Democracy Works 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 who study democracy, as well as people who are out there doing the hard work of democracy day in and day out. Democracy Works is produced by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State and WPSU Penn State, central Pennsylvania's NPR station. Hosts Michael Berkman and Chris Beem are political science professors, and host Jenna Spinelle has more than a decade of journalism experience. We aim to rise above partisan bickering and hot takes on the news to have informed, nonpartisan, thought-provoking discussions about issues related to democracy.
Democracy Works

Democracy Works

From WPSU

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 who study democracy, as well as people who are out there doing the hard work of democracy day in and day out. Democracy Works is produced by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State and WPSU Penn State, central Pennsylvania's NPR station. Hosts Michael Berkman and Chris Beem are political science professors, and host Jenna Spinelle has more than a decade of journalism experience. We aim to rise above partisan bickering and hot takes on the news to have informed, nonpartisan, thought-provoking discussions about issues related to democracy.

Most Recent Episodes

Separating news from noise

How much news is too much? Or not enough? News Over Noise, the new podcast from Penn State's News Literacy Initiative explores that question and offers guidance on how to consume news that enhances your participation in our democracy without becoming overwhelmed by all the noise on social media and the 24/7 news cycle. News Over Noise co-hosts Matt Jordan and Leah Dajches join us this week to discuss how the news impacts our mental health, the future of media literacy education, and more. Jordan is a professor of media studies Dajches is a post-doctoral researcher, both in the Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State. Listen to News Over Noise News Literacy Week- January 23-27, 2023

What we learned from our guests in 2022

We've had some incredible guests on the show in 2022. For our final episode of the year, we're taking a look back at what we've learned from them. Michael Berkman, Chris Beem, Candis Watts Smith, and Jenna Spinelle revisit our episodes with: Jake Grumbach Jeffrey Sutton Francis Fukuyama Jamelle Bouie Lilliana Mason Jon Meacham Jessica Huseman Joanna Lydgate A programming note: Democracy Works will be moving to a bi-weekly release schedule in 2023. If you have ideas for people we should be talking to or topics we should cover, please get in touch!

Where do the parties go from here?

A few days after the midterms, a Substack post from Dave Karpf caught our eye. In it, he takes up the question of how the Republican and Democratic parties should move forward after the election. This conversation covers party networks, Karpf's lessons from environmental organizing, and how to craft political messages in a changing social media environment. Karpf is an associate professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University. His work focuses on strategic communication practices of political associations in America, with a particular interest in Internet-related strategies. You might remember him as the professor who called Bret Stephens a "Bretbug" on Twitter a few years ago. Karpf's Substack, The Future, Now and Then Karpf on Twitter

The real free speech problem on campus

Across op-ed pages and Substack newsletters, college campuses have become fiercely ideological spaces where students unthinkingly endorse a liberal orthodoxy and forcibly silence anyone who dares to disagree. These commentators lament the demise of free speech and academic freedom. But what is really happening on college campuses? In his new book, Campus Misinformation, Penn State professor Brad Vivian shows how misinformation about colleges and universities has proliferated in recent years, with potentially dangerous results. Popular but highly misleading claims about a so-called free speech crisis and a lack of intellectual diversity on college campuses emerged in the mid-2010s and continue to shape public discourse about higher education across party lines. Such disingenuous claims impede constructive deliberation about higher learning while normalizing suspect ideas about First Amendment freedoms and democratic participation. Taking a non-partisan approach, Vivian argues that reporting on campus culture has grossly exaggerated the importance and representativeness of a small number of isolated events; misleadingly advocated for an artificial parity between liberals and conservatives as true viewpoint diversity; mischaracterized the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces; and purposefully confused critique and protest with censorship and "cancel culture." Vivian is a professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State. His research focuses on public controversies over collective memories of past events. He previously appeared on our show to discuss Confederate monuments following the Unite the Right really and related events in Charlottesville. Campus Misinformation: The Real Threat to Free Speech in American Higher Education Brad's first appearance on the show

