Democracy Works

McCourtney Institute for Democracy


Building and sustaining a democracy is hard work. It’s not glamorous and often goes unnoticed in the daily news cycle. On Democracy Works, we talk to people who are out there making it happen and discuss why that work is so important. We aim to rise ...Show More

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Brexit and the UK’s identity crisis

28:27 | Mar 11th

We’re just a few weeks away from the deadline for the UK to reach an agreement on its plan to leave the European Union. Nearly three years after the infamous Brexit vote, things appear to be as murky as ever. Rather than trying to predict the future,...Show More

Yellow vests and the “grand debate” in France

37:21 | Feb 25th

This episode is the second in our series looking at democracy around the world. France is the focus this week. Our guest is Cole Stangler, an independent journalist based in Paris who covers French politics. The yellow vest movement, named for the sa...Show More

Viktor Orbán’s “velvet repression” in Hungary

41:40 | Feb 18th

This episode begins a four-part series examining the state of democracy around the world. First up is Hungary, a country that’s often referred to in a group of countries in central and Eastern Europe that are seeing authoritarian leaders rise to powe...Show More

Jonathan Haidt on the psychology of democracy

43:51 | Mar 18th

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 comp...Show More

Using the tools of democracy to address economic inequality

36:06 | Jan 28th

Democracy and inequality have been at odds for as long as democracy as has existed. As the gap between rich and poor widens, so too does trust in political institutions and faith in democracy itself. Chris Witko, associate director of Penn State’s Sc...Show More

A playbook for organizing in turbulent times

39:23 | Mar 25th

20 years ago, Srdja Popovic was part of a revolution — literally. He was a founding member of the Otpor! movement that ousted Serbia Slobodan Milsovic from power in 1999. It’s easy to characterize social movements as a bunch of people rallying in the...Show More

How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt on the ‘grinding work’ of democracy

31:40 | Apr 10th, 2018

Daniel Ziblatt has done a lot of interviews since the release of How Democracies Die, the bestselling book he co-wrote with Steven Levitsky. But we asked him a question he’d never gotten before — about a line toward the end of the book when he refers...Show More

Future Hindsight: Ian Bremmer on the failure of globalism

32:48 | Mar 14th

We are closing out our series on democracy around the world with a bonus episode from Future Hindsight, a show that features deep conversations with guests who are engaged in strengthening our society. This episode is a discussion with Ian Bremmer, a...Show More

Brazil’s tenuous relationship with democracy

39:48 | Mar 4th

To say Brazil has had a complicated history with democracy is a understatement. The country has bounced in and out authoritarian regimes for hundreds of years, with democracy never having quite enough time to really take hold. Following the election ...Show More

A brief history of “people power”

40:38 | Feb 11th

In his book Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World, James Miller encapsulates 2500 years of democracy history into about 250 pages — making the case that “people power” will always need to be at the hea...Show More

The power of local government

42:38 | Feb 4th

No matter where you live, chances are that your local government is filled with things like feasibility studies, property tax assessments, and endless meetings governed by Robert’s Rules of Order. It’s difficult to keep track of, but yet could fundam...Show More

What is democracy? A conversation with Astra Taylor

37:59 | Jan 21st

We begin our third season with a fundamental question: What is democracy? Astra Taylor grapples with this question in her film and forthcoming book of the same name. She traveled the world and interviewed people from all walks of life. We talk with h...Show More

Trump on Earth: The Red State Paradox

30:01 | Jan 14th

We’ll be back with new episodes starting next week. This week’s episode comes to you from our friends at Trump on Earth, a podcast that’s taking a closer look at all the changes coming out of Washington on the environment — from what’s happening at t...Show More

It’s good to be counted [rebroadcast]

32:38 | Jan 7th

For this week’s rebroadcast, we revisit an episode on the U.S. Census that originally aired in May 2018. New episodes return January 21 when we talk with “What is Democracy?” director Astra Taylor. The next census won’t start until 2020, but the U.S....Show More

When states sue the federal government [rebroadcast]

31:13 | Dec 31st, 2018

Our holiday break continues this week as we bring you an episode with with Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro that originally aired in October. Happy New Year! It seems like every few weeks, we see headlines about states banding together to b...Show More

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

35:10 | Dec 24th, 2018

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. As a piece in The Atlantic recently noted, democracy is not natural. Beco...Show More

