might be nice if there was still a difference between the news and satire. One measurable change is how news gathering and satire have merged. Today, many people use satirical displays and shows as their first source of news. Memes are also shaping public narratives. This mergering of news and satire is one that isn’t going away. In fact, it is increasing.
21:00 Do you have any thought on where political satire might go from here?
Sophia: One problem going forward will be the relationship between satire and “fake news” because satirical headlines, if not understood as satire, can become taken as hard reporting and as factual. For example, the top shared “fake news” of last year was a headline that read Pope Francis Endorces Trump. We’re in a situation now that things are being shared around for the reason of tricking the audience come dangerously close to looking like satire news headlines. Years ago John Stewart on the Daily Show was referred to as creating “fake news”, and that wasn’t an insult at the time.
23:52 What about American politics makes you angry?
Sophia: What doesn’t make me angry would be a much shorter answer! The fact that Donald Trump still has a personal Twitter account
24:11 What makes you proud about American politics?
Sophia: I would say the way in which young people have stood up not just on the issue of guns but also on how this nations treats the youth in general.
24:30 What makes you worry?
Sohpia: I suppose what makes me worry is the fact that we have so much to worry about, and the fact that any political response requires us to be strategic.
25:02 What gives you hope?
Sophia: My students give me hope. That is the one thing that makes it possible to keep fighting for things that I think matter. I think once they grow up and take over that things will be way better off.
Discussion with Steve Brodner on the ability of satire to change minds.
Steve: I sense that we are in danger as a society whenever we disengage from each other. I don’t think it’s my job to change anyone’s mind. What we can do it connect with out people. Connect with people who are ready for the message, and that this is the time for them to become involved politically. On the business of changing mind, I say you can’t do that. However, what you can do is to interrupt the silence. Rather than responding to a falsehood with silence, what we should do is respond by saying that in fact it is untrue and provide facts as to why that’s the case. Be aware that there are people on the edges who are watching and that they maybe haven’t made up their minds. Those are the ones you can impact. If you want to challenge those with power, while remaining entertaining, cartoons and politcal satire is a great way to bring them down and show them that they aren’t that important. That they are actually falliable silly people like everyone else.
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.
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.