Tag Archives: polarization

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.


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?

Unpacking political polarization



Polarization is a term that’s thrown around among political pundits as one reason for the decline of American democracy — often without an explanation of what it really means. We’re even guilty of it on this show.

Boris Shor
Boris Shor

To set the record straight, we talk with Boris Shor, an assistant professor at the University of Houston and an expert on political polarization. Boris breaks down what polarization means, and how it looks different in the legislature and in public opinion. This is an important distinction that is often lost in the efforts to frame the narrative in a tweet or a soundbite.

He also argues that polarization is not always an negative, especially at the state level, and that it might not be time to blow up the entire party system just yet. While we hear a lot about polarization in the media and from politicians (who themselves are polarized), the rest of the country might be more in the middle than you think.

This conversation was recorded at the 2018 State Politics and Policy Conference, which was hosted by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and brought more than 100 political science scholars to Penn State.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

[4:00] What is political polarization?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When the “business of business” bleeds into politics



What is the role of a corporation in a democracy? If you asked Milton Friedman, the answer would be none at all. He famously said in the 1970s that the only corporate social responsibility a company has is to turn a profit for its shareholders.

Forrest Briscoe
Forrest Briscoe

Some 40 years later, the answer to that question looks very different. Companies are increasingly stepping up to fill what they perceive to be a void left by polarized and paralyzed government. In the past year, we’ve seen Patagonia advocating to protect national parks from the Trump administration and Dick’s Sporting Goods banning the sale of assault weapons after the Parkland shooting. These organizations wield a lot of power, both financially and in swaying public opinion.

Forrest Briscoe, a professor of management in Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, has been studying the gradual closing of the gaps between business, government, and civil society and talks with us about what it means for employees, for companies, and for consumers.

The echo chambers we experience among our friends and our media may be bleeding over into the workplace — which has some serious implications for democracy. In a tight job market, a company’s political beliefs may even be a deciding factor when someone is considering multiple job offers.

The space between business, government, and civic life is closing faster than you think. We argue that it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but something that we should be aware of as workers, consumers, and democratic citizens.

Interview Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Michael Mann on the hockey stick and the future of expertise



Michael E. Mann in the studio with Jenna Spinelle.

This episode is not about climate change. Well, not directly, anyway. Instead, we talk with Nobel Prize winner and Penn State Distinguished Professor of Meteorology Michael E. Mann about his journey through the climate wars over the past two decades and the role that experts have to play in moving out of the lab and into the spotlight to defend the scientific process.

Doing so is more important now than ever, he says, as corporation-funded think tanks continue to churn out information that deliberately sows skepticism among the public about our role in climate change. But it does beg the question: How do square the idea that in a democracy, everyone’s vote is equal but everyone’s opinion is not?

Mann was part of the team that created the now-infamous hockey stick graph that showed how quickly the rate of warming on the planet had accelerated during the latter half of the 20th century. In the 20 years since graph was published, he’s had his email hacked, been called to testify before Congress, and been hounded by Internet trolls long before social media existed.

He chronicled those experiences in his 2012 book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. Despite it all, he’s more passionate than ever about spreading the good word about science and cautiously optimistic that things might turn out ok after all.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

[6:00] In 2012, you wrote a book where you expressed cautious optimism that we were heading in a positive direction on climate change. Do you still have that same level of optimism?

Michael: Even today when there is cause of pessimism in the area of climate science, we are seeing progress on this issue at the state and local level. Also, we’re seeing progress on this issue of climate science in the private sector where corporations are taking it upon themselves to improve their practices. For example, when Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement, state and local leaders joined a pledge signifying there were still on board with the initiative. Given all of these efforts, we would still likely meet the goals under the initiative regardless as to whether we officially leave the agreement or not. However, meeting the Paris agreement is not enough to control global temperatures below dangerous levels. In order to accomplish this, we’ll have to do even more. However, we are starting to see a positive bend downward in global temperatures.

[9:00] In an era of government gridlock, we’ve seen an increase in private activism from companies and individual activist. Can you speak more to this?

