Category Archives: Democracy Research

What public sector unions can teach us about democracy



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.

Paul Clark
Paul Clark

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.

Recommended Reading

Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court ruling

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Do you support the idea of public sector employees being able to unionize?
  • Why do you think they should or should not have this right?
  • Do you think there is something uniquely different between private and public sector workers that impacts whether or not they should be able to organize?
  • Given that tax payers pay the salaries for public workers, should they have a seat at the table when dealing with public sector unions?
  • Paul discussed a pending Supreme Court case where public employees may no longer be required to pay membership dues to unions that they don’t want to join. Where do you fall on this issue?
  • Do you think union membership will increase or continue to fall going forward?

Interview Highlights

[6:00] What types of public employees unionize that people might not think of naturally when they think of public unions?

Paul: Unions represent public workers at all levels. This means there are public unions at the federal, state, and local level. There is a wide array of services provided by people who are member of public workers unions.

[7:00] How did those groups come to be unionized?

Paul: Private sector workers got the right to organize and strike in the 1930s. Public workers were specifically restricted from getting those rights. This meant that public workers salaries lagged behind those of private sectors because private sector salaries increased as a result of being able to unionize. However, in the 60s, as part of other social movements, we saw public sector unions finally get the same rights to organize as those in the private sector. This was done at the state level. However, even today, only about half of the states extend this right to public employees. At the federal level, these rights are limited.

[8:40] In the time since public workers could unionize, have their salaries caught up with those in the private sector?

Paul: These public unions have been successful in improving the conditions of their workers in the states where workers have been able to organize. Pennsylvania is a good example as they were the first state to allow public workers to organize and strike. Here, you can track the improvement in benefits of these employees since the 70’s.

[10:00] There is the idea amongst the public that going into public work is almost altruistic because such workers can usually make more in the private sector. Does this play into union efforts of public workers at all?

Paul: Yes, it does. But just because these workers feel the need to bargain for better wages to support their families does not mean there is any less of a sense of service in doing what they do for the public.

[11:40] In the private sector, union fights are seen as the people against “the man”. How does this relationship look in the public sector?

Paul: Just like in the private sector, the managing director in public positions make the critical decisions for those workers. Much like a democratic system, unions work to ensure that all the power isn’t held by a small few over the masses. Unions bring this democracy to the workplace.

[14:30] We’ve heard a lot about a decline in private sector union membership. Is this trend reflected in public sector unions?

Paul: One reason we’ve seen private membership decrease is that private companies have decided to take them on and limit their power. In 2010, we saw these efforts to limit private sector being turned towards public sector unions because public membership was on the rise. The first battleground for this was Wisconsin. There, we saw a number of laws passed aimed at limiting the power of public unions. This turned into a wave within other states to limit the ability of public unions to operate effectively. The result is that we’ve seen considerable decline in public union membership. The next step in this effort to weaken public sector unions is a Supreme Court case that could prevent unions from being able to charge all of those receiving benefits under it four dues to the union.

[19:14] In Arizona, we saw a teachers union endorse a political candidate. Can you speak to this new growth in the political activity of public unions?

Paul: Many aspects of public workers careers are impacted by public laws. Therefore, they have a strong incentive to become active in the political process. The interesting thing about the developments in Arizona is that this is a state where public workers aren’t able to organize. While there are technically workers unions in that state, they can’t be involved with setting salaries in any way. As a result tax cuts have passed unchallenged and the about of tax dollars going towards education has decreased over the years.

[22:00] Do you think it’s possible for a new public sector union to develop in 2018?

Paul: This would be a very ambitious goal given the current political climate. However, even without formal unions, you have individuals who can use their voice to advocate for these types of things. I think these cases are instructive in showing the importance of these unions. There is a correlation between states with the best education standards and the best benefits for their teachers.


Unpacking political polarization



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.

Boris Shor
Boris Shor

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.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • Have you seen politics become more polarized where you live?
  • Do you think one side has become more polarized than the other?
  • Do you think this is a dangerous trend in politics?
  • Have you either questioned or changed your party identification recently due to increased polarization?
  • What do you think is responsible for the increase in political polarization in American politics?
  • Do you think this problem will get worse in the years to come?

Interview Highlights

[4:00] What is political polarization?

Boris: Primarily, it is an ideological separation between two sides. This can also mean that the division within a particular party is decreasing. This means that the party is becoming more homogenous in terms of ideology. The internal division of ideology within parties goes away as polarization becomes more severe.

[5:50] Do we see this pulling apart happening within the political parties?

