Discussion/Reflection Questions

Whether you are discussing these questions with others or reflecting on your own, we hope that they will help you reflect on each episode and think critically about the topics discussed and how they impact democracy.

School segregation then and now

  • What is the relationship between school segregation and democracy?
  • Did you attend an integrated or a segregated school? How did that impact you once you finished school?
  • How should the education system change to become more integrated?
  • How is the re-segregation that Erica and Crystal affecting students in the U.S.? How is it impacting the country more broadly?

What Serial taught Sarah Koenig about criminal justice

  • If you’ve listened to Serial season 3, what did you find most surprising?
  • Which part of the criminal justice system do you think is most in need of reform?
  • How should that part of the system change?
  • How much discretion should judges have when it comes to sentencing?
  • What kind of data is needed to understand how to reform the criminal justice system?
  • What is the relationship between law and justice?

Is it time to revive civility?

  • Do you think we are in a crisis of civility? If so, does the crisis exist among citizens, politicians, or both?
  • What do you see as the relationship between civility and democracy?
  • What do you think is the best approach for making political discourse more civil?
  • Who do you look to as a model of civility in politics?
  • What is the right balance between deliberative democracy and policy changes?

E.J. Dionne on empathy and democracy

  • Do you agree with E.J.’s notion that a partisan response was required to protect democracy?
  • Have you noticed a difference in political argumentation over the past few years? Is it more difficult to have arguments now than it was a few years ago?
  • What do you see as the relationship between civil society and democracy? How could one help the other?
  • What do you make of the National Fair Vote Interstate Compact and universal voting?

Immigration, refugees, and the politics of displacement

  • How should governments and organizations address immigration?
  • What’s the relationship between immigration and democracy?
  • Did hearing Jan’s interview change the way you think about migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers?
  • How will climate change affect migration?

A playbook for organizing in turbulent times

  • How did the Otpor! movement achieve its goals?
  • How should a social movement balance its members individuals goals and views against the larger goals?
  • How do you see the apathy and fear Srdja described playing out in today’s political climate?
  • Do you think Otpor!’s approach could be successful in a place like Hungary or Brazil?
  • What are some recent examples of laughtivism? Are they effective

Jonathan Haidt on the psychology of democracy

  • Why is democracy so difficult to sustain?
  • Does hearing about the moral foundations of politics change the way you perceive people from another political party?
  • What can each of us to do make better decisions and resist the temptation to follow our inner elephants?
  • What do you make of the relationship between free play and democracy?

Brexit and the UK’s identity crisis

  • Do you think that Brexit should have been decided via referendum?
  • If a second referendum happens, how would you phrase the question and the options people vote on?
  • Do you see similarities between Brexit and Donald Trump’s election? Or with the rise of authoritarian leaders in places like Hungary and Brazil?
  • How do you think Brexit will end?
  • How do you feel about the state of democracy around the world after listening to the past four episodes? Has you opinion changed since the beginning of the series?

Brazil’s tenuous relationship with democracy

  • What is the role of social movements in Brazil?
  • Do you think Brazil will retreat from democracy under Bolsonaro?
  • What is the role of the military in Brazil?
  • How is Brazil politically involved with other Latin American countries?

Yellow vests and the “grand debate” in France

  • What do you think will be the future of the yellow vest movement?
  • Will the “grand debate” be effective?
  • What are some of the challenges associated with large-scale movements like this one?
  • How can the movement overcome those challenges?

Viktor Orbán’s “velvet repression” in Hungary

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

A brief history of “people power”

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

The power of local government

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

Using the tools of democracy to address economic inequality

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

What is democracy? A conversation with Astra Taylor

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

The complicated relationship between campaign finance and democracy

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

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

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

Norman Eisen’s love letter to democracy

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

Winning the democracy lottery

  • Do you think the Citizens Initiative Review is an effective way to educate people about complicated or numerous ballot initiatives?
  • Would you prefer to read the measure yourself or have a summary provided for you?
  • Do you trust the process as described as being non-partisan or free from the influence of interest groups?
  • Could the CIR process work in your state or country? Why or why not?
  • What other applications do you think this program could have beyond its current use in the area of ballot initiatives?

