Trump on Earth: The Red State Paradox



Trump on Earth logoWe’ll be back with new episodes starting next week. This week’s episode comes to you from our friends at Trump on Earth, a podcast that’s taking a closer look at all the changes coming out of Washington on the environment — from what’s happening at the EPA to how our public lands will fare under the Trump administration.

This episode features an interview with sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild about her book Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Rightwhich chronicles her time with conservatives in Louisiana. Hochschild found people there who had become sick from industrial pollution or lost their homes due to an industrial catastrophe yet were resentful of the federal government.

Trump on Earth is produced by The Allegheny Front, a public media outlet based in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania. All of their episodes can be found at trumponearth.org.

 


It’s good to be counted [rebroadcast]



For this week’s rebroadcast, we revisit an episode on the U.S. Census that originally aired in May 2018. New episodes return January 21 when we talk with “What is Democracy?” director Astra Taylor.

Jennifer Van Hook
Jennifer Van Hook

The next census won’t start until 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

Jennifer’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.


When states sue the federal government [rebroadcast]



Our holiday break continues this week as we bring you an episode with with Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro that originally aired in October. Happy New Year!

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro

It seems like every few weeks, we see headlines about states banding together to block actions taken by the federal government. You might even remember former Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott quipping that he goes to the office, sues the federal government, then goes home.

How do those lawsuits take shape? How does a state decide whether to join or not? How does that impact the balance of power between federal and state governments? This week’s guest is uniquely qualified to answer all of those questions.

Since taking office in January 2017, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has been involved with more than a dozen suits brought against the federal government on matters ranging from family separation at the border to EPA emissions regulations. Though Shapiro is a Democrat, he says his chief motivation in joining these suits is the rule of law and a commitment to do what’s right for people of Pennsylvania.

Whether or not you agree with Shapiro’s politics, he does present an interesting take on the role that states play as a check on the federal government. This power is a unique part of the American experiment and speaks to the power of democracy in the states.

Before the interview, Chris and Michael dive into the origins of federalism, including Federalist 51, the 10th Amendment, and the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.

Additional Information

Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General

Federalist 51

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[5:12] When you took this office, did you expect yourself to be this active on federal issues?

Shapiro: I said when I was sworn in that if someone was going to try to mess with Pennsylvania that they would have to go through me. I see the constitution as giving the states broad authority. States rights isn’t something progressives have pointed to, but it is something I value. If someone in the federal system is doing something to undermine our rights, I’m going to stand up to take action.

[6:32] How do one of these suits against the federal government get started?

Shapiro: The first question is whether the action comports with the rule of law. I put aside what I agree or disagree with personally and instead focus on the law. Once we deem that an illegal action has been taken, be think about what is the best way to file an action to challenge that activity. We discuss whether or not Pennsylvania should be the lead state. There are sometimes strategic reasons why we file a suit in a particular state. What we are not doing is constructing opposition to the president just for the sake of opposing him. What we are doing is organizing ourselves around the rule of law.

[8:43] What issues or possible suits have you turned down?

Shapiro: We’ve been involved in about fifteen cases since taking office. I’m very careful about what we engage in on behalf of the people of Pennsylvania. Again, it is not my job just to weigh in whenever I personally disagree with the president. It is my job to weigh in when the rule of law is being threatened.

[9:31] What is the timeline for one of these cases?

Shapiro: I spend the majority of my time going around to differnt places listening to people. I think I have a good feel for where the people of the state are. I don’t poll test these issues. Instead, I try to do what is right and what adheres to the rule of law.

[10:36] Under Obama, we saw a lot of states file suits against the federal government much like what is happening now with Trump in office. Do you think this goes to the partisan nature of government?

Shapiro: I would actually push back on that a little. Most of what I do is bipartisan. It’s just that the media usually doesn’t report that. The vast majority of the actions we take are really bipartisan.

[12:34] President Trump has stated that he thinks the attorney general office should be more of a political one. What are your thoughts on that?

Shapiro: We are above politics in this office. I’m a proud Democrat. People know I have progressive leanings. They knew that when they elected me. However, we check our political views at the door everyday when we come into the office. If you look at our track record, we’ve held democrats and republicans accountable. We do our job in a way that the people of the state can be proud that the justice system is fair. We are diverse in both appearance and thought.

[15:23] What does the term “rule of law” mean to you?

Shapiro: It is the very foundation of everything that I do. It helps you be above politics. My job is to understand the law, apply the facts and evidence, then make a decision in the best interest of the people of Pennsylvania.

Shapiro: The tenth amendment makes it really clear that states have a role to play in our democracy. I believe that if the federal government is making an overreach into our state business, then I’m going to be a shield to guard against that. However, states have also at times been the thing infringing upon rights. However, more often than not, they are expanding rights. The fight for marriage is a perfect example of that. Justice Brandies spoke eloquently about states being the laboratories for democracy. That still holds true today. States need to be a shield against overreach and a sword in promoting the rights of their citizens.


Citizenship, patriotism, and democracy in the classroom [rebroadcast]



While we take a holiday break, we are going back into the archives to rebroadcast a few of our favorite episodes from earlier this year. This one originally aired in September.

Mark Kissling
Mark Kissling

As a piece in The Atlantic recently 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.

Recommended Reading

Mark’s post about the National Anthem ritual on the McCourtney Institute blog

Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy: Yoni Appelbaum in The Atlantic

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[4:34] What do you think an education in civics looks like?

Mark: In school, social studies usually has a civics education built into it. This fusion came about in the early 20th century. I tend to think about it in terms of teaching about a civic society and what it means to be a participatory citizen. It does include the basic stuff about how government works. However, I think it also entails an introduction to how citizens interact with that government in a democratic system.

[6:12] What does the idea of citizenship education actually look like in the classroom?

Mark: For me, I think it involves looking at where teachers and students are in terms of their own lives, such as where they’ve been and the circumstances of the places they live. Then consider what participation with society looks like in these areas under theses circumstances. That is then pulling in history and other factors. Importantly, this is place based education.

[7:08] As a social studies teacher yourself, how did you approach this in your classroom?

Mark: One of the courses I taught was a street law course. I taught the class in Framingtown Massachusetts, which was the largest town in America at the time. Therefore, most of our issues were centered around local town government. I think this focus on place occurred naturally at this time. However, I’m more continuously aware of place today.

[8:45] Today, the political climate is very polarized. We also have concepts such as “fake news” and “alternative facts”. How do you prepare teachers to address and handle these issues with their students?

Mark: How one would address that in their class would be molded by where that course is physically. For example, these issues would be handled differently between a rural school as compared to a more urban located school.

[9:40] Do you find that your students are receptive to this notion of place?

Mark: They are immediately receptive to it. However, their broader schooling experiences don’t lead them towards being receptive to it. There is a really big gap between the lived experience of a particular area and the curriculum students are provided with. One of my missions it to ground social studies in the context of the experience of where the students in a particular school actually live.

[10:45] How do you balance providing students both local and national awareness in a field like social studies?

Mark: It would be a mistake to focus only on the local issue and ignore the broader national and global context. However, it’s typically the other way around in that were focusing on the national or global perspective and ignoring the local perspective. I certainly think there is a need to traverse across those scales. For example, when talking about something like patriotism, we should talk about what it means both in the context of protests around the world as well as local instances such as the national anthem issue at the local Spikes game.

[12:00] Do you think teachers should sort of play the role of a journalist in that they stick to the facts and keep any personal opinions out of their lessons?

Mark: I think there is an expectation of that. Also, they’ve been schooled that way. I actually had an instances recently with a group of soon to be teachers following the events in Charlottesville. I asked them how they’d be handling this situation in their own classrooms. Most of them said that they wouldn’t address the issue at all. Part of this game from a fear of lack of information as to what was happening. There is also a political charge to it that teachers often feel worried about taking on in front of their classes. However, if we want to take on schooling as a community based effort, we have to be willing to engage with students on these difficult current event issues. We have to have conversations across these divides.

[14:35] What is your advice to those teachers who said they wouldn’t address this issue with their own classroom?

Mark: My comment is that you are taking it up by not addressing it up or pushing it to the side. Any statement, including the lack of a statement, is a message that you send to students. In the absence of a class discussion about Charlottesville, you’re being socialized not to talk about difficult issues like that. That’s troubling. We need to also consider treating the classroom as a place where students can engage, often for the first time, in difficult dialogue on challenging issues, such as what took place in Charlottesville.

[17:00] How do you balance dialogue on current events with the increased focus on “teaching to the test”?

Mark: It is a little different in social studies as compared to other subject areas because this field isn’t tested nearly to the degree of other topics. I do think standardizing education is important. I work with teachers to find the balance between engaging students on controversial current events while also ensuring that they’re prepared for these standardized assessments.

[19:30] Everyone is familiar with the image of the angry parent beating down the door after a controversial topic is address in a class. How do you prepare future teachers to handle something like that?

Mark: I think it is important to listen and understand what the parent is saying. It is important to build your justification for how you structure your classroom and properly present this to the parents. It can be a slow and brutal process. However, I think it can be a very productive exercise.

[20:50] In light of the events at Parkland, have you seen a change amongst your students in terms of an increase interest in taking on some of these more controversial civic topics?

Mark: I think the civic engagement of the Parkland students themselves will have a big impact on my students. I think this is something I’ll see reflected in them this coming semester. I also think that my students have some sense of fear of living in a school on lock down. There is also the teacher side of this. How does a teacher handle teaching in an environment where being on lockdown is becoming more of a norm?

 


2018: The year in democracy



Michael Berkman

From gerrymandering to record voter turnout, it’s been a busy year for democracy. This doesn’t mean that everything has been positive, but there’s certainly plenty to reflect on. This week, Michael Berkman and Chris Beem take a look a look back at some of the biggest democracy-related stories of the year and look at what’s in store for next year.

Chris Beem

Thank you to everyone who supported Democracy Works this year. The show has been more successful than we ever imagined. If you like what you’ve heard this year, please take a minute to leave us a rating, review, or recommendation wherever you listen to podcasts.

We are excited to bring you more great discussions about all things democracy in 2019. New episodes will begin in mid-January. If you have suggestions for episode topics or guests, we would love to hear them! Email us at democracyinst@psu.edu or complete our contact form.

Related Episodes


The complicated relationship between campaign finance and democracy



Caroline Hunter
Caroline Hunter

In the United States, voting is a very private act. You step into the booth alone and, for a lot of people, it’s considered taboo to tell someone who you voted for. Campaign donations, however, are a different story.

The Federal Election Commission, an independent regulatory agency established after Watergate, collects donor infomration from candidates, makes it available to the public, and enforces federal campaign finance laws. Anyone can go online and look up records to see who gave money to a particular candidate — to a point, anyway.

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that political spending was protected under the First Amendment. The decision opened the door to “dark money” groups that allow corporations and other organizations to give to a Political Action Committee (PAC) that in turn backs a candidate. Much of this spending is not publicly disclosed and it added up to more than $500 million in the 2018 midterms.

FEC Chair Caroline Hunter joins us this week to explore the relationship between campaign finance and democracy. Hunter has been on the commission since 2008 and has seen the impact of the Citizens United ruling firsthand. She makes an interesting connection between PACs and political polarization — and how it all ties back to democratic participation.

Caroline is a Penn State alumna and, prior to joining the FEC, she worked for the Republican National Committee. The FEC is a bipartisan commission with three Republicans and three Democrats, though two positions are currently vacant. Caroline talks about how that bipartisan nature might expand to other parts of the government and who reads FEC filings.

Additional Information

Federal Election Commission website

Citizens United v. FEC

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

What is the mission of the FEC?

Hunter: Many think that the Federal Election Commission has control over election administration, which it does not. State elections are run by state and local governments.

What does the day to day work of the commission look like?

Hunter: It receives many complaints from the public about things people see in campaigns around they country. When we see a case that seems to have merit, we’ll investigate and come to a determination as to whether or not campaign laws were violated. This is really the bulk of our work.

What sorts of things do you tend to see in these complaints?

Hunter: There are trends in each cycle. Two cycles ago we got a lot of complaints regarding presidential hopefuls who weren’t properly reporting their campaign fundraising. We’re still actually working through some of those now.

What is the time frame from the filing of a complaint to an official ruling from the commission?

Hunter: There is a statutory 60 day deadline to get the investigation conclusion back to the public. If it’s a matter relating to a campaign, we have to provide result within 30 days. The enforcement division takes more time. It can take up to several years. This time spans is due to due process protections afforded the accused. This can included responses from the accused and additional investigations. These investigations can take a good period of times.

In some of the longer investigations, it could be the case that a candidate has already won the race. How does this factor in to eventually punishing someone who violated campaign laws?

