Tag Archives: dialogue

What is democracy? A conversation with Astra Taylor



Astra Taylor
Astra Taylor

We begin our third season with a fundamental question: What is democracy?

Astra Taylor grapples with this question in a documentary of the same name and a forthcoming book. We talk with her this week about what she learned from traveling the world and talking with people from all walks of life. As you’ll hear, she did not set out to make a documentary about democracy, but kept coming back to that question.

Taylor is a writer, documentarian, and organizer. In addition to What is Democracy?, her films include Zizek!, a feature documentary about the world’s most outrageous philosopher, and Examined Life, a series of excursions with contemporary thinkers including Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, Cornel West, Peter Singer, and others.

A companion book, Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, will be released May 7.

Her writing has appeared in The Nation, the London Review of Books, n+1, the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Examined Life, a companion volume to the film, and the coeditor of Occupy!: Scenes from Occupied America. Her 2015 book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, won an American Book Award.

Additional Information

What Is Democracy? website

What is Democracy? release schedule

The Debt Collective

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

[5:36] Why did you want to make a film about democracy? 

I kept coming back to democracy and I think for me the big takeaway of making this film and writing the companion book that goes with it is that I’ve actually become more of us, more democrat. It’s sort of inspired a deep conviction in the concept, in the practice, and things that bothered me about the term, it’s a vagueness? What does it mean? All sorts of people say that they believe in democracy. I mean North Korea uses the word “democratic,” but it is a vague use of the word.

There’s a sense that democracy was corrupted, that it was synonymous with bureaucracy so I would have been more attracted to words like freedom, equality and justice and even socialism, a revolution. Things are really changing, we are in a very different political moment. We are in a moment when people are feeling we are in a political crisis and democracy we had for granted is declining, and people’s reaction is “I better pay attention to this thing I was ignoring”.

[8:55] Did you see people’s perception of democracy change over the course of making film?

The last week of filming was the 2016 election. I filmed for a few days after Trump’s victory and you know like most people I was surprised. I think people became more concerned with democracy. They got more sort of panicked and yet, I think what’s interesting about the film and how it turned out in the editing room is actually the footage that I shot earlier was somehow more power it didn’t lose its relevance because so many problems existed and have existed for decades. The closer we got to the moment of crisis of the election. I found that people almost couldn’t think the interviews weren’t as good because people were just in the state of panic that was not very philosophical.

[11:57] Is it a problem that people don’t have a standard definition of what democracy is?

I think the fact people have different answers is a good thing, but I actually I didn’t find that people had answers that were particularly in depth, and actually nobody said democracy was equality to me. That was a word that I sort of expected to hear but it wasn’t something I encountered. So I found that when I really engage people started asking they could have quite interesting things to say about their lives and the political situation, but when I pose directly the question “what is democracy?” their answers could be kind of cursory or there could be platitudes and I think that’s a sign, a symptom that something is wrong. That people can’t really robustly or personally explain this concept that is supposedly so essential to our society. I don’t think democracy is something people really feel they experienced in today. And that’s part of why I think people have a hard time defining it.

[14:14] How does liberalism fit into the definition of democracy?

I think at different points there was a lot more about the rule of law and sort of thinking about because I sort of thought about different sort of tensions and democracy as I was going into it and sort of rule of law or the rule of the people rights with sort of and that it just didn’t end up being the most sort of compelling issues, so there is stuff about sort of structure. Nobody uses the word “norms” but there’s stuff about structure and rules will been throughout the film in sort of who writes the rules. Part of my attempt also was to raise sort of these fundamental issues, but in language, that’s not necessarily the typical academic or philosophical language because when regular people meaning just you know, we’re all regular people but meaning non-experts, meaning those of us who read and engage the scholarly literature. I mean people bring up these issues. They just don’t use the academic or philosophical or left-wing rhetoric. I think I feel like it’s sort of hinted at but it’s just in sort of common tongue.

[16:38] Do you have a sense of where the line between democracy and populism is?

I’m still thinking through the term populism because I think there’s also another word like liberalism and like democracy. There’s a huge literature around it and it’s up for debate and I think there’s a battle over different definitions of populism and there are attempts to claim populism on the left and the right. I think the right is making them a much more successful pitch. I’ve noticed actually a lot of conservative intellectuals actually calling themselves now populists and which is interesting. This idea of popular sovereignty is in the film.

[21:26] The film spends a lot of time looking at the relationship between inequality and democracy. Did you gain any understanding through the course of making this film about how we might address inequality?

I’m definitely of the mindset that you cannot have political equality, that people cannot enjoy the political rights that they have on paper under conditions of extreme inequality. So the question though how to rein in the engines that are producing these conditions and this immense concentration of wealth is a real challenge, so I think part of the film is and that’s the work I do as an activist.