2018: The year in democracy

38:42 | Dec 17th, 2018

From gerrymandering to record voter turnout, it’s been a busy year for democracy. This doesn’t mean that everything has been positive, but there’s certainly plenty to reflect on. This week, Michael Berkman and Chris Beem take a look a look back at so...Show More

The complicated relationship between campaign finance and democracy

33:55 | Dec 10th, 2018

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

Bonus: Capturing the nation’s mood

28:06 | Dec 6th, 2018

We end almost every episode of the show with four questions that come from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Mood of the Nation Poll. Rather than simply addressing people agree  agree or disagree with a particular point of view, the poll uses ...Show More

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

32:02 | Dec 3rd, 2018

Land-grant universities were once known as “democracy’s colleges,” places where people who were not wealthy elites could earn the education necessary to make better lives for themselves and contribute to the greater social good in the process. The Th...Show More

Norman Eisen’s love letter to democracy

34:14 | Nov 26th, 2018

As we’ve previously discussed, there are a lot of books about democracy filling book store and library shelves right now. Norman Eisen could have written a book in the vein of Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky’s How Democracies Die or David Frum’s T...Show More

Winning the “democracy lottery”

40:37 | Nov 19th, 2018

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 Rev...Show More

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

39:41 | Nov 12th, 2018

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 misunder...Show More

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

32:37 | Nov 5th, 2018

With the midterms this week, all eyes are on the threat of election hacking and interference. Electoral integrity is important, but as you’ll hear in this week’s episode, the threats to American democracy go much deeper than that to the very basis of...Show More

Will Millennials disrupt democracy?

37:44 | Oct 29th, 2018

From cooking to shopping to getting around town, disruption is the name of the game for Millennials. Will they do the same thing to democracy? Millennials, or those born between 1981 and 1996, are now largest generational group in the United States. ...Show More

David Frum on developing the habits of democracy

40:25 | Oct 22nd, 2018

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 dem...Show More

When states sue the federal government

29:49 | Oct 15th, 2018

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

How “if it bleeds, it leads” impacts democracy

34:35 | Oct 8th, 2018

The problems with the prison system in the U.S. have been well documented, but what’s not talked about nearly as often is how things got this way. Why does there seem to be such enthusiasm for putting people in jail? One answer might be the shift tow...Show More

A story about democracy, told through 20 million traffic stops

31:40 | Oct 1st, 2018

The lights flash in your rearview mirror as the police car comes up behind you. A sinking feeling forms in the pit of your stomach as the officer approaches. Sound familiar?  However, this is where the story can differ greatly depending on who you ar...Show More

Breaking the silence in Syria

35:36 | Sep 24th, 2018

We’ve talked before on this show about the importance of a free press, but this week’s episode brings a whole new meaning to the term. In 2014, Abdalaziz Alhamza and his friends started social media accounts to document the atrocities being committed...Show More

Citizenship, patriotism, and democracy in the classroom

33:55 | Sep 17th, 2018

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 classroo...Show More

Behind the scenes of the “Year of the Woman”

26:46 | Sep 10th, 2018

One of the biggest headlines to emerge heading into the 2018 midterms is the record number of female candidates in local, state, and national races. While it’s easy to point to this a post-Trump reaction, there’s much more that goes into persuading w...Show More

The democrats in public sector unions (Labor Day rebroadcast)

32:08 | Sep 3rd, 2018

This week, we are rebraodcasting our conversation about public sector unions from earlier this year with Paul Clark, director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State. Paul talks about how these unions exist at at all levels of g...Show More

Middle America, Part 2: Grassroots organizing and rebooting democracy

34:49 | Aug 27th, 2018

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 co...Show More

Middle America, Part 1: Populism and the Trump Voter

33:04 | Aug 20th, 2018

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

Facebook is not a democracy

37:35 | Aug 13th, 2018

We have access to more information now than at any other time in history, but we trust that information less than ever before. A Gallup survey recently found that 58 percent of respondents felt less informed because of today’s information abundance. ...Show More

How will we remember Charlottesville?

