Tag Archives: polarization

The 2019 version of Democracy in America



Lindsay Lloyd of the George W. Bush Presidential Center
Lindsay Lloyd. Photo by Grant Miller

If Alexis de Tocqueville visited America today, what would he have to say about the condition of our democracy?

We hear a lot in the news and on Twitter about how support for democracy is waning. We’re perhaps even a little guilty of it on this show. But, what do everyday Americans think? Some of the biggest names in politics from across the ideological spectrum teamed up to find out. The Democracy Project, an initiative of the George W. Bush Center, Penn Biden Center, and Freedom House, found that people support the ideal of democracy, but worry that the United States is not living up to that ideal in practice due to factors like economic inequality and the decline of civics education.

Lindsay Lloyd, director Bush Center’s Human Freedom Initiative and part of The Democracy Project, joins us this week to discuss the report and what its findings mean for citizens across the United States. We’ve collaborated with the Bush Center on several projects in the past few months and highly recommend checking out their podcast, The Strategerist.

Additional Information

The Democracy Project report

Our episodes on economic inequality and civics education

The Strategerist podcast from the Bush Center

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • How does your perception of democracy align with The Democracy Project’s findings?
  • What do you make of the report’s recommendations for action?
  • Do you agree with Lindsay that there is strong support for democracy-based initiatives in Congress?
  • What role should the U.S. play in promoting democracy in other countries?
  • Have your feelings about democracy changed since 2016? Or 2018?

Interview Highlights

[5:19] What is the Democracy Project and how does it relate to the Bush Center’s mission?

The Bush Center opened in 2009 and one of the areas we work in is democracy and human rights. Historically, it’s been focused outside the United States. A few years ago, we noticed that something was happening in American democracy regarding partisanship and wanted to see what we could do about it. We partnered with the Penn Biden Center and Freedom House and launched a public opinion project related to American democracy. We did focus groups with constituent groups around the country, as well as a national public opinion poll.

[7:10] How are people feeling about the state of democracy in the U.S.?

There was a flurry of articles in early 2017 suggesting that people living in democratic societies were looking for alternatives, particularly among young people. We did not find that in our survey. The people we talked to overwhelmingly felt it was important to them to live in a democracy. On the flip side, our respondents felt that America’s democracy was weak and getting weaker and isn’t delivering in the way it traditionally had.

[9:04] What role do you see the Bush Center playing in addressing the issues identified in the research?

The second half of the survey covered perceptions of democracy outside the U.S. We’re starting a bipartisan working group to look at support for democracy and human rights overseas. It’s taken a hit under the Trump administration and we believe it’s important that the U.S. speak out when human rights abuses are happening and continue to support democracy around the world. Our adversaries are advocating for authoritarianism and democracies need to advocate for their point of view. We found that respondents agreed and found that having a more democratic world makes America safer and makes the world safer.

[11:35] Who do you see as your allies in this work?

There’s still strong support across party lines in Congress for democracy-related initiatives. The Trump administration proposed cutting the budget for groups like the National Endowment for Democracy and Congress has put it back in and, in some cases, increased funding. Newer democracies are also very interested in this work, countries that were formerly under authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.

[16:25] President Trump is not mentioned anywhere in the report. Did he come up at all in the focus groups?

We intentionally did not ask about approval of the President because it’s not a political poll. He did come up in the focus groups, including one group of people who supported the President in 2016 and another group who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. His name came up early and often, but nothing particularly surprising. The President has some strong supporters and some strong detractors. But, it’s also important to remember that democracy is about more than what happens in the White House. Democracy needs to deliver at the local level, or else confidence in the system suffers.

[19:58] Did you see any evidence of polarization in your work? Is it still possible to find middle ground?

One of the complications is that people think that getting rid of partisanship means everyone needs to agree with them. It’s of grave concern, but we did still hear from people who were in the middle. It’s much less of a concern at the local level, where local officials are often nonpartisan. There’s frustration across the board that Washington can’t solve problems. Ideas are examined based on who’s proposing them, rather than on their merits. In the end, most people don’t care who’s behind a proposal, they just want to see it get done. Both of the parties have seen a hollowing out — the days of Rockefeller Republicans and blue democrats are largely gone. One way people change that is by voting in primaries for candidates who support compromise and trying to find middle ground on issues.


Demagogues are more common than you think



Patricia Roberts-Miller
Patricia Roberts-Miller

When you think of the word “demagogue,” what comes to mind? Probably someone like Hitler or another bombastic leader, right? Patricia Roberts-Miller is a rhetoric scholar and has spent years tracing the term and its uses. She joins us this week to explain a new way of thinking about demagoguery and how that view relates to democracy. She also explains what she’s learned from what she describes as years of “crawling around the Internet with extremists.”