Hunter: It’s difficult to come to a conclusion on a complaint before the end of the race because so many are made right before the end of the election. Therefore, many times the race will have ended before we come to a conclusion on a particular complaint.

There are currently open seats on the commission. How does this vacancy impact the work that you do?

Hunter: The commission has three members of each party. For anything to happen, you must receive court votes from these six people. This means the decision has to be bipartisan. I thin this is good because it prevents one party from taking over the commission. It is something the federal government should consider doing in other parts of the government. Most of our decisions actually come to a bipartisan result. Only rarely do we see a three to three split.

How has your work changed since the Citizens United ruling?

Hunter: That ruling and others have enabled more people to become involved in politics. The citizens ruling enabled corporations to engage more by running commercials for or against candidates. When people think of a corporation, they often imagine a massive company like Starbucks. However, included under the title of corporations are interest groups and grass roots movements that are often coded under the tax law as corporations. I think this is a good thing for democracy. While they are limited as to what they can do, they are now able to engage more in the political process.

Do you worry that some campaigns are becoming too large to effectively regulate?

Hunter: There certainly has been an increase in the amount of money raised. However, I don’t think this is necessarily a problem. Much of this money is raised from individual donors through the campaigns website. You could look at this as increased democratic participation. However, one concern that many have is that these groups will get so large that they won’t really be impacted by the fines that we may place upon them.

The commission is about 40 years old. Do you think it has kept with the world around it?

Hunter: I think we have. Our mission of highlighting who is donating to federal elections has not changed and we’re still effectively accomplishing that. When you talk to people from other countries, they’re amazed at our systems and what we’re able to do

Is there an organization similar to the FEC that follows complains about voter suppression and voter fraud?

Hunter: There is sort of a group that does that work. It is called the Election Assistance Commission. It doesn’t have a lot of power. It is still really run by the state governments. I think it actually makes sense to keep this policing power at the state level rather than have the federal government get involved with policing state elections.

A term we hear a lot is “dark money.” Can you explain what it is and how it relates to the FEC?

Hunter: After Citizens United, people were concerned that there would be basically unregulated money flowing into campaigns. However, every dollar that goes into super packs is registered with us. Also, corporations have to report all political spending they engage in within two days of doing so. Your “dark money” is coming from 501c(4) groups. They’re able to spend politically where as they weren’t able to before this court ruling. Again, I think this is good for democracy because it enables greater participation in the political process. The reason these donations are referred to as “dark money” is because the identification of donors to these groups is not reported to the commission. The reason for this is that they’re not political committees. They are referred to as issue advocacy groups, like the NRA or the Sierra Club. Groups like this are seen as not existing primarily for the purpose of political activity. This is actually the topic of serious debate within the commission.

Could this be the future of political donations?

Hunter: I think it could. One reason is that people would like to donate to a particular cause without facing public harassment. There is a wave of hostility right now from a particular side of the isle where there is blowback on someone if they give to a certain organization.

Do you have any interaction with members of Congress?

Hunter: In my experience, those in Congress are not very interested in talking about campaign finance law. This is largely due to the fact that we regulate all of their campaigns.

Do you think that relationship has an impact on democracy?

Hunter: While I don’t think it necessarily impacts democracy, I think it would be useful to have the two sides be in closer communication.


Bonus: Capturing the nation’s mood



Eric Plutzer
Eric Plutzer

We end almost every episode of the show with four questions that come from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Mood of the Nation Poll. Rather than simply addressing people agree  agree or disagree with a particular point of view, the poll uses open-ended responses to understand why people feel the way they do. Every poll asks respondents to describe in their own words what makes them angry, proud, worried, and hopeful about politics and current events.

We interview a lot of smart people on this show and it’s not surprising the they have interesting and thought-provoking responses to these questionsl. We revisit some of those responses in this episode and hear from Eric Plutzer, the poll’s director, about how what our guests say matches up with what everyday citizens say in the poll.

Responses in this episode

Anger

[2:30] Rebecca Kreitzer, University of North Carolina

[5:02] Brad Vivian, Penn State

Pride

[8:14] Forrest Briscoe, Penn State

[10:19] David Frum, The Atlantic

Worry

[13:42] Robert Asen, the University of Wisconsin

[16:24] Lara Putnam, the University of Pittsburgh

Hope

[20:10] Sophia McClennen, Penn State

[20:43] Michael Mann, Penn State

Additional Information

Mood of the Nation Poll


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



Penn State Provost Nick Jones
Penn State Provost Nick Jones

Land-grant universities were once known as “democracy’s colleges,” places where people who were not wealthy elites could earn the education necessary to make better lives for themselves and contribute to the greater social good in the process. The The United States does not have a national university, but the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 established a public university in each state.

Penn State, Pennsylvania’s land-grant university, is the home of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and this podcast. We invited Nick Jones, the University’s Executive Vice President and Provost, to join us this week for a conversations about the tension between staying true to the land-grant mission and ensuring that the university remains financially stable as funding from the state remains flat or declines.

We also talk about the the skills needed to be good democratic citizens and the skills needed to obtain a high-paying job — and why land-grant universities in particular must pay attention to both.

Recommended Reading

Chronicle of Higher Education article on the role of universities in a democracy 

Land-Grant Universities for the Future

Land-grant universities as “democracy’s colleges”

Why doesn’t the United States have a national university? 

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

Land grant universities have often been referred to as ‘schools for the people’ in the sense that they’re accessible to the pubic. To what extent do you think this label still applies to such institutions?

Nick: I absolutely believe that view of land grant institutions still applies. One of the key tenants of a democracy is an educated and informed citizenry. Our mission here is to ensure that we’re helping to produce that educated citizenry to enable democracy to function.

Penn State manages many things that don’t directly relate to education, such as arenas and medical facilities. How does this tie into its mission as a land grant institution?

Nick: The service duties of institutions like Penn State have changed since their founding as land grant institutions. Today, in 2018, providing medical services is seen as one of these duties of an institution like Penn State. Doing things like managing concert venues goes to another part of our mission which is to expose those in the commonwealth to the arts.

What goes into the process of deciding to increase the offerings of Penn State?

Nick: First and foremost, I think it is critical that we always stay focused on our mission as a university. It truly is the case that all of my decisions are made through the lens of the mission statement of Penn State. Whenever a new project or opportunity is presented to us, we always ask ourselves whether this is vital to our mission as a land grant university. If the answer is yes, we do it. If the answer is no, we don’t.

How do changes in funding from the state impact your decision making process?

Nick: When this process first began of the state reducing their level of financial support, it was ok because tuition costs for families was still relatively low. However, as support has continued to decline, the burden on students and their families has continued to creep up. This increased burden occupies a lot of our time. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to ensure that a valuable Penn State education remains accessible to all types of people across the commonwealth from all walks of life.

Do you see a change amongst the students as to how they view a degree? For example, do they see it as simply a requirement for getting a job or as acquiring a tool to enable them to contribute to the public good?

Nick: We want to ensure that we’re preparing students for life as well as for a career. We are mindful of ensuring that an education from Penn State prepares them for both aspect of the future in a balanced way. We want students to be successful both in their personal career lives as well as in their lives as part of the community.

We’ve seen a trend as of late of devaluing the idea of a liberal education. In part due to a conflation of the idea of a liberal education as being a politically biased education. Do you see this trend as being a problem? How does the university address it?

Nick: We do hear that a lot. We firmly believe that creating students who can address issues analytically is really important. We fundamentally believe in the importance of an educated citizenry.

Do you worry that higher education is going to get caught up in the political  polarization that has crept into nearly every part of our lives?

Nick: We do worry about that a lot. We need to ask why this is happening as well as what we can do to address this. We also have to take ownership of our role in contributing to this problem. We need to again make the case that higher education is important to society and make a significant contribution in a democratic society. One example of a place where I think we have made progress in this regard is in the area of agriculture.

 


Norman Eisen’s love letter to democracy



Norman Eisen
Norman Eisen

As we’ve previously discussed, there are a lot of books about democracy filling book store and library shelves right now. Norman Eisen could have written a book in the vein of Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s How Democracies Die or David Frum’s Trumpocracy, but chose to go in a different direction.

In The Last Palace, he tells the story of the Petschek Palace, where he lived while serving as U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic. The palace and its residents sought to defend liberal democracy throughout both world wars and the Cold War. The book, which one review calls a “love letter to liberal democracy,” also shows the ways in which ambassadors do the hard work of democracy abroad.

Eisen describes the cycles of democracy that occurred as public support waxed and waned over the years. He says that we are now an inflection point that will determine support for liberal democracy moving forward. Ever the optimist, he’s confident that democracy will come through this seemingly dark period to triumph once again.

Eisen is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings and chair of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington. Prior to becoming ambassador, he advised the Obama administration on ethics — a job that earned him the unofficial title “ethics czar.”

Additional Information

Norman Eisen’s book The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[5:20] What made you want to tell the story that you tell in your book The Last Palace?

Eisen: There were multiple objectives in wanting to tell this story. Before even arriving, I heard so many stories about the residence itself. I continued to collect such stories while I was there, and I thought these would be something people would like to hear. However, I also thought there was a larger story about democracy itself in this place over the last hundred years. I wanted to tell that story as well. So the book is really a story of five people, an amazing house, and the history of transatlantic democracy itself.

[6:00] There is a quote on the back of the book of a love letter to liberal democracy. Was that your intention with this book?

Eisen: I didn’t realize the story of democracy that would come out of the research of past ambassadors and the unique residence. By the time I finished the book, yes, I intended it to be a love letter.

[7:40] In your book you take about the ebb and flow of democracy over time. Where do you think we are at right now?

Eisen: We’re at an inflection point. There have been three great surges of democracy in the past century. One was the post-WWI boom that included the founding of the League of Nations. The second was after WWII when the modern security structure of NATO was established securing Western Europe. The third was the post-cold war era. We had hopes after this third boom of greater growth of democracy into Eastern Europe and maybe Russia itself. However, unlike following WWII, we didn’t create anything like the Marshal plan to ensure growth of democracy into these new territories. Also, the United States looked away. One of the key stories of this century is when the United States looks away, trouble brews. That is where we are now with Putins rule and his partner Donald Trump.

[10:02] Your book tells the stories of ambassadors who have lived in the Petscheck Palace. What lessons can we take from their stories?

Eisen: One story is that democracy has endured in the face of much greater challenges than we face today. However, another important takeaway is that we can’t assume this will happen on its own. Over the last hundred years, it makes all the difference when the friends of democracy fight for democracy. We need to continue to fight that good fight if we want democracy to succeed.

[11:40] Has our ability to fight for democracy become weaker than that of past generations?

Eisen: In the initial days of the Trumps administration, those same tools of social media which he utilized to win office served as a vehicle to bring people together. Hopefully, these tools will lead to greater oversight of the president with the new Congress. Our polarization is no worse now than it was following the Civil War.

[14:00] We currently have many ambassador positions that are not filled. What impact does that have on the role of promoting democracy that ambassadors do?

Eisen: The fact that this administration has failed to at least nominate people for some of the most important ambassadorships does lead to a democracy deficit. It is incredibly important to have some sort of head executive, confirmed by the Senate, who can work on the behalf of our values and democracy in a foreign capital city. They are there to speak up for our Wilsonian post 1918 idea of western values. Having an ambassador established in a foreign nation enables us to work with civil organizations to promote all of the core tenants of a democratic society.

[16:00] What is the relationship you see between authoritarianism and corruption? How does that impact democracy?

Eisen: It is a problem that authoritarians, including our own president, always see it as part of their initiative to get control of the public’s purse. We’ve seen this through world leaders such as with Mr. Putin who some have said has become the worlds riches man through corruption. We’ve also seen this with President Trump who has tried to benefit himself and his family. That is a sign of autocracy.

We are heading the first ever case in which a judge has found a cause of action for accepting forbidden government cash benefits relating to the president. This has helped established a climate in the public where people are now keeping an eye on these issues. Another key part of this effort to control corruption is the Muller investigation. We are now awaiting his report as to whether the president obstructed justice or not. I think the rule of law system is working as it should.

[19:30] In your book, you show how you’re more optimistic while your mother is more pessimistic. Do you think democracy works better when both points of view are represented?

Eisen: Perhaps if we had been a bit more pessimistic following the Cold War we would have put in place some sort of Marshal Plan for Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time we have to be aware of the profound difficulties we’ve overcome. It all fits in together. I try to lay out this balance in the book.

[22:00] Can you expand further on the dangers posed to democracy by corruption?