[26:53] After doing all this work for the book and the film, what does democracy mean to you?

I think democracy is a promise going back to that. But I think it’s not a promise that the powerful make and then break right, they’re not doing our democracy for us. I really think it’s a promise that can only be fulfilled by the people. Taking the time and thinking, acting, and making it as real as it can be and I don’t think it can ever just be fulfilled. It’s not something that we ever just grasp and then we get to just relax and tweak on the margins. I really think it’s a perpetual struggle. We had our founding fathers, but I think we need to be perennial midwives birthing this democracy into being.


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?

 


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.


Bonus: Democracy In Action #1



We love talking with scholars and thought leaders on Democracy Works, but we’d also like to bring you the everyday stories of democracy in action. This the first installment in that series.

We visited the central Pennsylvania chapter of Moms Demand Action and heard how they are using the power of conversation to reframe the gun debate and reinvigorating a sense of civic engagement among members. A recent meeting also included a “government 101” presentation that covered the basics of how a bill becomes a law and the best way for someone to contact an elected official.MOMS Demand Action logo

In this mini episode, you’ll hear from Lori Wieder, who is a founding member of the central Pennsylvania Moms Demand Action Chapter, and from Katie Blume, deputy political director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. Both Katie and Lori are firm believers — as we are — in the power that can come from everyone exercising their power as small-d democrats regardless of political affiliation.

Do you have a story of democracy in action? Drop us a line at democracyinst@la.psu.edu; we’d love to hear about it and consider it for a future Democracy Works episode.


A conversation about conversation



This week’s episode seeks to answer one simple, but very important, question: Why is it so hard for people to talk to each other? There are a lot of easy answers we can point to, like social media and political polarization, but there’s another explanation that goes a bit deeper.

Laurie Mulvey
Laurie Mulvey

Laurie Mulvey, executive director of World in Conversation, is the perfect person to help us explore this question. World in Conversation has facilitated more than 10,000 dialogues over the past 15 years. They bring people from all walks of life together to have dialogues about important issues from climate change to race relations. In the process, they break down the misconceptions and preconceived notions that often get in the way of one person understanding — and relating to— someone else.

Of course, most dialogues do not happen in a controlled environment with a facilitator in the room. Laurie shares some advice for how to handle your next family dinner or other situation where things might get a little heated. She also shares how the World in Conversation is preparing the next generation of democratic citizens to overcome the partisan divides that bog down political discourse.

As we say in the episode, Laurie raises the optimism quotient of this podcast quite a bit.

Interview Highlights

[6:06] Why is it so difficult for people to engage in dialogue today? 

Laurie: What I think happens is that we end up needing facilitators. Just like in sports we need referees. Here they would be dialogue referees.

[6:55] What are the elements of a good dialogue?

Laurie: Candidness and disagreement with respect is important. Having mutual respect is especially important. When we don’t talk with an understanding of each other’s positions they aren’t as productive and they don’t show us as much.

[14:00] What impact do you think social media has had on our ability and willingness to engage in dialogue? 

Laurie: Personally, I don’t notice much of a difference. We actually have a lot of conversations. However, they’re either with like minded people or they are a “hit and run” type conversation with people who don’t think like us. The only change that social media has brought is that we’re doing this with people from our living rooms.

[15:40] We have seen our culture become more polarized politically. Have you seen this reflected in the conversations you lead?

Laurie: We try to find polarizing topics and get different sides represented in our conversations. Therefore, I’m not sure if we see an increase in the extent of the polarization. Actually, we try to get people in our conversations to say the things that are controversial. At this point, the polarization becomes apparent. However, I don’t think this is real. I dont’ think most people live in this polarity that we like to talk about.

[17:40] How can we take the work you’ve done working with conversations and apply it in the real world such as at dinner table talks?

Laurie: It is important to be in the mindset for listening. The mindset you need to be in is ‘tell me something I dont’ already know’. However, I strongly believe that even in these settings we need a facilitator to help navigate the conversation.

[19:24] What skills does someone need to be a good facilitator? 

Laurie: Fundamentally, you have to be able to talk all sides. You have to find what is true in all sides of a conversation. As long as you can do that, you can sort of fumble through everything else.

[20:22] Is there a certain point in a conversation where you would advise people to end a conversation? 

Laurie: I think we all know intuitively that there is a time to end a heated conversation.

[21:30] Given all of the conversations you’ve been a part of, are there any memories that really stick out?

Laurie: There was one conversation between Israelites and Palestinians where one guest from Palestine said he couldn’t even go in the room. But by the end of his time working with me his greatest challenge was that he came to understand so much about the Israelis perspective that he wasn’t sure what it meant given his position as a Palestinian. I do the work because the people who have the hardest positions will get the most out of it.