Patricia is a Professor of Rhetoric and Writing and Director of the University Writing Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of two new books on demagoguery. Demagoguery and Democracy is a short book in the style of On Tyranny that covers the basics of her argument in about 100 small ages. Rhetoric and Demagoguery is a longer, more academic book for those looking for more on the rhetorical roots of demagoguery and its relationship to democratic deliberation.

Additional Information

Patricia’s books: Demagoguery and DemocracyRhetoric and Demagoguery

Patricia’s website

Episode on civility with Timothy Shaffer of Kansas State University

A note to our listeners in the New York City area: Jenna Spinelle will be participating in a panel called “Podcasts to the Rescue! An Emerging Medium for Learning About Civics, Government, and the Social Contract” on Thursday, May 30 at the Metropolitan New York Library Council. The event is free and open to the public. We would love to meet you!

Discussion/Reflection Questions

  • After listening to Patricia, do you feel better equipped to notice demagoguery in media you consume, or even in your own language and writing?
  • What do you see as the relationship between demagoguery and democracy?
  • Do you see parallels between the increase of demagoguery and the decline of civility we discussed with Timothy Shaffer?
  • Can you think of a time when you’ve tried to appreciate the other side’s point of view in a conversation or something you read? Did doing so change your perspective?

Interview Highlights

[5:18] How do you define demagoguery and why is it bad for democracy?

It’s useful to think about it as reducing all political issues or even all issues to questions of identity. And specifically in-group versus out-group. And it’s oriented toward providing a lot of certainty and reducing nuance. When you have a culture that is reasoning about everything in that way, you can’t actually explore multiple solutions. What I have to say about demagoguery in politics is pretty similar to what people will say about how a business should come up with a good business plan or how people should make decisions about health. It’s just better decision making.

[7:04] How does the media landscape influence the culture of demagoguery you describe?

We’re in an economy of attention and what matters most is w- whether you are doing things that get viewers and get likes, and get clicks and shares, and all that. It’s extremely difficult to do a good argument on Twitter, one that takes into consideration the nuance of a situation, what other people have said, represents the opposition fairly.

[10:44] Why is demagoguery so often associated with political leaders?

Because demagoguery is about reducing politics to identity. And so if you’re thinking about politics in terms of identity you’re going to be looking for a person on whom you can blame bad politics. And it better not be you. Right? So I think that’s one reason that we really like that notion the demagogue who is the source of all of our problems. And often when you have a culture of demagoguery, at some point somebody will come up.

[13:14] What are some strategies people can use to identify demagoguery?

We assume that demagoguery is going to be vehement, and we assume it’s going to be aggressive. And so we have a tendency to make that judgment on the basis of affect. The affect of the person speaking, but also our own. Do we feel threatened? And if we don’t feel threatened then we’re not likely to think of it as demagoguery. So I think, but what that means is that you don’t recognize the demagoguery on behalf of your in-group. People have to perspective shift and imagine how would we feel about this if we were in the other group? Would we feel threatened by it under those circumstances? How would we feel if exactly that same argument was made about our group? Um, how would we make, how would we feel about that kind of argument? Would we assess it as a rational argument if it was made on the part of the opposition?

[16:16] Is there ever a time when it’s not worth trying to understand the other person or side’s point of view?

One of the things you always have to figure out about anyone you’re interacting with is whether they are open to change and persuasion. One of the problems with conspiracy theories is by definition they’re not. They have a way of discounting any kind evidence that doesn’t conform to their beliefs. Often, the people don’t believe in climate change have an almost 19th century notion about a scientist is, and what science is. So if a mechanical engineer tells them that climate change is a hoax they’re like, “There’s a scientist who doesn’t believe in it.” Without understanding that a mechanical engineer is not actually an expert on either of those areas.Sometimes I get really interesting insights into people’s beliefs from doing that. And sometimes it’s sort of like kicking over a rock and just going, “Ew.”

[21:50 ] Do you think we’ll be able to move beyond the “us vs. them” rhetoric to a more deliberative model?

I’m really worried, but I’m hopeful that at least Facebook is starting to take this really seriously, and try to think through some better strategies that they have. What we actually need to emphasize is understanding other points of view. Instead of just relying on the facts I’ve been given by my in-group, to see what the facts are on other sides. And to see, especially why they reject the facts.