Eisen: Corruption in a democracy infringes upon the voting freedoms as well as others that are critical in a democracy. You can see this playing out here in the form of campaign contributions. The special interests have more money to spread around than average people. They spend more on elections, they get people elected, then they call in favors of those they helped get elected. This is legal corruption.


Winning the “democracy lottery”



Robin Teater
Robin Teater

It’s not the Powerball or the Mega Millions, but this democracy lottery does give people the chance to directly impact information that appears on the ballot in their state. Like a lot of things we talk about on this show, the Citizens Initiative Review (CIR) is not easy, but as you’ll hear from this week’s guests, is work worth doing.

CIRs, which organizers called the “democracy lottery,” bring together groups of voters in an intensive four-day, jury-like setting to research the basic facts of initiatives and referenda on the ballot. These citizen panels draft joint statements that provide clear, concise, and accurate information to their fellow voters, removed from campaign messaging and financial influence. It’s been implemented in Oregon, Arizona, and California, and is currently in a pilot phase in Massachusetts. Our guests have been at the forefront of making this process happen.

John Gastil
John Gastil

Robin Teater is the Executive Director of Healthy Democracy, an organization that designs and coordinates innovative deliberative democracy programs. The organization helped implement the CIR process and remains committed to helping it expand across the United States.

John Gastil is a Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and Political Science at Penn State and an expert on deliberative democracy. He’s studied CIRs throughout the United States and Europe. His research gauges how effective CIRs are at making voters more informed, and how being part of a CIR impacts participants.

This is our first show on deliberative democracy. It’s a topic we hope to return to soon.

Additional Information

Healthy Democracy

John Gastil’s work on the Citizens Initiative Review

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[5:00] What is a Citizens Initiative Review?

Robin: It involves a randomly selected group of registered voters between the ages of twenty and twenty four. They’ll spend roughly four days measuring a ballot measure. They’re selected based on demographics of a particular state. The relevant factors are age, party affiliation, gender, and geography. They’re job is to be representatives for their fellow voters throughout the state they’re in. The final result is a summary of the key facts concerning the ballot initiative. They also produce arguments for and against the ballot initiative.

[7:00] What are the motivations people have for wanting to do this?

Robin: Reasons why people respond to our recruitment mailer include curiosity amongst others. Also, there is a stipend paid to participants. We also have some young people who are either looking for the money or who are getting pushed to do it by their parents while they’re home from school.

John: We’ve also heard from mothers who participate that it is a chance for them to get away from the home for a few days. There are also some who admit that they participated because of the financial incentive.

[8:50] Can you speak to the need for this program and how this program fits a need?

John: We wanted to bring about a more deliberative democracy. However, you can’t ask all voters to be engaged in deliberation on ballot measures. What we know is that those people in the electorate who have the time and willingness to deliberate can do a very good job. In just a few days, people can say very insightful things about random topics such as highway budget planning measures. This was a good place to start because legislatures realized that the voting public was at a loss as to these long ballot measures that voters had to make a quick decision on when in the booth. Some people got the ball rolling independently in Oregon, and here we are.

[11:50] What does the relationship with special interests look like since this program has been operating?

Robin: It is tricky because they make enormous investment into their own messaging. They realize that this program is a great opportunity to have influence on how people see initiative as well as to get feed back from actual voters.

John: These are professional campaigners who spend a lot of money crafting very detailed messages. They also have almost no control over this program. They can bring a good message to our participants, but they have little to no influence after that.

[13:35] On the first day, participants listen to presentations from groups on measures. How do you go from this first day to the final product?

Robin: Even before the first day, participants are engaged in training to teach them how to ask good questions and get the relevant information they need in order to make good decisions. Part of this process is just making sure these participants are comfortable working in such a diverse group. After that, they hear the opening statements from the campaigns on each side of the ballot issues. The next day is a question and answer panel with the campaigns. The panelists actually rank their questions ahead of time before asking them of the campaign representatives. This is then followed by a panel of policy experts. Day two ends with a discussion with the participants trying to glean from them the information that stuck with them from the presentations throughout the day. Day three is a series of editing groups. Participants look at the written claims of the campaigns of each issue and decide what should make the cut for the final summary and what shouldn’t. At the end of this day, we do a key vote on the findings. This includes the eight most reliable comments on a particular ballot measure. Day four is all about writing the pro and con aspects of the measure.

[21:21] Where else has the CIR been used?

Robin: Massachusetts, learning from the mistakes of Oregon, passed legislation to fun the program through state funds. We’ve also been in Arizona which is publicly funded by the elections commission. They are the first state to publicly fund the CIR. We’ve also done pilots in Colorado and California.

John: There was also legislation in the state of Washington, but it didn’t come to a full vote. The program has also been talked about in other nations. One example is England to run a possible re-vote of the Brexit measure.

[22:50] How do you measure whether voters were impacted by the CIR or not?

John: We’ve had funding from a number of sources which enable us to conduct polling on voters responses to this program. We poll people who read the ballot initiative both with and without the CIR summary. What we find is that those who read the measure along with the CIR summary are more knowledgeable on the issues. They have a better factual grasp of the issue.

24:30: What is the process to get people to believe what they see on the CIR?
Robin: It is baked into the process because the panel is randomly selected. The also can’t have any ties to campaigns or interests groups. This enables us to tell the voters that the summaries they’re reading are by accurate representatives of the people. Our tag line is that this is work by the people for the people. There are other entities that produce good summaries of these measures, but they aren’t completely unbiased. They still have a stake and an angel on the issues. The credibility to these reports is strengthened by the diversity of the participants in the program. It is also strengthened by the fact that these are not professional consumers of this sort of information.

John: The average voter seeing this page on the ballot gets the general idea that this was prepared by a body of citizens.

[27:20] How can this program develop in the future? Can it become a mechanize for candidate selection?

John: That is something that has been experimented with here and abroad. This has considerable applicability in terms of candidates in the primary races where someone can’t just pick the republican or democrat as they normally would in a general election. This is also the situation people face in many judicial races or places where candidates don’t have an official party endorsement. Therefore, I think this process could be very powerful in the lower visibility elections.

Robin: I agree. I think there are infinite applications of this program.


From soldier-statesman to the warrior ethos: Gen. Wesley Clark on the military and democracy



Gen. Wesley Clark
Gen. Wesley Clark

We observe Veterans Day this week, a time when people across the United States remember and thank those who have served in the military. While the military remains one of the most respected institutions in the U.S., it’s also one of the most misunderstood.

Active duty service members represent less than one percent of the U.S. population and service has increasingly become something that is limited to the communities that surround military bases and the families who live there. As the military’s makeup has shifted, so too has it ideology — to one that is increasingly focused on combat rather than diplomacy.Things didn’t always used to be this way. Up until the end of the draft in the early 1970s, service provided an economic opportunity for millions of Americans and shined a light onto what it meant to serve the country with duty and honor.

With more than 30 years in the military and a subsequent career in politics, Gen. Wesley Clark has a unique perspective on this transformation, and some ideas about how to bridge the empathy gap between soldiers and civilians. We also talked with him about veterans running for political office, his support of Colin Kaepernick, and whether democratic dissent has a place in the military. Clark visited Penn State to promote Renew America, a new nonpartisan organization aimed at reducing polarization and ideological divides in America.

Recommended Reading

Warriors & Citizens: American Views of Our Military — by Kori Schake and Jim Mattis

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?
  • What changes would you make to the military today to improve it?

Interview Highlights

[4:30] What inspired you about Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s “Duty, Honor, Country” speech?

General Clark: Just before I attended West Point, General MacArthur made what would be his final public speech. When my class arrived in 1962, we got a printed form of this speech. When you read it, it just made you shiver. He talked about what it was like to be a solider and a soldiers responsibilities. He spoke about how soldiers were supposed to win the nations wars and not question policies. It was incredibly inspiring.

[7:00] We hear a lot about an empathy gap between different parts of society. Does such as gap exist between those within the military and those outside of it?

General Clark: Oh absolutely. People don’t serve the way they used to. Back during the draft, if you went to a land grant institution like Penn State, you knew you were going to be in ROTC. You were a part of the nation defense. If you look at these schools now, there is not this military participation. Something changed in the way we serve following the end of the draft. A few years ago I was teaching and some students expressed concern that the volunteer service wasn’t representing the nation. I think when young people who didn’t serve offer thanks to those who did, they don’t get it. That isn’t what serving is about. That doesn’t really help. We should all be in this together. We should all share this duty and this sacrifice.

[10:13] What is the solution to closing that gap?

General Clark: We need to pull the country together. What I’d like to see is real national service. This country needs major work done, such as our infrastructure system. If young people could come together for a year with those different from them socially and economically, they would be greatly enriched. The military is also becoming less representative of society. Children often follow their parents. Therefore, if your parents didn’t’ serve, you’re unlikely to do so.

Another change is the mindset of those in the military. There used to be an idea of the solider as being thoughtful and well read. However, we have now moved towards a warrior ethos. This change occurred in the 90’s. Today, the Army is very focused on winning its mission at the tactical level. This drives a wedge between different generations of the military.

[14:00] What does that change of ethos towards a warrior mentality mean for democracy?

General Clark: When these men come out of the military after several tours, they simply can’t give it up. There was just an article recently about how former military were being hired as mercenaries to kill political opponents. That is very disturbing when you take those skills out of the service and apply them for financial gain.

[15:00] Did you see this shift happening during your career?

General Clark: I just saw the beginnings of it. It was really the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent occupation that brought about this change. Some of this change was good. There were some changes that needed to take place to prepare people to fight. You also need a form of outreach to the American people, and it can’t just be about your favorite gun.

[17:00] What do veterans bring to the table as elected officials?

General Clark: First off, it really depends on the person. What you’d hope to see is someone with a better understanding of the military and an appreciation for sacrifice. Many of these veterans are just as indoctrinated as those who haven’t served.

[18:36] It seems as though democrats have struggled to get veterans out as a voter group for them. Why do you think that is?

General Clark: If you look at veterans holding elected office today, roughly two thirds of them are republicans. Today, the democrat party has become the “mommy party” and the republicans have become the “daddy party”. Democrats stand for fairness while the republicans stand for security.

[20:00] We’ve seen a decrease in support amongst veterans for Trump. How do you balance following orders from someone you may disagree with?

General Clark: There is no tension. You follow the orders; period. People asked this of me when Clinton was in office. Until he is removed from office, he is the boss.

[21:12] Do you think that democratic dissent has a place within the military?

General Clark: No. I think that if you get an illegal order, then your obligation is to not follow it. If you get an order you don’t like, you can disagree with it, but don’t expect your boss to agree with you. You always have the right to speak up, but you then have to face the consequences. This isn’t to say those in the military can’t vote. However, voting is private. You don’t bring that back into your job.

23:00: What went into your decision to come out in support of Collin Kapernick?

General Clark: I’m one of the few people to be at the top of the military, political, and business world. When you get to see things from that perspective, you see that there is a lot of injustice. Sometimes we don’t live up to our values. This stems back to our founding in our founding documents. I think treating people with respect is the absolute foundation of democracy. So when Collin Kapernick took a knee, I didn’t see that as an insult to the flag or the military. I saw that as standing up for the values we fought for.

[25:16] We have seen many military figures serving positions within the Trump administration. How do you see this impacting how government works?

General Clark: I think General Mattis is proving to be a very solid Secretary of Defense. H.R. McMaster was very capable, but he wasn’t prepared for the position he was put into. Any White House is difficult to work in due to conflicting agendas. This is a situation unlike the military where doing a good job can get your promoted. In the White House it is more of a popularity contest. John Kelly is also in a difficult position, but he is taking his challenges head on. He also has to deal with ethical issues, such as Trumps children receiving Secret Service protection while conducting private business in the Middle East.

[30:01] You are starting an organization called “Renew America.” Tell us a little about that.

General Clark: We’re trying to engage with young people interested in renewing the country. Politics today is a very nasty and dirty business. If you look throughout history, politics goes through cycles with different focuses, such as economic and social policy concentration. You have to see the big picture then break through the entertainment news cycle. I’m hoping that we’re going to mobilize a core of young people who are going to demand answers from people running for office. If you’re asking real questions you will change the political system.

[31:00] How do you think Renew America fits in with similar efforts to increase youth engagement in politics?

General Clark: We are interested in working with everyone. We make no claim to have a monopoly on this effort. We simply want to offer a platform for people to speak with others who are likeminded on a nonpartisan basis. There are many similar groups, but they are partisan. We are not.


Protecting democracy from foreign interference — recorded live at the National Press Club



Laura Rosenberger
Laura Rosenberger

With the midterms this week, all eyes are on the threat of election hacking and interference. Electoral integrity is important, but as you’ll hear in this week’s episode, the threats to American democracy go much deeper than that to the very basis of information and conversation. Laura Rosenberger has been one of the most important voices in the efforts to combat this interference and ensure that democracy becomes even stronger and more resilient.