Boris: We are seeing this happen in the legislature. IT has been happening for a while now. It is less clear if this is happening in public opinion. In the area of public opinion, we are seeing people be more set in their parties. For example, those who may have been republicans but shift over to the Democratic Party are now much more likely to remain in the Republican Party.

[7:00] What does this polarization mean for democracy?

Boris: We’re concerned specifically because of how many veto points there are within our system. At many points, opposition can shut down certain initiatives. As the two sides become more polarized, the chances of government shutting down become greater. This is usually from a small group. One example is the freedom caucus within the republican side of Congress. This is a very small portion of the body, but one that can shut down legislation. Things operate a little differently at the state level where they are fewer such veto points. Also, we have fewer super majority requirements at the state level. Another important aspect of state politics is that you often have single party dominated states. For example, California is dominated by democrats. Therefore, if you’re a democrat, you like polarization in California because that means you can pass more progressive policies easily.

[10:30] Officials in California changed their primary process. What this an attempt to curtail polarization?

Boris: Yes, it was. Those leading the effort, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, were concerned about not having a political home given that they were moderates. The idea was to get away from the party controlled primary process which usually gives us very partisan candidates in the general election. Under the new system everyone runs together. We studied this system to see if it really had a moderating effect. A problem we’re seeing is lower voter turnout in the primaries. In order for this new system to work, you need higher turnout. We’re also seeing the problem of lockouts where the party splits their vote between multiple candidates and end up without a candidate getting to the state of the general election. Our study shows that this process worked for democrats in California but not the republicans. However, where it has been successful in increasing competition.

[13:50] How does this new type of system work in a more polarized public?

Boris: We know that polarization is significant at the primary stage of elections. We know that there are usually Marco movements in political opinion within the public. For example, we’ll have a long run of leadership of one party or the other, but then people will simply want a change and go with the other side. Overall, I think public opinion is more moderate that that of elites in politics.

[16:00] What effect does gerrymandering have on polarization?

Boris: It probably has less of an impact on polarization than people would expect. A good example of this is the US Senate. These state boundaries have been set for a long time. However, we still see these elected officials being more and more partisan. The point of gerrymandering is to create districts where your party firmly controls. This should actually lead to the majority party in a certain district having to moderate itself a little since they’re trying to appeal to a larger portion of the electorate. So I don’t think polarization is the chief concern as it relates to gerrymandering.

[18:00] How can states ensure that those in office truly represent those who live there?

Boris: Part of the problem is that we don’t know all of the relevant factors impacting political polarization. While we might not be able to impact the causes, we may be able to limit the effects, such as gridlock often caused by polarization. One way to do this would be eliminating the supermajority requirements in legislatures. However, this then leads to a debate about federalism and the idea of elections having consequences in that the majority who won gets to pass the policies they were elected to implement.

[20:00] What factors lead to “party switchers” which is someone moving from one party to another?

Boris: Party switching can be dangerous because you simply make a lot of enemies. What I think it points to is the importance of ideology. The increase in this phenomenon is a result of the parties becoming more and more polarized. Now we see moderates who simply don’t fit within what the respective parties have become.

[23:00] Following the 2016 election, some have proposed simply blowing up the traditional party structure. What do you think about that?

Boris: There is a reason we have two parties. This is due to the structure of our electoral system. What I’m more interested in is internal changes within the parties along ideological lines. For example, within the Republican Party, we’re still waiting to see if its going to become the party of Trump. There is reason to think this won’t happen given how trump candidates have faired in state elections. Switching over to democrats, here we are seeing the party becoming more polarized with prospective 2020 candidates now all supporting Medicare for all or single payer healthcare.


When the “business of business” bleeds into politics



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.

Forrest Briscoe
Forrest Briscoe

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.

Interview Highlights

[5:00] How have we gone through this change of corporations being single minded on profit to now being concerned with activism?

Forrest: We’ve come from a time where the idea of business doing something other than business would detract from their efforts of profit. A key characteristic which has changed over time is the fact that business and government aren’t these completely separated spheres like they used to be years ago.

[6:36] What are the factors that would impact a businesses decision to get involved with a certain cause?

Forrest: Sometimes companies will be forced to change because they’re being targeted by activists. However, we’re now seeing those at the top of companies wanting to actually reach out to these social movements. So we’re seeing effects work in both directions. Also, companies might see profit opportunities by embracing a certain cause or campaign. Another persuasion tactic is this use of benchmark competition that some movements have tapped into. For example, we see that LBGTQ groups have created rankings of the most friendly companies to their cause. This touches upon an driving interest amongst businesses, which is to beat their competition in some benchmark test.