Gen. Wesley Clark on the military and democracy

  • Do you think military service has changed in America? If so, do you think that change is good or bad?
  • Do you think it’s a problem that a vast majority of our military comes from a shrinking portion of society compared to when a draft was in place?
  • General Clark speaks about the importance of all young people being involved in the protection of the nation or service in some way. Do you think this is something we should require from young people?
  • General Clark also speak about the need for national service in terms other than military. Can you think of any way to implement such a program?
  • Do you agree with General Clarks’s stance on this and his support of Kaepernick?
  • During the episode, the issue of a “warrior ethos” is brought up where the military is becoming more combat minded. What do you think about this?
  • Lastly, what changes would you make to the military today to improve it?

Protecting democracy from foreign interference

  • Do you believe that Russia and other foreign entities are trying to interfere with our democratic norms and institutions? Why or why not?
  • How much damage do you think these attacks can have on our country?
  • Do you think you’ve come across any Russian “bots” on social media?
  • During the interview, Laura stated that she wants social media companies to take more action to prevent these attacks. Do you think they have a responsibility to take action? If so, what should they be doing?
  • Are you concerned that in an effort to limit the effectiveness of these attacks we might infringe upon our own rights such as freedom of speech?
  • Do you think our institutions will survive these attacks going forward?

Will Millennials disrupt democracy?

  • Do you think Millennials are politically active?
  • If so, do you see them engaged more traditionally in campaigns and voting or non-traditionally in the form of protests?
  • How do you think Millennials world views will translate into public policy?
  • If you are not a Millennial, what is the biggest difference you see between this younger generation and your own? Also, what similarities do you see?
  • What do you think the political views of this generation will look like in 20 years?

When states sue the federal government

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

How “if it bleeds, it leads” impacts democracy

  • Why do you think the general public has largely supported more punitive measures over the last several decades?
  • Do you think the saying ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ holds true? What role do you think media has here?
  • What other changes would you make to the current criminal justice system?
  • Is it antithetical to a democratic society to have so many people incarcerated?
  • We have a very high recidivism rate. This means once you’ve been to jail, you’re likely to end up going back due to a parole violation or another violation. How do you think the system can better prepare convicts to get out and stay out?
  • Going forward, do you think our incarceration rate will decrease?

A story about democracy, told through 20 million traffic stops

  • Do you believe that there is racial bias in policing in America?
  • Based on your own experience with law enforcement, do you trust the police?
  • Do your interactions with law enforcement impact your view of the government and your willingness to engage in democracy?
  • Do you think the aim of police should be to solve crime or try to prevent crime?
  • Do you think policing in America is getting better? Why or why not?

Breaking the silence in Syria

  • How significant do you think groups like Aziz’s were in pushing back ISIS?
  • Given their access to information locally in the city, do you think they are a better new source than a foreign outlet such as CNN?
  • What was your initial reaction with Aziz mentioned that friends and family had been killed while trying to do their work as citizen journalists?
  • Does what they went through and are still going through change your view of journalists?
  • Does listening to the struggles of Aziz and his organization change your perception of democracy in America?
  • Would you be willing to take on the challenges and risks of covering the actions of ISIS if you were in Aziz’s situation?

Citizenship, patriotism, and democracy in the classroom

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

Behind the scenes of the “Year of the Woman”

  • How important is diversity in a legislature for a democracy?
  • How (if at all) do you think our democracy would change if there were more women in office?
  • Rebecca mentioned that female candidates are a harder time raising money. Why do you think this is?
  • What do you think is the best way to elect more women into office?
  • According to Rebecca, many group that support female candidates use abortion as a litmus test to determine whether or not to endorse someone. What do you think about this policy?
  • Beyond women, are there other groups you feel need to have a higher level of representation in elected office?

Middle America, Part 2: Grassroots organizing and rebooting democracy

  • What is the relationship between social engagement and political engagement?
  • How does the populism Salena Zito described differ from the populism behind the groups Lara observed?
  • Lara argues that local grassroots groups have been overlooked by the media and national political parties. Do you agree? If so, why do you think it’s happening? 
  • Both Republican and Democratic grassroots appear to want to make America great again. Can both visions of America coexist? Is there a possibility that these two less ideological groups merge into a new political coalition?
  • Lara said that many of the grassroots groups she observed are lead by middle class women.. Do you think the tone or activities of these groups would be different if they were run by younger women? Or by men?