Laura is the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). Before she joined GMF, she was foreign policy advisor for Hillary for America, where she coordinated development of the campaign’s national security policies, messaging, and strategy. Prior to that, she served in a range of positions at the State Department and the White House’s National Security Council (NSC).

She describes the lack of response to foreign interference prior to 2016 as a “failure of imagination” and, through her work at the German Marshal Fund, is determined to ensure that imagination does not fail again. Laura is a Penn State alumna and a member of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Board of Visitors.

This week’s episode was recorded live at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Additional Information

Hamilton 68: Tracking Russian Influence Operations on Twitter

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[3:25] What are you hoping to accomplish with the Alliance for Securing Democracy?

Laura: It is a bipartisan effort founded a little over a year ago. Some are surprised to see a volunteer for Hillary Clinton and a volunteer for Marco Rubio work together in an organization like this. My response to that is that if we can’t work together to defend democracy, then we’ve really lost a lot. We disagree on many issues, but it takes a health and safe democracy in order to be able to have a place to have those debates. Jamie and I realized that we some times have to tend our own garden so to speak. This is the idea that our own democracy needed some work. We have to actually defend it because it can be undermined by those who want to weaken us. From a national security perspective, we think it is incredibly important that we understand how foreign powers are trying to undermine our institutions. We also must build resilience into our democracy. Entities such as Russia are exploiting our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

[5:37] What is Hamilton 68?

Laura: The names comes from the Federalist papers. Specifically, number 68 where Hamilton warns about the threat to our democracy from foreign powers. Today, this situation with Russia seems to have jumped out of a spy novel. Many people still ask if this is something that is really an issue. The idea of foreign threats to our democracy, and the importance of guarding against them, is a core aspect of the birth of the nation. The founders warned about this very threat. What the dash board does is track Russian backed social media accounts and the messages they are pushing out into the public. These accounts have taken a position on a wide range of issues. Also, they will often take both sides of an issue so as to creat as much division as possible. With the use of bots, which are automated social media messages, these foreign entities can manipulate the online information ecosystem and make certain issues appear more prevalent and important than they really are. We have used this tool to educate policy makers and journalists about the actions of these foreign entities.

8:35: What is the intended use of this tool?

Laura: It was designed to be a very publicly accessible tool. When we launched this program, many of the media companies were still refusing to acknowledge that there was this foreign misinformation effort on their platforms. So the intent early on was to bring attention to the fact that this issue was still a problem. While we’ve usually talked about this misinformation campaign effort in terms of the elections, many of the issues we see these accounts engage in are not election issues. We really just wanted to expose these actors and bring attention to them. If we can educate people as to the tactics used by these foreign entities, maybe we can get people to be more cautious when seeing certain information online.

[11:04] Looking to the upcoming midterms, how likely do you think it is that we wake up on the day after the election and realize that something is not right?

Laura: It is important to remember that many of these efforts by foreign actors are not about elections. While there is electoral interference efforts here, there are also broader long term democracy interference efforts going on. I see the election interference efforts as one part of this larger effort to attack democracy. Given how important elections are for a democratic system, they are ripe targets for those trying to negatively impact democratic nations. There were also several attempts to probe state election infrastructures. The efforts here aren’t so much about actually changing specific votes, but to attack things like voter roles to get people off of them to prevent them from being able to vote. These efforts can also do something very damaging, which is cause people to doubt the legitimacy of elections. This distrust can spawn conspiracy theories. Such developments are dangerous for a democracy.

One possible scenario on the day after the election is even just a story that a states infrastructure was hacked. The validity of this claim is irrelevant in terms of the damage such a story could do. It could take months to investigate such a claim. We also could see fake protests where these Russian accounts essentially goat people on both sides to participating in a fake protest. If you push fake stories about a hack and create fake protests pushing for violence, you’ve then create complete and total madness into the system.

[16:30] How has you imagination about what is possible in terms of threats to our democracy changed?

Laura: The report on the 9/11 attacks spoke about the failures which enabled the attack as failures of imagination to potentially see such an attack be launched. For me, what we saw around the efforts in 2016 was also a result of a failure of imagination. When we saw these actions being taken in Ukraine, we thought it was a regional effort and not a test run for similar attacks on us here at home. Social media companies didn’t realize that the platforms they used to connect us could be used by foreign entities as weapons to turn ourselves against each other. It is important for us to both understand what happened as well as to understand what is still possible in the future.

Another concern I have in terms of potential future threats involves artificial intelligence and machine learning. A specific concern amongst tech companies is something called “deep fakes”. Essentially, this is manipulated and augmented video and audio content using artificial intelligence tools. With these tools, seeing may no longer be believing.

[19:36] Should we be worried about China?

Laura: Yes, China in engaging in political interference in places around the world, such as in Australia. However, it is important to know that China is a very different actor from Russia. In part, due to the different strategies they utilize. There are still many unknowns as to Chinese interest in interfering with us. In terms of China, I’m more concerned about the long term political covert efforts they tend to engage in.

I have one last point I want to make. The vice president recently stated that China in interfering with our election because they don’t like the president, and I think that is very dangerous. We can’t politicizes this idea of democracy interference. When we start to think this is about one party, we lose our ability to mount a united fight against these efforts to undermine our institutions. They care about attacking us as a nation, not any particular political party.

[25:10] How have the Russians changed their approach given that we’ve started to catch on to what they’re doing?

Laura: One change we’ve seen is that these Russian actors are putting much more effort into making their outreach on social media appear real. Rather than putting out rather basic recruitment posts for protest or counter protests, they are now actually contacting certain activists and trying to get them to buy into their efforts. They are embedding themselves more into real communities in America. This does two things. First, it makes it harder for companies to detect these fake Russian accounts. Second, this makes it more difficult for companies to choose to remove the content because they’re also removing content from real users who the Russians have attached themselves to. This also has the effect of casting doubt on democratic efforts such as protests. People don’t’ know if you’re there to honestly advocate on behalf of something or if you’re simply some fake Russian effort to undermine the country.

[28:30] What are some things that we should be doing to combat these attacks?

Laura: One thing is that we have to come together as a nation on this. We’ve got to get out of the partisan trap on this issue. I think we are capable of doing this. We could also benefit greatly from a bipartisan commission similar to the one we had after the 9/11 attacks. Government and the private sector needs to take action. Also, citizens themselves need to take action to fight back.


Will Millennials disrupt democracy?



Stella Rouse
Stella Rouse

From cooking to shopping to getting around town, disruption is the name of the game for Millennials. Will they do the same thing to democracy?

Millennials, or those born between 1981 and 1996, are now largest generational group in the United States. There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether these 20 and 30-somethings will vote in the 2018 midterms. This episode touches on that, but also explores some of the reasons why Millennials feel disengaged from voting and other traditional forms of political engagement.

Our guest this week literally wrote the book on this topic. Stella Rouse is co-author of The Politics of Millennials, which draws upon existing data about Millennials, as well as surveys and focus groups that Stella and co-author Ashely Ross conducted. They found that events like 9/11 an the 2008 financial crisis profoundly shaped the way Millennials view the world and their place within it — views that run counter to older generations and their views of democratic engagement.

Stella is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and Politics, Director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship, and Associate Director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll at the University of Maryland.

Additional Information

The Politics of Millennials

Can young people revive civic engagement? A conversation with Peter Levine of The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[4:49] How do you define a millennial and what about them made you interested in studying their generation further?

Stella: Generally the accepted timeframe is those from the late 80’s to the late 90’s. Millennial are those who grew up mostly around the turn of the century.

[5:30] What are the identity characteristics of this generation?

Stella: It’s composed of a number of factors. Most notably, it is a very diverse generation in American history. They’ve lived around different races and ethnic groups more so than any other generation in the nations history. They are also the first “digital natives”. They don’t know what it’s like to be without the internet or a cellphone in their pocket. This impacts how they experience politics and communicate with others. Also, the events of 9/11 is a significant aspect of this generation in terms of how it views the world around them and the role of America in it.

[7:30] How to millennial see themselves as citizens?

Stella: Millennials are more engaged in non-traditional forms of engagement such as voting or working on campaigns. People look at this and then see the generation as being apathetic politically. However, this doesn’t take into account their engagement in more non-traditional political formats such as protests and rallies. They are also more engaged in the local level than the national level. The key question is how is this activity translated into voting. I don’t have a straight answer for that. A lot of it involved getting them into the habit of voting.

[10:08] Do you sense any momentum on the part of this generation to shape the political system to fit to its interest rather than it adapting to the current political climate?

Stella: Yes. We are seeing a lot of Millennials run for office. Particularly, minorities of this group are running for office. I think in the next few years we’re going to see this continue. Then, once in office, they’ll be able to shape the political landscape to better reflect their world view.

[11:10] This generation also identifies at a greater rate than those before them as global citizens. How does this square with their involvement in local political issues?

Stella: When I say local I don’t mean they’re voting at the local level. Where the participate traditionally is still higher at the national level than the local level. One thing about this generation is that they’re very distrustful of institutions. This includes political parties. This makes sense given the fact that their time has been filled with the greatest partisan divide in American politics in generations. Therefore, they are much more likely to identify as independents. Their lack of identification along party lines leads to lower levels of traditional political engagement in the form of campaigning and voting.

[13:00] We’ve talked about the separation of liberalism and the democratic norm of institutions. Do you see this divide growing as this generations comes into political power?

Stella: It could be, but the jury is still out on this. They have an internal conflict that they distrust institutions but they know they have to play by the rules in order to change it. It’s not clear if they’ll play the game and try to bring about change from the inside or whether they’ll maintain their outsider status and try to change things from the outside.

[14:35] We saw Obama and Sanders as two political figures who resonated with this generation. What about them do you think made them so appealing to this generation?

Stella: They spoke to the issues they cared about. Particularly, Obama really addressed them in the mediums they cared about, such as social media. Even though he is not a millennial, he became the millennial president.

[16:09] How does Donald Trump play among Millennials?

Stella: Not too well. He is not very popular amongst them. That’s not to say there isn’t a segment of the generation who support him, but about two thirds of the generation don’t support him or his policies. His policies related to immigration and diversity go against the preferences of millennials.

[17:02] Is there anything to suggest that millennials will become more conservative as they get older?

Stella: That is a really good question. An important point we try to make is that this group is not monolithic in that they aren’t all liberals. On a number of policies they are more liberal, but on others, they look a lot like older more conservative generations. One particular issue is abortion. Their numbers on this issue look more like those of generation X or the baby boomer generation. This is also repeated when it comes to issues of the economy. They aren’t some socialist block. However, they are very liberal on issues such as healthcare where they think it should be a government protected right. This has a lot to do with the time in which they came to age. Especially on issues such as student loan debt which is another issue area where they’re very liberal. It remains to be determined whether these positions will drift to the right as they get older.

[22:32] What do the older generations need to know in order to work better with Millennials?

Stella: I think one reason why those in government don’t’ reach out to millennials is because they don’t’ see them as an electoral threat because of their low voting numbers. To reach out, they have to meet them halfway. They need to acknowledge that millennials have a lot to say. However, they have to reach out to them in their preferred medium. Ultimately, I don’t think we’ll see politicians change their approach until millennials force them to by showing up on their radar as an electoral issue.

[24:00] What role does the financial situation of this generation have on their willingness to engage politically in more traditional formats?

Stella: Economic power speaks to political power. Their inability to acquire economic power due to unemployment or underemployment prevents the acquisition of this power in order to challenge political leaders. However, we’ve always had this issue amongst the current young generation at any given time.

[28:00] What do you expect to see in terms of Millennial turnout in the 2018 midterms?

Stella: I suspect that we’ll see higher rates than we’ve seen in previous elections. Whether this motivation actually translates to votes is still open to debate. If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll see an increase in voter participation amongst this generation.


David Frum on developing the habits of democracy



David Frum with the Democracy Works team.
David Frum with the Democracy Works team.

Around the McCourtney Institute, we like to say that we’re “partisans for democracy.” We can think of few people who better embody that notion today than David Frum. He was among the first people to talk about the Trump administration’s impact on democracy and remains one of the loudest voices defending democratic norms in the United States. David is a longtime contributor to The Atlantic and author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. The book was part of our democracy summer reading list and we invited him to speak at Penn State earlier this fall.

In many ways, this conversation speaks to the very idea of this podcast. Democracy, no matter where it’s happening in the world, is most successful when people come together to build something greater than the sum of its parts. As you’ll hear, David is a strong advocate for joining organizations that require deliberation and working with people who might hold different political beliefs than you do — in person and away from social media.