[13:00] Do you think there is a danger in companies becoming too homogenous in political views as they get more and more involved in politics?

Forrest: Yes, and this is something we’ve been trying to study in our research. Any institution can have a varying amount of diversity along lines of political ideology. If this is paired with functional communication, it can be productive like a democracy. However, without the right culture, you can have a Balkanized effect where the company struggles with constant conflict along these ideological differences. I also worry about companies becoming too aligned with partisan ideas. If this continues, we could see a worsening of the partisan divided if our companies join the divide along with those in government.

[16:00] Can you address the consumer side of this issue?

Forrest: With boycotts, I think their increased numbers, but remoteness as to actual buying habits could reduce their overall effectiveness. There is also a new phenomenon known as “buycotts” where people are supporting those who they agree with ideologically by only doing business with the.


Can young people revive civic engagement?



Peter Levine head shot
Peter Levine

Peter Levine is one of the country’s leading scholars in the area of civic engagement. He is the Associate Dean for Research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life and author of “We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America.”

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.

Interview Highlights

[7:00] What do you think about the activism of Generation Z?

Peter: I am excited about what they’re doing. I would attribute a lot of this to good civil education. I also think its relevant that they’re coming to age in an era of political energy and engagement. While I wouldn’t say this is exactly the dawning of generation z, I would say it is the beginning of a very interesting time in American history.

[8:15] How can people find a common ground to facilitate discussions on difficult topics?

Peter: I wish I had a good answer for this. For example, the gun debate is a good one to have but I’m not sure how much change it can lead to. I think the kids protesting for gun control have the right to do that. However, they shouldn’t be carrying the burden to do so. Also, it isn’t their responsibly to lead a balanced debate on the topic. They are allowed to advocate for their specific stance on the issue.

[11:00] We are in a very important anniversary year of 1968. What can youth activists learn from their predecessors fifty years ago who found themselves in a contentious time?

Peter: The most inspiring stories to me are the high points of the civil rights movement during that time. There is also a lot to be learned from that movement. For example, it’s important to teach students that Rosa Parks wasn’t just some tired old woman who had simply had enough. We should teach kids that in fact she was a long time activist with the NAACP, and that this was a planned political action. This teaches kids how to operate activism today.

[12:20] How do you ensure that proper history is being thought to kids?

Peter: There are several problems with ensuring accurate teaching of this history. One problem is that its presumed that this civil rights movement was led by a relatively small number of individuals. Most of them being men. Also, it is incorrectly described to children as a rather spontaneous movement and development. When it reality, it was a long fight that is still being fought today.

[13:00] Do you thin that social movements today still need the sort of big movement leaders of the 60’s?

Peter: This is difficult to balance. Especially given the fact that we’re in a time of celebrity politics where our president is in the position due mostly to his celebrity status before taking office. On the other hand, we have social movements that are almost allergic to any one figure being the leader. They don’t’ like to structure themselves with strong leaders. Occupy Wall street would be a good example of this disdain for structured leadership within a movement. There is absolutely a less prominent role within these movements than the movements of the 60’s. It feels like a rapidly shifty terrain where we have an increased value of celebrity along side of movements that are focused on not having specific leadership structures.

14:30: Another key question about youth engagement is whether or not they’ll vote. What is your take on this aspect of the issue?

Peter: I do think they’ll boost youth turnout. However, it will be an increase from a terrible point in the last election. This turnout will also make a difference in terms of who will win these races. For example, the different results in the 2006 and 2014 midterm races can be explained by the variation in youth voting. I think the Parkland kids have a potential to impact turnout by a few percent specifically because of their focus on getting out the vote.

[16:10] Why do you think the youth turnout in the 2016 race was the lowest we’ve ever seen?

Peter: It had been pretty bad for a long long time. There are many relevant factors leading to this. Part of the problem is that there isn’t a concerted effort to getting out the youth vote. Many tend to ignore the youth vote. While we see good youth turnout in the presidential races, this dips considerably in mid term races. This is due partly to the fact that smaller local races don’t have the resources to target the youth vote. Also, it is easier for young voters to get to the information they want without having to come in contact with information about their local races. This negatively impacts their interest and therefore their participation in these races. Also, young people are less connected to large institutions that would have informed them of these local races.

[17:45] Do you see anything coming up to replace these traditional institutions that used to get the youth involved in voting?