Middle America, Part 1: Populism and the Trump voter

  • Many of the voters Salena interviewed said that the 2016 election was about something more than Donald Trump. What were those bigger ideas?
  • Did Trump create the new coalition Salena describes, or was he in the right place at the right time?
  • What does the new coalition Salena describes say about the future of political parties in the U.S.?
  • Think about a time when you went outside of your comfort zone to attend an event or have a conversation. How did you feel and what did you learn?
  • Will Trump be re-elected in 2020?

Facebook is not a democracy

  • Do you think that Facebook’s mission of building community is a cover up for collecting and selling data?
  • Have the scandals surrounding Facebook and other social media over the past year changed your view of the platforms or how you use them?
  • What role should social media play in a democracy?
  • Do you think we’ll ever move away from a scenario where people use social media as their primary news source?

How will we remember Charlottesville?

  • What are your memories of the events in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017?
  • Do you think that the national narrative following the events was focused on the right issues?
  • What do you think leads to the development of an inaccurate memory of past events? Especially ones that tend to look at past actions through rose colored glasses?
  • How do you think the concept of public memory relates to democracy?
  • What do you think we can do to ensure that the story of past events maintains more truth over the years?

The constitutional crisis episode

  • Do you think were currently in a constitutional crisis?
  • If so, what role do you think citizens play in solving it?
  • In a situation similar to that described above where one branch ignores the constitutional order of another, how should we go about enforcing the rule of law?
  • Are you concerned that the pace at which current events develops today will prevent us from either identifying a constitutional crisis or being able to handle it when we spot it?
  • What role do you think the rising polarization of politics will have in being able to handle and correct a constitutional crisis if one were to develop?

What public sector unions can teach us about democracy

  • 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?

Unpacking political polarization

  • 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?

What should voting look like in the 21st century?

  • Are there any problems that you’ve noticed in your state’s voting procedures?
  • If so, what improvements would you like to see your state enact?
  • As voting systems move more towards technological advancements, are you worried about data security?
  • Do you think the systems we currently use have been influenced by foreign entities?
  • Do you think there is a political motivation behind the efforts in Pennsylvania to changing voting procedures including the redistricting campaign?

Michael Mann on the hockey stick and the future of expertise

  • Do you think we have a problem in America with having rational and logical fact based discussions?
  • If so, why do you think this has grown to be a problem?
  • Do you think your political affiliation impacts your opinion on this issue and whether or not you’re willing to change your position on it?
  • Can someone subscribe to an ideology yet disagree with that ideology on this particular issue or any particular issue?

Satire is good for more than just a few laughs

  • Do you think political satire is good for a democratic society?
  • Does you reaction to a satirical piece depend on the ideological viewpoint of the author?
  • Do you believe that the First Amendment should protect satire as free speech?
  • If so, should be limits on that protection?
  • How do you think political satire has changed over the last 20 years?
  • What role, if any, do you see satire having played in the current state of the partisan divide in America?
  • How do you see political satire changing in the future?

A conversation about conversation

  • Do you find it difficult to talk about controversial topics with those around you?
  • Do you think it is good for our democracy that we address these difficult issues with those who may disagree with us?
  • What do you think are elements of a good dialogue?
  • Do you think people can manage to create productive dialogue alone or do you like the idea of having a referee of sorts to manage the discussion?
  • What impact do you think social media has had on our ability to engage in conversation?
  • Given the polarization in society, what do you think political conversations will look like in the near future?
  • Are there any topics that you yourself would avoid talking about with someone with a different view from you? If so, why?

Ten thousand democracies

  • What role do you see school boards playing in a democracy?
  • Why do you think people choose to become active in their local school boards?
  • Should governing training be required for school board members?
  • Given the apparent ability of school boards to reach compromises, what lessons should larger governing bodies, such as the national legislatures, take from local school boards?
  • Robert spoke to how many school districts avoid partisan divides because of their homogeneity and lack of racial or economic diversity. Do you think this is a good thing or should district become more diverse?

It’s good to be counted

  • 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?