E.J. Dionne on empathy and democracy



E.J. Dionne

E.J. Dionne has the unique perspective of studying the horse race and the big picture of American politics. He writes a twice-weekly column for the Washington Post and appears regularly on NPR, but he’s also a senior fellow at Brookings and professor in Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University.

We talked with him about the relationship between partisan politics and democracy, the need for empathy across the political spectrum, and a few policy ideas to help make America more democratic. We could have talked all day and hope to return to some of these topics in future episodes.

Additional Information

E.J.’s Washington Post columns

E.J.’s lecture at Penn State 

E.J.’s paper on universal voting for Brookings

Chris Beem’s TED talk on how young people can improve democracy

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

[3:52] In One Nation After Trump, you wrote that a partisan response was required to protect democratic values. What did you mean by that?

Trump had done something to our politics that was very dangerous and needed to be reversed, and given that the Republican Party had chosen almost to a person (with a couple of exceptions in Congress) to support Trump, the only way to hit back, to create any sense of accountability, was to give at least one house of Congress to Democrats. There a lot of people out there who aren’t necessarily partisan Democrats, who aren’t necessarily liberals or lefties, who believe that there are abuses here that need to be checked, and that there is a threat to democracy that needs to be reversed, and that’s exactly what happened after the 2018 midterms.

[5:19] Should that approach continue heading into 2020?

My view is that the Republican party has moved to a point where it needs a real rebuke in order to look inside itself and analyze where they want to continue to be.

[6:54] ]What happens to the people who are conservative but don’t may be aligned with where the Republican party is currently?

I think there are still a lot of conservatives who made a deal that they think is still worth making on behalf of low taxes deregulation and Supreme Court appointments. There is a pattern in which some districts that 30 or 40 years ago would happily have sent a moderate Republican to the house are now sending Democrats.

[11:00] You’ve also called for making America empathetic again. Have you seen any indication that it’s happening?

Yes, I have seen it in the reactions of the people when the Muslin ban. The number of people who rush to the airports over the Muslim ban and people who may not have met a Muslim in their life and said “wait a minute, this isn’t who we are.” There is also the reaction of the people to the kids being taken away from their parents at the border. I think we’ve taken some steps forward, but we still have a lot of work to do.

[12:51] What can people do to develop a sense of empathy?

Chris Beem gave a TED talk in which he said we need people to do three things. First, people need to tell the truth. Second, they need to engage in democratic humility, and third, people need to join an organization. I think one of the terrible things about the Trump age is that the division is so deep that friends who disagree about politics don’t even talk about politics anymore because they’re afraid of busting the friendship, and that’s a problem.

[14:54] Why do you think it’s so hard for people to have constructive arguments?

I think some of it is that our allegiances are all aligned together in a package. So people’s political commitment and people’s party commitments are aligned with their ideological commitments or often aligned with their religious commitments that includes people who are religious or secular combined with where they live. The “big sort” argument and many things combined in one party has come to stand for it.

[16:00] How we can make civil society work given the world we live in today?

I think we people need ways in which they can get together face-to-face and do things together. Sports teams are part of that, by the way. There is enormous life in civil society when where kids sports are concerned about it. What I want to tell to my conservative friends is: I’m with you, I want a stronger cvil society, but you have to acknowledge the cost of inequality and the cost of economic collapse.

[19:08] Can you give us an overview of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact?

We have a problem in our country that’s going to keep growing with the Electoral College. Since 2000, we’ve had just two elections where the Electoral College went against the popular vote. The way in which population is getting concentrated in big states, the over-representation of low population states in the Electoral College will get even greater. This is a problem for democracy and you can’t change it very easily under the Constitution.

[22:26] You’ve also worked on what you describe as universal voting. Can you explain what that is and how it might work?

This idea comes from Australia. Australia has compulsory attendance at the polls, but not the United States. I’m working on an initiative with Miles Rapoport at the Ash Center at Harvard on this. We’re trying to see what would this look like If we did it in the United States. Our theory is if you can ask people to serve on juries, if you can ask people for going to say to potentially give their lives in war, then asking people to vote is not an over ask for civic life. It finally reverses the role of local officials. They can’t suppress the vote anymore. Their job is to help make it as easy as possible for all the people in the country to vote.


Jonathan Haidt on the psychology of democracy



Jonathan Haidt
Jonathan Haidt

We say on this show all the time that democracy is hard work. But what does that really mean? What it is about our dispositions that makes it so hard to see eye to eye and come together for the greater good? And why, despite all that, do we feel compelled to do it anyway? Jonathan Haidt is the perfect person to help us unpack those questions.