The gradual shift away from those habits of democracy is one of the things that paved the way for the Trumpocracy that David writes about in his book. Rebuilding those habits, he says, is part of the cure for what ails democracy and must happen in tandem with voting to restore faith in democratic institutions and reduce polarization.

For more on democratic erosion, listen to our interview with How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt.

Additional Information

Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic

David Frum’s writing at The Atlantic

Interview Highlights

[6:06] Was Trump’s candidacy the reason you started righting about the state of democracy in America?

David: It was a catalyst in the sense that a catalyst triggers a response between elements that were already present. In the spring of 2015 I was doing a story in Hungary where fascism has been on the rise. However, that story was cannibalized due to the fact that what we had observed over there was starting to happen here. I was sort of ready for what we’re seeing now.

[7:29] Can you explain your journey from being a well known conservative to someone who voted for Hillary Clinton?

David: I remain a very conservative person today. When the question next comes up in an election, people might be surprised to see me retain those conservative views. However, these values have to be able to play out in a stable democratic framework. The lessons of Europe should teach us that the institutions that we see today as being rock solid look a lot less solid today. It is important to protect these democratic institutions in part because of how this instability can impact global economic markets

[8:50] Would you say that is the through line that unites yourself and other conservatives who have come out against Trump?

David: Yes. But it is also a throughline which explains why this has become an international issue. Studying the European examples is very useful. Democratic institutions aren’t doing as good of a job producing for voters. This has led to a bit of a crisis around the developed world. This can lead the population to lean towards less democratic forms of government. While this is happening to the ideological right here and in Poland, it can also happen to the left, such as in England and in Italy.

[10:09] Do you feel like the message is being received that fascism could take root here?

David: It is happening here. We always think that when a reaver spreads that we in America will get it last. This is not just an American problem right now. In nations around the world, democratic institutions are weaker than they were just ten years ago. A country like Turkey which was clearly a democracy ten years ago is now an outright dictatorship.

[11:30] Who do you think is the leader to be able to bring back these democratic norms?

David: The search for leaders is the problem. The problem is that we have these charismatic figures popping up saying that they alone can solve the problem. When young people ask me how they can help, I tell them to join something. Join something that has meetings. This helps develop the habits of democracy. Social media is important here. What it offers and delivers is a completely personalized experience. You only see what you like and agree with. Actual politics couldn’t be more different. You have to be able to work with people who are different than you and who disagree with you.

[16:33] What do you make of some of the civic renewal efforts to get people engaged again such as with voting?

David: This is super exciting and important. The more local, the better. Also, don’t be consumed with the national questions and issues that you disconnect from the local situation. If following stories is distracting you from stories about local issues such as budgets, then it is becoming harmful.

[18:43] What do the “guardrails of democracy” mean and where do they stand today?

David: This is about a series of restraints that we imagined were there to protect democracy that have since been crashed through. One of the keys guard rails is the concept of ideology. What we thought years ago was that each side (liberal and conservative) were being more ideologically extreme and that ideology was mattering more and more. What this meant is that we were demagogue proof in that a candidate had to stand for something in order to get enough support to win. But in 2016 with Trump, we learned that ideology doesn’t matter that much. He routinely broke perceived ideological norms for conservatives.

[20:40] Does this action by Trump explain the split in the GOP between those who stuck with the party and Trump and those who broke away?

David: I don’t think so. One example is the issue of international trade. The support for open international trade has been a hallmark of republican ideology since Reagan. When Trump came out against this idea, I wondered if this would jolt the Republican Party out of support for him. It has not. In fact, he is changing the positions of the Republican Party.

[21:58] Why are these people going against the party norms and embracing ideas they opposed just a few years ago?

David: Because once you get on board with Trump, you’re a prisoner. You have to go wherever it goes. The farther you go and the more awful things you accept, the more you have to defend the driver to defend yourself. People say don’t condemn Trump supporters. When people do something, we should seek to understand it. However, we need to recognize that Trump succeeds by appeal to what is bad about people and what is cruel about the. This is also part of the story. However, it is wrong to then look down upon someone as a child given this reality. Instead, when we see someone who agrees or identifies with something that is brutal or cruel, we should seek to understand why that concept or position resonates with that person.

[25:22] Do you think there was ever a time in our nations history were we had a sort of peak of democracy?

David: I don’t think we should ever look back. This is our time. There is a lot to learn from the past, but the past also has deep flaws. We should focus on making it better. For example, one of the biggest tells for whether or not someone voted for Trump was their level of social isolation. If you were a member of a stable family, you were much less likely to be a Trump voter.


When states sue the federal government



Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro
Josh Shapiro

It seems like every few weeks, we see headlines about states banding together to block actions taken by the federal government. You might even remember former Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott quipping that he goes to the office, sues the federal government, then goes home.

How do those lawsuits take shape? How does a state decide whether to join or not? How does that impact the balance of power between federal and state governments? This week’s guest is uniquely qualified to answer all of those questions.

Since taking office in January 2017, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has been involved with more than a dozen suits brought against the federal government on matters ranging from family separation at the border to EPA emissions regulations. Though Shapiro is a Democrat, he says his chief motivation in joining these suits is the rule of law and a commitment to do what’s right for people of Pennsylvania.

Whether or not you agree with Shapiro’s politics, he does present an interesting take on the role that states play as a check on the federal government. This power is a unique part of the American experiment and speaks to the power of democracy in the states.

Before the interview, Chris and Michael dive into the origins of federalism, including Federalist 51, the 10th Amendment, and the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.

Additional Information

Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General

Federalist 51

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[5:12] When you took this office, did you expect yourself to be this active on federal issues?

Shapiro: I said when I was sworn in that if someone was going to try to mess with Pennsylvania that they would have to go through me. I see the constitution as giving the states broad authority. States rights isn’t something progressives have pointed to, but it is something I value. If someone in the federal system is doing something to undermine our rights, I’m going to stand up to take action.

[6:32] How do one of these suits against the federal government get started?

Shapiro: The first question is whether the action comports with the rule of law. I put aside what I agree or disagree with personally and instead focus on the law. Once we deem that an illegal action has been taken, be think about what is the best way to file an action to challenge that activity. We discuss whether or not Pennsylvania should be the lead state. There are sometimes strategic reasons why we file a suit in a particular state. What we are not doing is constructing opposition to the president just for the sake of opposing him. What we are doing is organizing ourselves around the rule of law.

[8:43] What issues or possible suits have you turned down?

Shapiro: We’ve been involved in about fifteen cases since taking office. I’m very careful about what we engage in on behalf of the people of Pennsylvania. Again, it is not my job just to weigh in whenever I personally disagree with the president. It is my job to weigh in when the rule of law is being threatened.

[9:31] What is the timeline for one of these cases?

Shapiro: I spend the majority of my time going around to differnt places listening to people. I think I have a good feel for where the people of the state are. I don’t poll test these issues. Instead, I try to do what is right and what adheres to the rule of law.

[10:36] Under Obama, we saw a lot of states file suits against the federal government much like what is happening now with Trump in office. Do you think this goes to the partisan nature of government?

Shapiro: I would actually push back on that a little. Most of what I do is bipartisan. It’s just that the media usually doesn’t report that. The vast majority of the actions we take are really bipartisan.

[12:34] President Trump has stated that he thinks the attorney general office should be more of a political one. What are your thoughts on that?

Shapiro: We are above politics in this office. I’m a proud Democrat. People know I have progressive leanings. They knew that when they elected me. However, we check our political views at the door everyday when we come into the office. If you look at our track record, we’ve held democrats and republicans accountable. We do our job in a way that the people of the state can be proud that the justice system is fair. We are diverse in both appearance and thought.

[15:23] What does the term “rule of law” mean to you?

Shapiro: It is the very foundation of everything that I do. It helps you be above politics. My job is to understand the law, apply the facts and evidence, then make a decision in the best interest of the people of Pennsylvania.

Shapiro: The tenth amendment makes it really clear that states have a role to play in our democracy. I believe that if the federal government is making an overreach into our state business, then I’m going to be a shield to guard against that. However, states have also at times been the thing infringing upon rights. However, more often than not, they are expanding rights. The fight for marriage is a perfect example of that. Justice Brandies spoke eloquently about states being the laboratories for democracy. That still holds true today. States need to be a shield against overreach and a sword in promoting the rights of their citizens.


How “if it bleeds, it leads” impacts democracy



Peter Enns
Peter Enns

The problems with the prison system in the U.S. have been well documented, but what’s not talked about nearly as often is how things got this way. Why does there seem to be such enthusiasm for putting people in jail? One answer might be the shift toward “risk management policing” that Frank Baumgartner described in last week’s episode, but there’s something else at play — and that’s what we explore this week with Peter Enns.

Peter is an associate professor of Government at Cornell University and author of Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World. Peter argues that, since the 1970s, media coverage has shaped public opinion about incarceration, which lead to an increase in people going to prison even as the crime rate went down. This created a vicious cycle of people seeing news about crimes, becoming more supportive of punitive measures, and a shift away from viewing prison as a rehabilitative experience.

Much like we heard from last week about the empathy gap in policing, a similar gap exists between the people going to jail and the people watching or reading news stories about the criminal justice system. Peter taught in Cornell’s prison education program and saw firsthand what daily life looks like for inmates and the possibilities that exist for prison reform programs.

One final note: We added a new voice into the mix this week. Andy Grant, our audio engineer, had some questions for Peter that you’ll hear toward the end of the interview.

Additional Information

Peter’s book, Incarceration Nation

Cornell Prison Education Program

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[4:58] Why do so many people in the United States want others to face jail time?

Peter: A Key to this study is noting how public opinion has shifted on this issue over time. The trend towards supporting incarceration really picked up across the sixties through to the nineties. A large factor in this trend was how media covered crime.

[5:38] How do you think the media contributes to how the public perceives the issue of crime where they live?

Peter: There are two aspects of this. One is the “if it bleeds, it leads” aspect of media coverage of crime. Also, the number of crimes committed by racial minorities are largely over reported.

[7:15] How have things changes over time?

Peter: This is really interesting because the crime rate has actually been decreasing since the 90’s but many people aren’t aware of this. The public has become less punitive as crime rates have gone down. However, the trend is not in line with the rate in decrease of crime. While the trend in public opinion is starting to change, the problem is that there is such a massive system in place that it is difficult to reverse this high incarceration rate. It is not as simply as turning off a switch. However, some meaningful changes have been occurring.

One example is that there has been a lot of discussion recently around the cash bail system and how strange it is. The way this works is that if you’re arrested and can’t afford your judge set bail, you’re going to stay in jail until trial. Many localities are revisiting this. The decriminalization of drug offenses is also a massive development impacting the incarceration rate.

[9:45] How does the prison experience impact ones views on government when they eventually get out of prison?

Peter: A large role in how we view government is our interaction with aspects of government such as the DMV. Imagine being in prison and having life as a prisoner being your main interaction with a government entity or structure. That tends to have a negative effect on levels of political participation amongst those who have been previous locked up.

[11:53] Is there an empathy gap where those who are in power are not aware of the problems in the criminal justices system?

Peter: Absolutely. Another important aspect of this is to remember that those who have been convicted are being judges based on likely the worst thing they’ve ever done. Imagine how we’d feel if we were publicly evaluated over and over again based on the worst thing we ever did.

[12:50] Could you tell us about your work with the Cornell prison education program?

Peter: Most recently, I was teaching a course in Auburn correctional facility. What the program does is teach college level education courses to those in maximum security prison in the middle of New York State. The course I thought to the convicts was the same one I thought as part of a senior seminar for government students. The students did a great job and it was a phenomenal experience.

[13:58] In this program, did you see a difference in the way the inmates were handling the course as compared to Cornell students you had lectured in the past?

Peter: I would say there was a higher level of maturity amongst the students. A large misconception that I came into contact with is the idea that inmates have a ton of free time to just sit around and read. However, many of them are assigned work detail within prison. In this sense, they are a lot like your regular college student who also has a part time job they have to juggle along with school work.

[16:00] How do you think the public’s attitude towards incarceration match with its position on other issues?

Peter: A key concept here is how someone will reintegrate with society. The vast majority of those incarcerated right now will be released back into society. Regardless as to ones political association, data shows that we all want people to be successfully introduced back into society once released from prison. However, this common interest is over powered by the punitive state. A major problem here is the parole board system

We know there is a high recidivism rate. A large portion of this is due to technical violations of parole terms. Such as the use of drugs of those who are addicted to drugs. If someone relapse, which is very common amongst addicts, will end up in someone out of parole ending up back in prison. One way to address this could be to provide a better support system for those leaving prison. For example, people who I know who have been in prison faced living in a homeless shelter the first night out because there was no structure to hell them integrate back into society.