Michael: This is perhaps the primary reason for optimism. In this atmosphere of hostility towards fact based discussion and action, we’ve seen a rebirth of citizen engagement on this issue. The science march in DC is a good example of this. We can’t just sit back after publishing the articles and let the government sort of figure it out. That doesn’t work anymore.

[10:30] You talk in your book about scientists having to come out and be advocates of facts. Can you speak more about that challenge?

Michael: I would have been happy to have been left alone in the lab doing what I love to do, which is scientific study and solving problems. The last thing on my agenda was the idea that I’d get in the debate over human caused climate change. It is not what I signed up for. However, whether I liked it or not, I was thrust out into the public arena when we published the hockey stick graph. It is an uncomfortable place to be. Partly because this isn’t what we’re trained for. We are trained to live in a world where facts and logic rule the day. When you leave this sphere, the rules of engagement are completely different. Here, facts and logic don’t play the same role as they do in the field of science. Here, rhetoric wins over logic. If you’re going to succeed as a scientists in this political sphere, you have to adapt how you convey information to the public in an adverse atmosphere. Over time, I’ve become comfortable in this role.

[14:00] What is the Serengeti Strategy? How was it used against you and then how did you turn it back against those who disagree with you?

Michael: It is an analogy for how critics of climate science attack those who stray from the pack of climate science. I coined that phrase after a trip to the Serengeti where we say a group of Zebras lined up side to side. Our guide informed us that this is a strategy for confusing predators. With a wall of stripes, the predators don’t have a single target to lock in on. Essentially, it is a defense strategy. The critics know they can’t take down something like an entire government panel on climate change, but they can single off a particular scientist and go after them.

[16:45] At any point during the attacks you experienced did you question what you were doing?

Michael: I was very confident in our science. Also, the fact that dozens of other studies have supported our original findings, I’m even more confident in the work we were doing at that time.

[17:30] In light of the Serengeti Strategy, is there a belief within the scientific community that you have to sort of present a unified front?

Michael: I don’t think so. There is robust within the field about different approaches to study and to solving the problem. Scientists spend most of their time arguing about advancing the science between what is known and what isn’t know. It is by disagreeing and challenging popular opinion that advances and new discoveries are reached. This is also how people get funded. However, this is often used by opposition to argue that we’re just in this for the money. That is just not the case.

Another important thing to point our is the significant of a scientific organization coming out with a definitive statement about the impact of climate change. Usually, the scientific communities strays from such strong statements. The fact that there is enough agreement from a diverse field for an institution to make this statement is something people should take note of.

[20:40] Do you have an opinion on the idea that in a democracy all votes are equal but opinions are not?

Michael: There is an attack on expertise and fact based debates. While this is a new issue broadly speaking, this is something we in the climate science community have been dealing with for years. All of the tools used against our research years ago are the same ones we’re seeing be employed today along a broad range of topics at the national level. What I think we’ve seen is that the environment around discrediting our work has metastasized to infect our entire body politic.

[24:00] What do you think is the treatment or cure for some of the problems we’re seeing in fact based debate nationally?

Michael: Ultimately, the only real solution is democracy and the democratic process. This includes people getting out to vote. If we allow special interests to continue to outweigh the voters, we’ll see a continued push back against our efforts.

[26:00] Can you speak about a time where you saw someone’s opinion on climate science change after speaking with you?

Michael: There have been some great examples. An employee of the AEI, which is a Coke brothers front group, came to the realization that he had been fighting for the side of evil. He is still a republican, but he is now trying to be on the right side of the science. I’ve come across many skeptics, which is not inherently a bad thing. All good scientists are skeptics. However, being skeptical in the fact of overwhelming evidence is not good skepticism. There have been many instances where I’ve had people come to me after a lecture and tell me that they are a least questioning their prior position. This is all we can ask for. We can’t want to replace one sort of evangelism with another. We want people to be able to critically evaluate the evidence. We have to help them to be able to do that.