29:35 | Aug 6th, 2018

This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the Unite The Right rally and counter protests in Charlottesville, Virginia that claimed the life of Heather Heyer and set off a firestorm around President Trump’s remarks about who was to blame for the ...Show More

A democracy summer reading list

51:44 | Jul 9th, 2018

Ah, summer. Time to kick back and relax with a good book or two. 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 convers...Show More

Bonus: A dose of optimism about the future of democracy

12:40 | Jul 5th, 2018

If you need a sense of hope about the future of democracy, you’ve come to the right place. Stephanie Keyaka, editor-in-chief of The Underground and one of the McCourtney Institute’s Nevins Fellows, is spending the summer interning for Zeke Cohen on t...Show More

The constitutional crisis episode

24:19 | Jul 2nd, 2018

This is one we’ve been wanting to do since we started the podcast. The term constitutional crisis is frequently used but often misunderstood. Like democracy, it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it. If anyone can provide a definition, it’...Show More

What public sector unions can teach us about democracy

32:08 | Jun 26th, 2018

Earlier this year, images of teachers protesting for higher wages in Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma flooded the airwaves as teachers took action against years, if not decades, of stagnant wages being asked to do more with less in the classroom. Teac...Show More

Unpacking political polarization

31:25 | Jun 25th, 2018

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. To set the record straight, we talk ...Show More

What should voting look like in the 21st century?

27:43 | Jun 18th, 2018

Across the U.S., the process to register to vote and cast a ballot is different in every state. And we’re not just talking about minor details. The entire registration process and timeline can vary widely from one state, as do the regulations surroun...Show More

When the “business of business” bleeds into politics

26:08 | Jun 11th, 2018

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. Some ...Show More

Michael Mann on the hockey stick and the future of expertise

36:48 | Jun 4th, 2018

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 ...Show More

Can young people revive civic engagement?

26:04 | May 29th, 2018

Peter Levine is one of the country’s leading scholars in the area of civic engagement. He is the Associate Dean for Research and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life and a...Show More

Bonus: Democracy In Action #1

07:25 | May 24th, 2018

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 A...Show More

A conversation about conversation

32:26 | May 21st, 2018

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 expla...Show More

Ten thousand democracies

27:36 | May 11th, 2018

One of the things we talked about in our episode with How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt is the “grinding work” that it takes to make a democracy function. School board meeting rooms around the country are some of the places where that happens...Show More

It’s good to be counted

31:47 | May 8th, 2018

The next census is still a few years away in 2020, but the U.S. Census Bureau is already hard at work on preparing to count the more than 325 million people in the United States. The census is one of the few democratic norms that’s required by the Co...Show More

Satire is good for more than just a few laughs

33:45 | May 1st, 2018

Political satire has been around nearly as long as politics itself and can provide a much needed laugh in times of crisis. But, as you’ll hear from our guests this week, it’s much more than that. Satire is a check on people in power and helps to enga...Show More

Tommie Smith: From sharecropper to Olympic protester

36:11 | Apr 24th, 2018

Tommie Smith is a true living legend. He won a gold medal in the men’s 200 meter event at the 1968 Olympics, setting a world record in the process. When he took the medal stand in Mexico City that day, he made history again by raising a black-gloved ...Show More

Generation Z and the future of democracy

35:37 | Apr 17th, 2018

Over the past few months, the members of Generation Z have combined the tenets of traditional social movements with the power of social media to reimagine what it means to protest in a democracy. That energy was on display during the March for Our Li...Show More

What can Pennsylvania voters do about gerrymandering?

26:27 | Apr 3rd, 2018

Pennsylvania received a new congressional map earlier this year, closing the books on what was widely considered one of the most egregious examples of partisan gerrymandering after 2010 census. Chris Satullo sees that decision as winning the battle a...Show More

Fake news, clickbait, and the future of local journalism

0:00 | Mar 27th, 2018

Can philanthropy save local journalism? Are the calls of “fake news” from Washington impacting the work of journalists in other parts of the country? We discuss those questions and the role of the free press in a democracy with Halle Stockton, managi...Show More

Checking the President’s power

33:10 | Mar 20th, 2018

From Watergate to Benghazi to Robert Mueller, U.S. history is full of congressional hearings. You’ve no doubt heard about them in the news, but do you know what those House and Senate committees actually do and what their role is in a democracy? We a...Show More

Is Colin Kaepernick a good democrat?

26:33 | Mar 14th, 2018

No matter how much of a sports fan you are, you probably remember seeing Colin Kaepernick kneeling during National Anthem. President Trump took the debate to a whole new level when he said that anyone who does not respect the National Anthem and the ...Show More

What is Democracy Works?

04:56 | Mar 12th, 2018

From the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, this is Democracy Works. In this episode, hosts Michael Berkman and Chris Beem take a few minutes to explain why we wanted to start this podcast and what we hope to achieve through our interv...Show More