[21:00] There have been more discussion around this administration about prison reforms. Where do you think these conversations are heading?

Peter: I think we’ve seen an increase in efforts because of the role of public opinion, which as the data shows is trending towards a decrease in support for heavy incarceration. However, due to high level of political polarization at the federal level, most of the actual legislative progress that we’ve seen has been as the state and local level. A perfect example of this involves discussion to close Rikers Island in New York. The debate now is just how quickly it will be closed. It is sort of stunning think about this ironing symbol of incarceration in America facing closure.

[22:30] Do you think our criminal justice system is more structured as a punitive or rehabilitative system?

Peter: I think the balance has shifted over the course of time. Right now, I think it is shifting away from a punitive minded system. However, right now I think the system is certainly more punitive orientated.


A story about democracy, told through 20 million traffic stops



Frank Baumgartner
Frank Baumgartner

The lights flash in your rearview mirror as the police car comes up behind you. A sinking feeling forms in the pit of your stomach as the officer approaches. Sound familiar?  However, this is where the story can differ greatly depending on who you are and where you live. If you’re African-American or Latino, you are much more likely to be searched or have your vehicle searched — and much more likely to be pulled over in the first place, according to research conducted by analyzing data from millions traffic stops in North Carolina over more than a decade.

Frank Baumgartner, Robert J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, lead the team that analyzed the data published the book Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race.” In the book, Frank and his colleagues make the case that an empathy gap exists between people with political and social power and the people who are most likely to be pulled over. The result is that segments of the population who are already disenfranchised become even more distrustful of the police and the government and less likely to vote and otherwise engage with democracy.

We’ve long heard that racially-motivated police violence is the result of a few “bad apple” officers. However, the data from North Carolina show a much more pervasive suspicion from police officers about young men of color. Combined with a move toward what Frank describes as “risk management” policing, the result is a clear pattern of behavior that has direct implications on democratic participation.

P.S. A huge thank you to everyone who supported us in the 2018 Podcast Awards. We are incredibly humbled and grateful to have won during our first year.

More Information

Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race

Frank’s profile on the Scholars Strategy Network

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[3:41] How did you come about the data for this book?

Frank: An investigative reporter in North Carolina conducted an investigation into possible racial profiling in the police department in 1996. This was also a time when people were becoming growingly concerned with racial profiling by police. At this time, North Carolina became the first state to mandate the recording of data about traffic stops, including the race of the individual stopped. I was then invited to look at the information they had collected in the early 2000’s as part of a task force.

[5:25] Can you walk us through how a traffic stop experience might differ along racial lines?

Frank: As a middle class white man myself, I have very few interactions with the police. But when I do, it is always very respectful and by the book. It is extremely rare for someone in this demographic to get pulled over by the police. For someone of color, it would be frustratingly common. These traffic stops usually lead to no citation or ticket. However, such stops are more likely to extend into a search of the vehicle.

[6:54] What did you find to be the cause of this variance in frequency and nature of stops?

Frank: We think party of the problem is that police officers are usually dealing with a low information situation when making a stop. Too often, they rely on visual cues to evaluate whether someone is a threat or not. And under the law, which has been confirmed mostly by middle class white men, it assumes that these stops will only be temporary inconveniences. However, as the data showed, these stops are not that uncommon. There is also an empathy gap where white people have a difficult time understanding the situation faced by minority’s in terms of traffic stops.

[9:18] In the book you refer to “risk management policing.” Can you explain what that is?

Frank: In the 60’s, the focus of policing used to be reactionary in the sense that they used to simply work to solve crimes. However, there has been a shift where as police now are working to try to prevent crimes using methods such as profiling. Policing is now more proactive and aggressive. This system didn’t happen to white people. This happened on the other side of town to minorities. It happened to people who themselves were seen as likely criminal elements.

[14:24] What impact do these stop rates have on the level of democratic participation among minorities?

Frank: Just a single traffic stop can reduce the odds of that person voting by as much as ten percent. We found that in areas where black people have greater political power, the percentage of blacks that are stopped is considerably lower. There is a national effect. Unjustified stops do alienate people and cause them to not trust the government. In Fayetteville North Carolina, they instituted some policy changes. What resulted was that there were fewer stops. Also, the number of calls to 911 that actually resulted in a crime being committed went up. This showed that people who were no longer being wrongfully stopped began to trust the police more and were willing to reach out to them when they actually needed them.

[18:21] We often hear during the more salient cases that this is simply the result of a few “bad apple” officers. Is this the case or is this a more systemic problem impacting more officers?

Frank: The short answer is that it’s both. In our research, we were able to categorize and study the stop of every officer by their badge number. We did find many officers who showed trends of discriminatory trends in stops. The racial disparity were highest amongst men. While there are bad apple officers, there also is a more systemic problem.

[22:20] What impacts have your findings led to?

Frank: Many police leaders have started looking at their own statistics more closely. When these departments have done this internal investigation they have often found that they have discrimination problems. Ferguson Missouri is just one example. While Ferguson is seen as the epicenter of bad policing, the situation in many others communities is not really that much better. We have to recognize that the data and the patterns are clear and consistent. It is time to question whether we’re getting the right bang for our buck out of the random traffic stops as a mechanism to fight crime. This is alienating people without having much good to show for it.

 


Breaking the silence in Syria



Abdalaziz Alhamza

We’ve talked before on this show about the importance of a free press, but this week’s episode brings a whole new meaning to the term. In 2014, Abdalaziz Alhamza and his friends started social media accounts to document the atrocities being committed by ISIS in their city of Raqqa. They called themselves Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) and their work quickly grew into a website and a social movement that garnered international attention.

RBSS brought the work of citizen journalists to a global audience and helped provide a counter to increasingly sophisticated ISIS propaganda. Their work was chronicled in the 2017 documentary City of Ghosts. Aziz visited Penn State for a screening of the film sponsored by Penn State’s Center for Global Studies, which is lead by friend of our podcast Sophia McClennen.

ISIS was removed from Syra last year, but that does not mean life in Raqqa has improved. Aziz and his colleagues are now working to report on the Asad regime and militias who are trying to take power from it. They are also working to empower citizen journalists in other countries and help defend the free press at a time when “fake news” has become a rallying cry for authoritarian leaders around the world.

Additional Information

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently

City of Ghosts documentary

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[5:50] What has happened in Raqqa since the end of the film?

Aziz: A campaign began to defeat ISIS. However, this brought with it a lot of violence. Nearly 80% of the city has been destroyed. Most of the people have been displaced. The media stoped paying attention once ISIS was pushed out of the city. This is why we kept out campaign going to continue to share information about the city. There are still a lot of things happening in the city. For example, people are still being killed every day. They are still finding bombs in the city. Also, they are finding mass graves at different parts of the city.

[7:29] How have the conditions there changed the work that you’re doing?

Aziz: We do have more freedom now, but we still can’t do our work legally because we’re considered terrorists by some. If we can survive ISIS, then we can survive working around other groups. We have started an online program to teach people how to become activists and how to start their own movements.

[9:10] What was your motivation for starting this movement?

Aziz: Before the revolution, I wasn’t involved with politics at all. When everything started, I had that thing inside that motivated me to get up and do something. We started by filming protests. When ISIS started taking control they prevented media from covering what was happening in the city. At this point, we felt we had a duty to do something since we were all from Raqqa. None of us had any journalist education at all. We got some training, but now we actually work to train others to be journalists.

[11:20] How do you manage still covering Raqqa while also trying to expand your coverage beyond the city? 

Aziz: Cellphones are the magic. We can do most of our work remotely. They are both tools for communication as well as tools for learning stuff.

[12:46] What do you share with those you’re training to become activists themselves? 

Aziz: We have gone through many mistakes getting to this point that we try to help others avoid. We teach them how to handle a brutal regime or movement such as ISIS. For example, I went to Columbia to help activists there. They didn’t know what encryption was or the idea that the government could track their actions and communication without encryption. Some of the mistakes we’ve made have cost us the lives of friends, so we don’t want anyone to go through those mistakes like we did.

[14:30] Do you feel the work you did have an impact to ISIS ultimately being defeated in Raqqa? 

Aziz: The war with ISIS was not like a regular war with militaries. It was a war fought online. Therefore, they worked hard to shut us down.   They threaten us and killed family members. To get this reaction from ISIS showed us that we were doing something meaningful. They are still talking about us. To ISIS, we are the bad boys. ISIS didn’t want any other alternative media sources like us for the people to learn from. They just didn’t expect a group of teenagers being around and doing this stuff.

[16:27] How did you combat ISIS as they improved their propaganda efforts? 

Aziz: They spent way too much money on the media. For example, they spent millions on one media office in one city. Media was how they recruited fighters so they put a lot of money into it.

[18:25] Did you ever question if you were the right guys to do this? 

Aziz: Yes, at the beginning. However, this changed once our friends started to be killed. Since that, no one is second guessing this movement.

[21:50] How do you feel when you hear the term “fake news”? 

Aziz: It has become a huge problem even here in the United States. One network will say one thing while another will say the opposite. People get lost within all of these platforms and don’t know who to follow. We try to simply things and always provide evidence. I don’t think there is a way to kill fake news, but provide evidence is a good way to combat it.

[23:00] Do you videos that you use come from members of your group or do you get them from citizens? 

Aziz: They are mostly from our members, but we do get some stuff from other citizens. Even taking a photo is very dangerous. It is punishable by death. One of the first things ISIS did was try to scare people. They would have public executions in the middle of town. Because of this, people were afraid to gather information about them such as taking photos or videos.

[27:00] You have lost friends and family members through this effort. What is it like receiving that information? 

Aziz: It was scary when I would wake up and have to check my phone. I would wake up and pray to God that nothing bad had happened. I would feel powerless, but that didn’t last long because I knew there was something we should do about it. We knew that ISIS was killing us because they wanted us to stop our work. So we couldn’t stop and give them what they wanted.

[29:00] What does democracy mean to you?

Aziz: It means people being able to express themselves without being afraid. For those who are used to it, they don’t understand that people are dying around the world to try to get democracy.


Citizenship, patriotism, and democracy in the classroom



Mark Kissling
Mark Kissling

As a piece in The Atlantic recently 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.

Recommended Reading

Mark’s post about the National Anthem ritual on the McCourtney Institute blog

Americans Aren’t Practicing Democracy: Yoni Appelbaum in The Atlantic

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[4:34] What do you think an education in civics looks like?

Mark: In school, social studies usually has a civics education built into it. This fusion came about in the early 20th century. I tend to think about it in terms of teaching about a civic society and what it means to be a participatory citizen. It does include the basic stuff about how government works. However, I think it also entails an introduction to how citizens interact with that government in a democratic system.

[6:12] What does the idea of citizenship education actually look like in the classroom?

Mark: For me, I think it involves looking at where teachers and students are in terms of their own lives, such as where they’ve been and the circumstances of the places they live. Then consider what participation with society looks like in these areas under theses circumstances. That is then pulling in history and other factors. Importantly, this is place based education.

[7:08] As a social studies teacher yourself, how did you approach this in your classroom?

Mark: One of the courses I taught was a street law course. I taught the class in Framingtown Massachusetts, which was the largest town in America at the time. Therefore, most of our issues were centered around local town government. I think this focus on place occurred naturally at this time. However, I’m more continuously aware of place today.

[8:45] Today, the political climate is very polarized. We also have concepts such as “fake news” and “alternative facts”. How do you prepare teachers to address and handle these issues with their students?

Mark: How one would address that in their class would be molded by where that course is physically. For example, these issues would be handled differently between a rural school as compared to a more urban located school.

[9:40] Do you find that your students are receptive to this notion of place?

Mark: They are immediately receptive to it. However, their broader schooling experiences don’t lead them towards being receptive to it. There is a really big gap between the lived experience of a particular area and the curriculum students are provided with. One of my missions it to ground social studies in the context of the experience of where the students in a particular school actually live.

[10:45] How do you balance providing students both local and national awareness in a field like social studies?

Mark: It would be a mistake to focus only on the local issue and ignore the broader national and global context. However, it’s typically the other way around in that were focusing on the national or global perspective and ignoring the local perspective. I certainly think there is a need to traverse across those scales. For example, when talking about something like patriotism, we should talk about what it means both in the context of protests around the world as well as local instances such as the national anthem issue at the local Spikes game.

[12:00] Do you think teachers should sort of play the role of a journalist in that they stick to the facts and keep any personal opinions out of their lessons?