We also explore what we can do now to educate the next generation of democratic citizens, based on the research Jonathan and co-author Greg Lukianoff did for their latest book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

Jonathan is social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. His research examines the intuitive foundations of morality, and how morality varies across cultures––including the cultures of American progressive, conservatives, and libertarians.

One last thing: This week marks the first anniversary of Democracy Works! We are thrilled that the show has caught on with listeners around the world and are excited to bring you even more great episodes in year two. If you’d like to give the show a birthday present, consider sharing it with a friend or leaving a rating or review in your podcast app.

Additional Information

Jonathan’s books:

OpenMind 

Heterodox Academy

New York Times article on free play and democracy

Discussion/Reflection Questions

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

Interview Highlights

[4:32] Why is democracy so hard to practice?

Haidt: In the 20th century we developed this obsession with democracy and I think it’s because we fought a war to defend democracy and World War I and then we did it again in World War II and we were thinking that democracy is the greatest thing in the world. Then in the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapses, It was clear that democracy won and there is no alternative into the end of history and every country as it developed is going to become a free market liberal democracy just like us. And we were wrong we were fooled. Democracy is a lot harder and lot less stable than we thought. Now it’s clear that’s the case.

[7:12] Are there other things about the way we’re wired as people that make it so difficult to carry out democracy in practice?

Haidt: Our founding fathers knew we were not rationals and we don’t relate to any people and that’s why you don’t want to have something that’s too, democratic because especially when there are hard times somebody’s going to come along and tell you the reason for our troubles is them, and it’s really easy to rally people to hate them and then attack them and kill them.

[9:42] What motivates people to continue practicing democracy?

Haidt: Tocqueville noted how we individualists come together very quickly and easily to solve problems, that was what he noted was really unique about us. So we’ve always been a democratic people in that sense. We’re ready to take things into our own hands, solve problems and, um, America in the, in the, you know, 20th century, we certainly see many cases of activism that were like that and that worked. Um, of course, taking things into your own hands can also lead to riots and violence.

[11:49] Can you talk about how you see the way that we’ve organized ourselves into political parties here in the U.S.?

Haidt: I think the worst number of political parties to have in a country is one, but the second worst number is two. Research shows that if you simply have three combatants, then the hatred of each for the other is much less. We have two parties and anyone who was psychologically disposed to leftism or progressivism is now a Democrat, and anyone who was psychologically predisposed to conservatism or traditionalism or stability is now Republican. My colleagues and I came up with a theory called the Moral Foundations Theory, which has five features of every society:

  • Care vs. harm
  • Fairness vs. cheating
  • Loyalty vs.betrayal
  • Authority vs. subversion
  • Sanctity vs. degradation

[17:12] Where do these moral foundations stand today?

Haidt: Moral foundations never change, that’s the whole metaphors at their foundations. A moral or political order is a consensual hallucination. We hallucinate it together. We pretend that it’s real. It becomes real, we live in it, and we get angry within it.

[24:42] What do you think about calls for restoring civility?

Haidt: It’s absolutely the right approach, we need to restore that, but just saying it and signing some pledges we are not going to reach a change in civility. We’re not going to get very far by just doing this. I think we’re going to get really far by changing the path that the elephant is on.

[28:01] What’s the relationship between free play and democracy?

Haidt: The way to learn social skills that are essential for a democracy is through free play, and it has to be unsupervised. If there’s an adult there to settle disputes, you learn how to appeal to adults instead of learning to figure things out for yourself. Gen Z is the first generation in American history that was deprived of childhood. We freaked out in the 90s and thought even though the crime rate was plummeting and actually the crime wave ended in the 90s. Americans began to think because we’re frightened out of our minds by media, that if we ever take our eyes off our kids outside they will be abducted, and so in the 90s, we stopped letting kids out to play.

[29:35] How will this impact the way Gen Z views democracy?

Haidt: I think democracy is or democracy is in real danger now, but when Gen Z becomes more politically active, you know so in the 20, 30s when they’re the largest group let’s say, um I think our ability to govern ourselves will be much harder.

[32:54] What can we do to reverse this trend?

Haidt: The first thing is we have to give kids back childhood to create more resilient kids. We have to stop overprotecting kids. We have to let them develop skills. Secondly, I think we have to educate kids as if democracy was fragile. We have to be teaching skills of democratic engagement. I think that high schools should be teaching politics in a very different way. That is, teachers and social studies teachers in particular tend to be on the left. They either don’t teach anything about conservatism or they some of them let their politics intrude um and I think we should be teaching great respect for the long philosophical traditions of left and right, and then teaching skills of democratic discourse.

 


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?

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.


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.


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’s journey through the climate wars



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.