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Democracy Works

Penn State McCourtney Institute for Democracy

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What does it mean to live in a democracy? Democracy Works seeks to answer that question by examining a different aspect of democratic life each week — from voting to criminal justice to the free press and everything in between. We interview experts w...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
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
How conspiracies are damaging democracy

36:53 | Aug 19th

From Pizzagate to Jeffrey Epstein, conspiracies seem to be more prominent than ever in American political discourse. What was once confined to the pages of supermarket tabloids is now all over our media landscape. Unlike the 9/11 truthers or those wh...Show More
Answering your questions about democracy

46:21 | Jun 24th

Is the United States really a democracy? What will the EU look like in 50 years? What should 2020 candidates be doing to demonstrate civility? Those are just a few of the questions we received from Democracy Works listeners around the country and aro...Show More
What Serial taught Sarah Koenig about criminal justice — recorded live at Penn State

33:32 | Apr 29th

Sarah Koenig spent a year inside Cleveland’s criminal justice system for season three of the Serial podcast. Along the way, she met some interesting people and had a birds-eye view of what justice (and injustice) look like for lawyers, judges, defend...Show More
Send us your questions!

02:10 | Apr 25th

We are excited to announce our first ever Democracy Works listener mailbag episode! We’ve covered a lot of ground on the show over the past year, but there’s still many more questions to answer — and we would love to hear yours. We’ll be recording th...Show More
E.J. Dionne on empathy and democracy

34:02 | Apr 15th

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...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
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
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
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
Tracing the past, present, and future of protests

26:49 | Jul 29th

Since we started this show, we’ve had the opportunity to speak with several organizers, from Joyce Ladner in the Civil Rights movement to Srdja Popovic in Serbia to the students involved with the March for Our Lives. Today, we think of protests as a ...Show More
What neoliberalism left behind

39:52 | May 27th

Much like our conversation with Patricia Roberts-Miller on demagoguery last week, neoliberalism is one of those fuzzy words that can mean something different to everyone. Wendy Brown is one of the world’s leading scholars on neoliberalism and argue t...Show More
Demagogues are more common than you think

38:42 | May 20th

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 ex...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
Michael Mann’s journey through the climate wars

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
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
Defending the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate

32:49 | Aug 12th

We are back with new episodes this week, and we’re starting with an interview that we recorded in New York City earlier this summer. David McCraw is the Deputy General Counsel of the New York Times and author of Truth in Our Times: Inside the Fight f...Show More
Standing up for science and fighting the climate wars [rebroadcast]

37:56 | Aug 5th

For the last of our summer rebroadcasts, we are revisiting the conversation with Penn State’s Michael Mann, a world-renowned climate scientist. We’ve just finished one of the hottest — if not the hottest — month in global recorded history, so it felt...Show More
A conversation about conversation [rebroadcast]

33:26 | Jul 22nd

This week, we are revisiting another episode from the Democracy Works back catalog. This discussion is a nice companion to our episode with Timothy Shaffer on civility. This episode seeks to answer one simple, but very important, question: Why is it ...Show More
Politics and Polls: Blue state federalism

37:23 | Jul 15th

Democracy Works summer break 2019 continues with an episode from Politics and Polls, a podcast produced by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. The show’s hosts are Sam Wang and Julian Zelizer. If you enjoyed ou...Show More
The Pledge: Are you scared of the cafeteria lady?

17:53 | Jul 15th

Our summer break continues this week with an episode of The Pledge, a podcast about people who are taking an active role in improving democracy in the U.S. The show’s first season features a group of women working in grassroots political organizing i...Show More
How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt on the “grinding work” of democracy [rebroadcast]

32:40 | Jul 8th

Our summer break continues this week with a rebroadcast of one of our very first episodes, a conversation with How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt. He spoke at Penn State in March 2018. Both the book and the conversation are worth revisiting, o...Show More
A democracy summer reading list [rebroadcast]

54:03 | Jul 1st

Democracy Works is taking a few weeks off for the summer. While we do, we are going to share some older episodes you might have missed, along with a few from other podcasts we think you’ll enjoy. First up is our democracy summer reading list, which w...Show More
Congressional oversight and making America pragmatic again

46:31 | Jun 17th

We tend to think about congressional oversight in very academic terms — checks and balances, the Framers, etc. But what does it actually look like on the ground in Congress? To find out, we’re talking this week with Charlie Dent, who served Congress ...Show More
Will AI destroy democracy?

39:22 | Jun 10th

Some political scientists and democracy scholars think that it might. The thinking goes something like this: inequality will rise as jobs continue to be automated, which will cause distrust in the government and create fertile ground for authoritaria...Show More
The 2019 version of Democracy in America

35:41 | Jun 3rd

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....Show More
What does the Mueller report mean for democracy?

32:37 | May 13th

By now, you’ve no doubt head all about the report issued by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the drama in Washington that’s ensued in the time since its release. But, if you only focus on the information about collusion and obstruction in the Trump...Show More
School segregation then and now

39:19 | May 6th

It’s been 65 years since the Brown v. Board of Education changed public schooling throughout a large portion of the United States. In his opinion, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that public education was important to democratic society...Show More
Is it time to revive civility?

36:06 | Apr 22nd

There are a lot of calls these days to “revive civility” in politics. While there are plenty of examples of uncivil behavior, there’s far less agreement about what civility should look like in 2019. Timothy Shaffer joins us this week to talk about wo...Show More
No Jargon: Who controls the states?

29:48 | Apr 8th

We are excited to bring you an episode from No Jargon, a podcast from the Scholars Strategy Network. Much like Democracy Works, No Jargon aims to break down some of the biggest issues in politics and society in a way that’s not partisan and not pundi...Show More
The ongoing struggle for civil rights

37:00 | Apr 8th

Joyce Ladner was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She was mentored by Medgar Evers, expelled from Jackson State University for parti...Show More
Immigration, refugees, and the politics of displacement

36:08 | Apr 1st

From Brexit to Hungary to the U.S. border wall, many of today’s political conflicts center around immigration. Moving people from one place to another is easier said than done, and as we’ve seen around world, there are inherent tensions between peopl...Show More
The most serious issue facing democracy today

04:35 | Apr 1st

It’s not populism, or declining support for journalism, or attacks on the rule of law …       …. it’s whether dogs can or should eat bananas. On Democracy Works, we take democracy seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously — as evidenced by the...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 a documentary of the same name and a forthcoming book. We talk with her this week about what she learned from traveling the world an...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 reading list

51:44 | Jul 9th, 2018

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 g...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
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
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