Mark: I think there is an expectation of that. Also, they’ve been schooled that way. I actually had an instances recently with a group of soon to be teachers following the events in Charlottesville. I asked them how they’d be handling this situation in their own classrooms. Most of them said that they wouldn’t address the issue at all. Part of this game from a fear of lack of information as to what was happening. There is also a political charge to it that teachers often feel worried about taking on in front of their classes. However, if we want to take on schooling as a community based effort, we have to be willing to engage with students on these difficult current event issues. We have to have conversations across these divides.

[14:35] What is your advice to those teachers who said they wouldn’t address this issue with their own classroom?

Mark: My comment is that you are taking it up by not addressing it up or pushing it to the side. Any statement, including the lack of a statement, is a message that you send to students. In the absence of a class discussion about Charlottesville, you’re being socialized not to talk about difficult issues like that. That’s troubling. We need to also consider treating the classroom as a place where students can engage, often for the first time, in difficult dialogue on challenging issues, such as what took place in Charlottesville.

[17:00] How do you balance dialogue on current events with the increased focus on “teaching to the test”?

Mark: It is a little different in social studies as compared to other subject areas because this field isn’t tested nearly to the degree of other topics. I do think standardizing education is important. I work with teachers to find the balance between engaging students on controversial current events while also ensuring that they’re prepared for these standardized assessments.

[19:30] Everyone is familiar with the image of the angry parent beating down the door after a controversial topic is address in a class. How do you prepare future teachers to handle something like that?

Mark: I think it is important to listen and understand what the parent is saying. It is important to build your justification for how you structure your classroom and properly present this to the parents. It can be a slow and brutal process. However, I think it can be a very productive exercise.

[20:50] In light of the events at Parkland, have you seen a change amongst your students in terms of an increase interest in taking on some of these more controversial civic topics?

Mark: I think the civic engagement of the Parkland students themselves will have a big impact on my students. I think this is something I’ll see reflected in them this coming semester. I also think that my students have some sense of fear of living in a school on lock down. There is also the teacher side of this. How does a teacher handle teaching in an environment where being on lockdown is becoming more of a norm?


Behind the scenes of the “Year of the Woman”



Rebecca Kreitzer
Rebecca Kreitzer

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.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[4:09] Why do these groups exist for female candidates?

Rebecca: Around the world, there are structure in place to ensure a share of female representation in office, such as quotas. However, that doesn’t exist in the United States. In addition, you have other factors, such as the fact that women tend to have lower levels of political ambition. They also need to be encouraged to run for office. Unfortunately, elected officials are less likely to encourage women to run for office.

These groups are all around the country. Some of them are federal level groups. Others are loosely collected groups modeled after others, such as Emily’s List. There are over 400 such groups with at least one in every state.

[6:06] With so many groups, is there ever a problem of one group sort of stepping on the toes of another?

Rebecca: Some of them are coordinated. These are the ones that are chapters or branches of larger state or national groups. However, most of the groups do work in silos meaning that they work on their own and don’t share resources with other groups. We don’t really know why that is. We think it due to the fact that they’re competing both for resources as well as possible candidates.

[7:09] How do these groups go about recruiting someone who both meets their ideological aims but who can also win an election?

Rebecca: This is a problem because we know that those who are most involved with these groups also tend to enjoy high levels of privilege. Therefore, if these are your scouts, they are going to go after those who they think are good candidates. This could further explain the gap in the group of those who are privileged both financially as well as racially. Many of these groups have diversity goals yet lack plans to actually accomplish this mission. Unfortunately, we don’t know if these efforts are leading to more women being elected to office.

[9:43] What role does the issue of reproductive rights and abortion have in these groups determining who they will get behind?

Rebecca: Of the 400 groups we know of, roughly the same number (about 80) openly support either liberal or conservative candidates. While this gives the appearance of ideological balance amongst these groups, there are those in the middle with no official political affiliation. However, they aren’t as non-partisan as they make themselves appear. A large portion of them require a very pro-choice position from potential female candidates. A very small of these middle groups actually have either a pro-life stance or no position at all on this issue. When you take the issue of abortion into account, there are many more opportunities for pro-choice women than there are for pro-life women.

[11:24] What happens to these women when they win office? Also, why should we care how many women are in office?

Rebecca: Women legislators do face many challenges that male colleagues simply don’t. These include how the media covers them as well as how they raise money. These challenges can vary from state to state and from setting to setting. When it comes to actually making policy, women often lack the seniority which is crucial in actually getting legislation passed.

A popular caveat about women in politics is that they tend to win when they do run. However, this is largely due to the fact that these female candidates are often times much more qualified than their male counterparts.

As to why we should care about the portion of female representation, it actually matters for a number of reasons. One is that it is important for democratic legitimacy that their governing bodies accurately reflect those who they govern. This includes both gender as well as racial diversity. It also helps to empower women and increase legitimacy in our institutions. This is also important due to substantive representation. For example, women are more likely to address issues with policy that are important issues for women. Women tend to introduce and sponsor more bills that have to do with women’s issues. Diversity in government is also important because different people can take different bits of information from a situation and offer different takes on an issue than their counterparts.


The democrats in public sector unions [Labor Day rebroadcast]



Paul Clark
Paul Clark

This week, we are rebraodcasting our conversation about public sector unions from earlier this year with Paul Clark, director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State.

Paul talks about how these unions exist at at all levels of government — from bureaucrats to bus drivers. Many could find higher wages in the private sector, but are drawn to civil service out of a desire contribute to the public good. Public sector union participation is higher than it is in the private sector, but in some cases the bargaining power those unions have is limited. Despite that, Paul says that these union members are finding creative ways to make their voices heard, which one of the fundamental elements of a democracy.

This episode was recorded before the Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Supreme Court decision in late June. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that public sector unions that collected dues from non-members were violating the First Amendment by doing so. The impacts of the ruling mostly have yet to be seen, but as Paul explains, the loss of revenue could further weaken unions moving forward.


Middle America, Part 2: Grassroots organizing and rebooting democracy



Lara Putnam
Lara Putnam

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.

Additional Information

Middle America Reboots Democracy in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[3:28] As a history professor, how did you come to write about a political movement?

Lara: After the 2016 election, I looked around at local politics to see where I could make a change. Based on the national political coverage, I expected to see high levels of energy and organization for progressive politics in the city and little in the suburbs. However, what I found was actually that I was missing the real story. What I saw in these smaller towns was people engaging again in the political process through organization. This wasn’t getting covered nationally. This is where I kicked into historical gear. We know that large scale changes nationally have their roots in local developments. Therefore, it leads us to believe that these changes at the local level should be looked at as the possible motivation behind future national changes. So face to face groups which appear insignificant, can actually lead to large political changes.

[6:35] What does middle America mean to you after your research?

Lara: These movements are being started by women. Particularly, women who had already been involved in the political movement prior to the 2016 election. What we mean by “middle America” here is that these democrat movements are taking place not in the stereotypical coastal democrat strongholds, but rather in small rural towns in the middle of the country.

[9:30] Why do you think the national media is missing this trend?

Lara: The national media is really obsessed with candidates. While this does impact the spread of movements like the ones we’re seeing, it doesn’t completely stop them. Remember that politics is local. Most political conversations and political knowledge is shared in local conversations such as when people are running errands in town. This is how information is usually shared. The media tends to underreport this type of grass roots kitchen table politics.

[11:30] Do these groups still see support from the Democratic Party?

Lara: Part of the story here is that the Democratic Party changed. This is why we’re seeing many of these groups being created recently. The party used to be structured in such as way that you could join it and know your fellow democrats. You had a sense that you belonged to an actual place with real people rather than simply an email list. How the party today has embraced these new organizations has varied around the country. In some places, the local party structure has embraced these new groups while in other places you’re seeing more resistance to bringing them into the fold. Whether or not this osmosis process happens depends a lot on the level of maturity of these groups. What I mean by that is how organized and structured they are. When a group is very structured, it tends to more naturally fold into a larger equally as organized group.

[17:25] Do you think there is room in these left leaning groups for someone who voted for Trump in 2016 but have since changed their minds?

Lara: I think there are many different “middle Americas” out there. People are complicated and terms such as progressive means different things in different places.

[21:31] How are these groups communicating and utilizing technology to advance their cause in 2018?

Lara: Some groups have become hybrids of older and newer models in that they’re utilizing both face to face as well as technological forms of communications. For example, groups will often have several facebook pages. One will be public where as the other will be private. This private page has sort of become the 21st century face to face conversation.


Middle America, Part 1: Populism and the Trump Voter



In the effort to understand the people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, a style of reporting has emerged that Chris Hayes recently described as “Trump pastoral.” You might not know the phrase, but, but you’ve probably read a piece or two like this in the past few years:

Salena Zito
Salena Zito

A reporter from a national media outlet based in a big city visits a small town in a rural community and spends a little bit of time there trying to understand the people who live there and why they are attracted to Trump. That sounds great in theory, but the life of an urban media professional and a small town working-class person can be pretty different, which makes it difficult to build the trust needed for a true window into emotions and motivations.

Salena Zito is trying to change that. She grew up in Pittsburgh and splits her time between small-town events and CNN’s airwaves. Along the way, she’s learned a thing or two about what caused parts of the country to vote for Donald Trump after voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. She captures those stories in a book called The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, which was part of our democracy summer reading list episode.

We traveled to Pittsburgh to talk with Salena about how she gets to know people and what everyone can learn about trying to understand those who live different lives than we do. The lessons she’s learned apply far beyond journalism. We also talked about the coalitions that Salena and co-author Brad Todd argue helped Donald Trump become president, and whether they will remain in tact moving forward.

This is the first episode of two that will look at what’s going on in “Middle America.” Next week, you’ll hear from Lara Putnam, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who offers a different take.

Additional Information

Salena Zito’s book, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

4:40: What motivated you to write this book?

Salena: We wanted to look and see if the Trump victory was a fluke or an example of a more significant change within the country. I went out to the five Great Lake states that voted for Obama twice then switched to vote for Trump. We wanted to get beyond the media stereotype of what a trump voter was. What we found is that these voters we much more complicated and diverse.

6:04: How did you get people to trust you enough to be willing to open up to you and explain their voting decision?

Salena: This is where my geography and upbringing helped me greatly. I live in Pittsburg. With this more Midwest background, I was able to connect with these people better than say someone who came to them from New York or Washington.

7:13: Did you have anyone skeptical of you and asking if you were part of the “fake news”?

Salena: The shocking thing I found was that democrats have the same misgivings about the news media as republicans do. They also have the same sentiments about larger institutions as republicans. I think this new populism is a healthy pushback to all things big across media and business.

8:08: Have you kept in touch with those you interviewed?

Salena: Yes, we have. Also, no one has changed their position on who they supported from 2016. An interesting development we saw was how these people reacted to the media’s coverage of events in the administration thus far. Specifically, I’m referring to Trumps tweets. What we hear from these people is that they’re sick of the cookie cutter politicians statements. While Trumps comments aren’t clean and crafted, they are more representative of how normal people actually speak. This is something that those we spoke with could identify with. I think sometimes my peers have a hard time understanding this largely because of geography. They aren’t from these types of places.

10:35: You sort of exist in both words by interviewing these people in middle America while also appears on CNN panels as part of the media cloud. Do you see yourself as sort of an ambassador for middle America?

Salena: I want to help people understand that just because someone consumes things different than you do doesn’t make them your enemy. They just have a different life. We don’t allow people to coexist.

12:25: Fox News was mentioned many times in your book. Is that something that came up a lot in your interviews?

Salena: There was a cross section of what these voters watched as far as news. However, most of these people get their news from their local stations.

14:30: We talk a lot about a split happening between classical liberalism and populism. How do people you speak with see the recent electoral developments in middle America?

Salena: I think those in this coalition see it as still the idea of classical liberalism that we’ve always see in American democracy. This is the first time we’ve seen a new major coalition form probably since the new deal amongst democrats. I think that coalition broke apart in 2012. This happened in part because of the push from the left of ideas like multi culturalism and the idea of global citizenship. People on the coasts simply missed this realignment.

16:52: What do you think these new coalitions look like?

Salena: The new coalition within the republican part has a lot of the old new deal democrats. This means that things like entitlement reform aren’t happening in this generation. The suburban voter is still in the republican tent. However, what matters here is where your suburb is.

18:22: Those who study democracy have been looking at Trump as a new sort of autocrat. Do the voters see him that way?

Salena: They don’t see that at all. While people in the press take him literally, the people I spoke with simply don’t. While they take him seriously, they don’t take him literally.