Generation Z and the future of democracy

  • What is your position on teenagers and young adults getting involved in political activism?
  • Lilly Caldawell talked about students walking out of class in protest over current political policies. Do you think this is activity that should be encouraged among children? Why or why not?
  • Cian pointed out that his generation is largely more progressive ideologically. Do you think this is true?
  • The march in DC and similar events involving minor children has centered around the issue of school shootings. Do you think this youth activism movement is a one topic event or do you think this is something we can expect to see from these kids spreading out to other topics?
  • There has been a lot of criticism of the devolution in political rhetoric amongst adults surrounding the 2016 election. Do you see any of these problems developing in this youth political activism?
  • Several students talked about getting over the fear of political activism and how they have actually been encouraged to do this. If given the opportunity as a child, would you have been politically active? If so, what issue would you have focused on?

How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt 

  • What is the biggest threat facing democracy?
  • Daniel Ziblatt points out that the current problems with democracy developed before Donald Trump. If you think our democracy is in decline, what do you think is the cause?
  • What do you think is responsible for the nasty political rhetoric we see today?
  • Daniel also expressed concern that Trump displays rhetoric similar to that of authoritarian leaders in other countries. Do you agree?
  • Daniel sees political parties as having a considerable role in the current problems in America. What role should parties play in a democracy?
  • In their book,How Democracies Die, the authors introduce the term “grinding work” to describe the difficult process of governing in a democracy. What does this term mean to you?
  • In the Mood of the Nation answers, Daniel stated that the inability of people to engage in debate is what makes him most angry in American politics today. Why do you think people aren’t able to engage in civil political debate with someone whom they disagree with?
  • Will democratic norms continue to erode?

What can Pennsylvania voters do about gerrymandering?

  • Is it harmful to democracy for electoral districts to be drawn along partisan lines?
  • Chris Satullo credited advancements in computer software and technology with the ability to expose the gerrymandering problem in Pennsylvania. What other problems in government today do you think technology could help groups like the Committee of Seventy and others address and ultimately solve?
  • Chris also mentioned the importance of students getting involved with projects like this. What role do you think students can have going forward in projects such as this and holding government accountable to the public?
  • As we approach the next census and the next around of redistricting, do you think gerrymandering will continue to be a problem?
  • Do you think voters will hold their elected officials accountable for gerrymandering in Pennsylvania and around the country?

Fake news, clickbait, and the future of local journalism

  • What is the role of a free press in a democracy?
  • Can a news or media entity that doesn’t engage in ‘click bait’ survive in the current media climate?
  • What do you believe has caused the trend of primarily web based outlets turning to “click bait” as a way to increase cite traffic and ultimately ad revenue?
  • The use of the phrase “fake news” stems from people not trusting news reporting to be unbiased. How can the news industry change this?
  • Current polling shows that people trust their local news reporting more than national news outlets. Why do you think this is?
  • Is it ok for journalists to reveal bias in reporting if they are upfront about it in their work?
  • Is it possible to have truly objective journalism?

Checking the President’s power

  • Do House and Senate committee hearings actually enable the legislative branch to check the power of the executive?
  • If not, how could they be improved to better enable them to serve this purpose of holding that branch accountable?
  • Doug Kriner pointed out that these committees have a broad authority to investigate any topic they want. Is this a good thing or should this process be more formal such as actual legal investigation by the Department of Justice?
  • Do you think the use of these committees to investigate matters has become too political?
  • The two most well known congressional investigations as of late were the Benghazi investigation and the investigation into whether Russia interfered with the election. Do you believe these were matters that the legislative branch should have been looking into?
  • Given how partisan Congress is, would you trust findings from a committee investigation if they found wrong doing in one of the high profile investigations mentioned in the last question?

Is Colin Kaepernick a good democrat?

  • Are sports political? Should they be?
  • Is this protest by Kapernick and other players during the anthem disrespectful of the flag or does it honor the values the flag represents?
  • Was president Trump right to interject himself into this debate by tweeting his opposition to the protest?
  • Football players in high school and college participated in this protest, but they were either suspended or otherwise punished for kneeing during the anthem. Do you think it was right or wrong for these schools to prohibit their players from protesting?
  • The protest led by Kapernick was focused on social justice and police policies. Do you think the reception of this protest would have been different if he were protesting a different matter such as abortion or religious freedom?
  • The NFL has since created a policy where players will be punished if they don’t stand for the anthem while on the field prior to the game. What are your thoughts on this policy?
  • Will the trend of athletes using their platform to share their political views increase or die out with the Kapernick protest?