Peter: I think there is a variety of possible replacements. From social media to apps, there are many places for young people to gather. However, none of them have the infrastructure or business model of the traditional media outlets or churches from the 50’s. It is mostly a question of how to transform these possible replacements into more substantive long term institutions. I don’t think we have that yet. The channels available now weren’t designed specifically to be these new institutions. This is also causing a problem.


Ten thousand democracies



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.

Robert Asen
Robert Asen

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.

Asen visited Penn State to deliver the 2018 Kenneth Burke lecture in the McCourtney Institute’s Center for Democratic Deliberation.

Interview Highlights

[6:00] What are the factors that motivate people to join a school board?

Robert: What connects people to these groups are often times their own experiences, including those with their children. There were others who didn’t have children at the school, but saw the school board as an opportunity to get involved with their community.

[7:30] Did you find that people joined the school board because there was a particular change they wanted to see?

Robert: It wasn’t the case for everyone, but there were some who wanted to see particular policy be passed. Across the districts we looked at, there was a more general sense of bringing about change in an effort to improve the schools. They were more focused on improving the lives of students rather than any one particular issue.

[8:40] While these board members are voted on, they are not what we would think of as politicians. How does this play out?

Robert: One of the things that separates these governing boards from other types of elected positions is that these members are not politicians. They don’t have dedicated staff or resources. Many of these members also worked another full time job. This was an additional burden they decided to take on. There are many democratic institutions in our society run by people without formal government education or training. However, they manage to succeed nonetheless. There really is a strong sense of connection to community here. These board members very much see themselves as part of the community working to improve things for citizens.

[11:10] How are these members successful without being career politicians?

Robert: What I mean when I say they succeed is that they are able to make what they believe to be the best decision for the community moving forward. To be successful in this type of setting is to have a sense of what is it that they want to achieve. In this case, they succeed because they’re in communication with education professions and are able to reach their collective goals.

[12:30] Surely there is a good amount of compromise being reached in order to get things done. Can you speak to this in your research?

Robert: There was one example in particular that comes to mind here. One district was considering a proposal from a student group to create a gay student alliance. One board member spoke about his personal experience with this group given that his own son was friends with one of the students trying to create the group. He described him as just your average kid. He described them as normal good kids rather than some political revolutionaries looking to upend the community. He also talked about his own teenage years and how he and his friends might have acted inappropriately around this subject. He spoke about how times are changing and the fact that these kids just wanted a way to meet and be recognized in a group. Here, it was more about practicality winning in the end.

[14:50] What about school boards enables them to tackle difficult issues that other institutions can’t?

Robert: School boards certainly do struggle with deliberation and decision making. However, there are different approaches taken here to solve difficult problems than say within state and federal institutions. The way that polarization manifests at the local level is much different than at the state or national level. We know that communities can sort of segregate themselves naturally along racial and economic lines. This leads to small or medium school districts that may be completely contained within these homogenous areas along what can be rather divisive lines. There is also a unique sense of community. These members feel as though they are a part of the communities that they are impacting with their decisions. This goes a long way towards these bodies reaching important decisions for their institutions.

[19:20] How do school boards work with district administration?

Robert: That is usually the most important and difficult relationship for a school board. When these two work together, a lot can be accomplished. However, when they’re at odds, that can undermine all of the decisions within a district. Everyone has to negotiate their roles. When these relationships begin to break down it is because of a collapse or misunderstanding of each others roles.


It’s good to be counted



Jennifer Van Hook
Jennifer Van Hook

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.

Additional Information

Jenny’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.


Satire is good for more than just a few laughs



Political satire has been around nearly as long as politics itself and can provide a much needed laugh in times of crisis.

Sophia McClennen
Sophia McClennen

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.

Steve Brodner
Steve Brodner

We discuss the current state of political satire and where it might be heading with Sophia McClennen and Steve Brodner.

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.

Interview Highlights

[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 Endorses 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.


How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt on the ‘grinding work’ of democracy



Daniel Ziblatt
Daniel Ziblatt

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.

Interview Highlights

[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.


Checking the President’s power



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?

Doug Kriner
Doug Kriner

We address those questions and more with Doug Kriner, professor of Government at Cornell University and co-author of Investigating the President: Congressional Checks on Presidential Power. Doug studies the impact of congressional investigations as a check on the executive branch, and how committee activity differs when the government is united and divided.

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.

Interview Highlights

[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.

 


Is Colin Kaepernick a good democrat?



Abe Khan
Abe Khan

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.

Interview Highlights

[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.