21:11: You’ve been able to get to a deeper level of dialogue with these people by cutting under the rhetoric at the national level. What is your advice to those who wish to do the same?

Salena: Challenge yourself by exposing yourself to something or a situation that you aren’t familiar with and that you don’t know. First, step back and just be an observer. Then watch how people interact with each other. This gives you a better understanding of people and who they actually are. This will help prevent a snap judgment about them.

24:10: Do you think that anyone you spoke with would vote for a democrat?

Salena: As the party exists right now, no. They would have to make some fundamental changes. The thing about this coalition is that they simply don’t feel welcomed by the current democrat party.


Facebook is not a democracy



Matt Jordan

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.

Recommended Reading

Matt’s article on the history of fake news

How can democracy thrive in the digital age? From the Knight Foundation Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[3:23] How did you get drawn towards studying the concept of fake news or fake information?

Jordan: I’m always looking to see how structure of media are impacting cultural conversations. This concept of fake news has become a coercive presence in our media that has continued through 2016 and into 2018.

[4:20] Has the impact of fake information and news continued to today?

Jordan: It has continued through the body of the car into the interior.

[4:35] Can you tell us about your work chronically the history of the term “fake news”?

Jordan: Despite Trump claimed the credit for creating the term, which is a very “Trump” move, it actually came about with the end of the 19th century as a way to lie in media. It was a creation of the muckrakers who used misleading and fake information in the media to impact how the conglomerates at the time controlled media. They came up with this term to discredit both completely fake reporting as well as reporting that left out important information on a particular report. Therefore, the label of “fake news” became something that liberals and progressives used to discredit the large for profit news sources.

[6:00] Are there examples of the use of fake news in this manner today?

Jordan: I think you can look at Fox News and use the label of “fake news” to describe what they do. For example, they often times omit important information from their daily coverage. There will be a major story of the Mueller investigation but Fox will spend their time covering a small student protest on a college campus and the push back they got from liberals as an example of liberals not allowing free speech on campus.

[7:40] Media has changed considerably over the last one hundred years. What impact has sea ranch engines like Google had on the development of fake news?

Jordan: One example of how these creations have impacted our media consumption is a term that Mark Zuckerberg likes, which is information that is “relevant to us”. This is information that we would be predisposed to believe gives our personal sensibilities and opinions. This creates feedback loops where we’re just being exposed to information that we tend to believe or agree with ideologically. The new profit incentive is to keep us interacting.

[10:41] How do media outlets balance this dedication to the truth while allowing all people to access their platform?

Jordan: Facebook is shrewd enough that all of their talking points are related to democratic ideals. For example, their use of the term “voices” referees to the democratic ideal that we should allow more voices into the public discussion on an particular issue. This is a struggle for people to talk about democratic theory. While we say we are going to have “voices” involved in a conversation is not to say that this is inherently going to lead to a fruitful or productive conversation on a topic just because more sides are represented. Do we need more wars? Do we need more Alex Jones out there? Probably not. It is important to remember that outlets like Facebook benefit form having more Alex Jones type characters getting people going emotionally. This makes the media more sticky. It is interesting when they use these democratic ideals of “voices” to cover up their own interests, which is to create more emotional news which increase their profits.

[12:33] Given that, what do you see as the path forward?

Jordan: Whenever you have an explosion of new media formats and sources of information, you’re going to have an explosion of misinformation and fake news. At each time this has happened in history, the government has had to come in and regulate who can use the platforms to spread information. Therefore, those who say that the market can help clean up these news sources are simply wrong. Mostly because the markets have little financial incentive to limit certain sources of media as part of cleaning it up.

[15:36] In the Trump administration, do you see a place where government oversight can take place?

Jordan: The only way this would happen is if the democrats sweep in the midterms and the Trump administration ends up on the back end of the national mood. This would mean they would want to limit messages to try to get on the right side again. I simply don’t see this happening. The right has done a good job of making people think that regulation is simply bad across the board. It is going to be a difficult battle to get people to warm up to the idea of introducing government regulation to current mass media platforms like Facebook. The system we have today of fact checking media simply can’t keep up. For example, I heard in a recent sort of ad hoc way that we receive more information today than those alive in the 15th century would receive in an entire lifetime.

[19:17] What responsibility do journalists have in these situations?

Jordan: They have a huge responsibility. The purpose of freedom of the press has always been to limit the ability of those in power to get away with lying to the people. However, in order for them to get the public’s trust back, they have to show that they are working to find the truth rather than to protect the interest of their shareholders. The future for these journalists is at the local level. People really love their local news. While national coverage is an emotional wrestling match, it is the coverage of local affairs that people can relate to which gets them to come out and get involved in government. I think local media that can inform people of things that directly relate to them in their communities is how journalism can lead the fight against the current media climate that fake news is flourishing in.


How will we remember Charlottesville?



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.

Brad Vivian

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.

Recommended Reading

Brad’s op-ed about Charlottesville and democracy in the Philadelphia Inquirer 

Vinegar Hill neighborhood, by the Virginia Foundation for Humanities

History of Market Street Park, now known as Emancipation Park

Brad’s book, Commonplace Witnessing: Rhetorical Invention, Historical Remembrance, and Public Culture

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[2:20] What was it like growing up in Charlottesville and what went through your mind as you watched the events unfold there last summer?

Brad: It is sort of a closely held secret. It is a great college town. It has sort of this small town living with a sort of metropolitan feel to it. Sort of like State College. The town is part of this growing corridor from DC down to Richmond Virginia. A lot of those coming here to study from Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey are turning a once red state into a purple or even a light blue state.

[3:50] While you were growing up there, was the Robert E. Lee statue something people would talk about?

Brad: Everyone knew it was there but it wasn’t really a part of the discussion in the circle I was in, which consisted of the university. Surprising, after the riots, we didn’t really talk much about the statue. What we did talk about was Thomas Jefferson and his legacy there.

[6:20] What is public memory and how does it form?

Brad: It’s really a metaphor. For example, people say we have a collective memory of what the civil war was like. The way this is formed of long ago events is how they’re talked about in the immediate aftermath by those who experienced them. This then gets carried on throughout the ages. Part of these stories might have some accuracy to actual historical fact, but they don’t have to in order for this memory to form and take hold. There is a lot of fact but also mythology here. This sense of memory is very important in that it creates a personal connection to the event.

[10:00] What many don’t realize is that these statues didn’t go up until long after the end of the war. How does this speak to your concept of a public memory?

Brad: Public memory can become very political when a certain group wants to change the way that a particular story is told in public. In my view, this can be a very anti-democratic practice especially when this group tries to use the threat of force to effect this change.

[11:50] How do you have conversations around something like these monuments when so many have personal connections to wanting to protect and keep them?

Brad: One of the reasons this is so difficult to do has to do with the way the main stream media frames discussions. What the media does is light of these sorts of events is put attention towards what power holders say. In the case of Charlottesville, it was the comments by Trump that got all the attention and drove the narrative of the discussions after the event. Another problem is the softer mythology of the Civil War and its figures, such as Lee. For example, the textbooks in the south portrayed the war as a battle between two honorable sides. This is not a good framework for having a discussion as to what these statues actually mean. In order to get to important conversations such as what these statues really mean in terms of southern pride, we have to break the trend of the media coming in and setting the narrative around comments of those holding power.

[15:00] Where can people go to get these conversations away from the established narrative from the media?

Brad: One place to go would be southern black communities. There are millions in this community that don’t identify with the idea of confederate pride image of southern pride. We need to acknowledge that the south is a rather diverse place with different ideas of what the culture is and what pride of the south is.

[16:20] At what point does public memory start to form? For example, when will the memory of the events in Charlottesville begin to form?

Brad: I think it will be a relevant point for a while. Especially in black communities. I’m still concerned that we aren’t going to be able to have important conversations, such as one about the events in Vinegar Hill around the issue of desegregation. I think the people in the city will be debating this issue for a long long time. I know the city is still divided over it.


A democracy reading list



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. Here’s the rundown of the books we discuss:

And here are a few others\ we recommend but didn’t have time to discuss in this episode:

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.


Bonus: A dose of optimism about the future of democracy



If you need a sense of hope about the future of democracy, you’ve come to the right place. Stephanie Keyaka, editor-in-chief of The Underground and one of the McCourtney Institute’s Nevins Fellows, is spending the summer interning for Zeke Cohen on the Baltimore City Council. She believes Baltimore is on the cusp of something big and is doing everything she can to help bring that change to fruition.

Stephanie Keyaka
Stephanie Keyaka

Stephanie’s spent her summer canvassing in support of an amendment that will give the council and the city’s residents more control over its budget and answering calls from city residents who are looking for help for problems ranging from the serious to the mundane. During the course of those conversations, she’s had the chance to deliver some optimism about the city’s future.

The Underground is an all-digital news platform at Penn State that covers campus and community events through a multicultural lens. Stephanie sees firsthand the power of the free press in a democracy and tries to instill a sense of passion and tenacity in the reporters she oversees.

Stephanie, like all of our Nevins Fellows, is extremely bright and very well spoken. It’s hard not to feel at least a little hopeful about the future of democracy with people like her poised to take the reins.


The constitutional crisis episode



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.

Jud Mathews
Jud Mathews

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.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • 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?

Interview Highlights

[3:00] What is a constitutional crisis?

Jud: You can think of the constitution as a road map. One way to think about a constitutional crisis is that the government is going off the road or off the rails. Such a situation could be the fault of the public or it could be the fault of the document itself. For example, we might face a situation that the constitution does provide guidance for. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen very much in our system. It is also possible that the constitution does provide clear guidance, but we have a single actor who simply refused to follow this guidance and do what they want.

[4:30] Are there examples where we’ve been in such a situation in the past?

Jud: I think the biggest example that people would look at would be the secession preceding the Civil War. The constitution doesn’t really tell us what to do when a state wants to leave. This arguably led to a war over this issue. My definition is rather strict. Therefore, I wouldn’t say we’ve face many constitutional crisis type situations. One reason I’m strict on my definition is because of a potential “boy who cried wolf” problem. Here, someone complains of so many false emergencies that no one listens when there is an actual crisis. Another reason for the strict definition is that being in a crisis situation leads to serious uses of force potentially.

[7:15] We’ve heard people around the president say that he is above the law. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Jud: There is a strong respect within the constitution for the idea that while the president isn’t completely above the law, he is subject to it only through his own actions in executing the law. Under the constitution, the executive is charged with ensuring that the law is effectively carried out. Because of this, there is little the other branches can do to control the executive. While this does not mean that the executive is above the law, it is not the place of another branch, such as congress, to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the executive. Given this level of power, it’s incredibly important that the executive respect the law. To ensure this is done, there are many norms in place to sort of curtail the actions of the executive. What concerns me with this administration is at best an indifference and at worst a hostility towards these constitutional norms.

[9:42] What happens when these norms are violated?

Jud: There isn’t law about what happens when these norms are violated. However, elections can serve as a control when these norms are violated. When an executive violates a particular constitutional norm, they can be voted out of office in a following election. There is also the impeachment process. This is largely a political control option. While the constitution does spell out specifically what can be the ground for impeachment, whether the house goes through with filing charges or not is largely a political decision.

[11:00] Another view of a constitutional crisis is when one branch doesn’t follow order from another. Could you speak to a situation like this in terms of a constitutional crisis?

Jud: I think something like this with the executive not following an action by the legislative, such as overriding a presidential veto, absolutely is a constitutional crisis. However, it is possible that this stems from a legitimate dispute between the branches as to what the constitution requires. This is also a situation where there is not really a great solution or end game. Here, one branch is going to have its power limited and look inferior to another. However, if nothing is done, then we all loose as the constitution is disrespected. Something similar to this happened during the Civil War when Lincoln disregarded an order by the Supreme Court to honor the right to habeas corpus. Eventually, the country fought through it and got past it. However, the court perhaps lost some power and legitimacy as a result of the executive never really being held accountable for this.

[14:00] Today we see the events in the news greatly outpace development of the law. How do you see this impacting respect for the constitution and law?

Jud: It seems as thought our political life is on fast forward right now. I think this has a numbing effect on those who watch the legal actions of the administration.

[15:00] As a constitutional scholar, how does it make you feel to see constitutional norms being eroded?

Jud: It does make me concerned. One thing I think the president has yet to understand and respect is the fact that we have a set of legal norms to protect the proper role of constitutional governance. Many of the factors that influence constitutional governance will never see the inside of a court. These important matter will be decided by those in the administration. To ensure that these decisions are proper and respect the constitution, there is a large number of procedures in place. The president simply doesn’t show a lot of respect for these procedures. That being said, I’m confident because there are still a lot of very talented dedicated public servants in departments all around the government.


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.