Jamelle Bouie makes the case for majoritarianism

Jamelle Bouie's writing spans everything from 19th century American history to 1990s movies, but he's spent a lot of time recently thinking about America's founders, the Constitution, and the still-unfinished work of making America a multi-everything democracy. In that work, he's identified a contradiction that he believes is impeding democratic progress: "Americans take for granted the idea that our counter-majoritarian Constitution — deliberately written to constrain majorities and keep them from acting outright — has, in fact, preserved the rights and liberties of the people against the tyranny of majority rule, and that any greater majoritarianism would threaten that freedom," Bouie wrote. In this interview, we discuss that claim and why he's is looking to Reconstruction as a time that could provides lessons for our current political moment. Bouie is a columnist for the New York Times and political analyst for CBS News. He covers U.S. politics, public policy, elections, and race. Jamelle Bouie at the New York Times Bouie's lecture on "Why the Founding Fathers Still Matter" at Penn State When the People Decide - our series on ballot initiatives and direct democracy

Our conversation with Josh Shapiro [rebroadcast]

We talked with Pennsylvania Attorney General (and now Governor-elect) Josh Shapiro back in 2018, at the height of efforts by state attorneys general to block actions from the Trump administration on issues from immigration to opioids. We discuss those efforts in this conversation and the role that Shapiro sees states playing in American democracy — a new meaning to the term "states rights." Looking back, you can hear some early seeds of the themes that would emerge during Shapiro's gubernatorial campaign, particularly around his desire to fight for the people of Pennsylvania and not be afraid to get political when the circumstances demanded. We'll be back next week with a new episode featuring New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie on majoritarianism and counter-majoritarianism in American democracy.

States united for democracy

With hundreds of elections deniers running in the midterms, democracy is on the ballot this fall. The team at the States United Democracy Center is at the forefront of efforts to ensure free, fair, and secure elections in 2022, 2024, and beyond. Cofounders Norman Eisen, Joanna Lydgate, and Christine Todd Whitman join us this week to talk about how they're doing it in states across the country and how everyone can support their efforts. Through legal, policy, and communications work, States United is fighting back empowering state leaders as they defend elections. These officials are the frontline champions in the battle for our democracy. Governors help enshrine voter protection into law, and attorneys general defend those laws—along with election results. Secretaries of state oversee elections, and law enforcement leaders make sure they are safe and free from violence. States United's mission is to bring these leaders together to protect elections, prevent political violence, fight disinformation, and pursue accountability for those who step outside the bounds of our democracy. Eisen is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, former Ambassador to the Czech Republic, and Special Counsel to the White House for Ethics and Government Reform. Lydgate is the former Chief Deputy Attorney General of Massachusetts. Whitman is the former Governor of New Jersey and was the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator in the George W. Bush administration. They are the recipients of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy's 2022 Brown Democracy Medal. States United Democracy Center States United: A Survival Guide for Our Democracy - Eisen, Lydgate, and Whitman's book written as part of receiving the Brown Democracy Medal

Celebrating democracy's small victories

Amid election deniers and political polarization, it's easy to overlook the times when democracy is actually working. We do that this week in a hopeful conversation about resident-centered government. Elected officials and administrative staff like city planners often have the best intentions when it comes to development and redevelopment, but political and professional incentives push them to pursue projects that lure in outsiders rather than serving people who live in their communities. Our guest this week is Michelle Wilde Anderson, a professor of property, local government, and environmental justice at Stanford Law School and the author of The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America. The book tells the stories of revitalization efforts in Stockton, California, Josephine, Oregon, Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Detroit, Michigan. In each instance, residents organized to fix small problems that turned into large-scale change. It's a model that anyone can replicate and our democracy will be stronger for it. The Fight to Save the Town by Michelle Wilde Anderson

Climate change is everyone's fight

The conversation about climate change has come a long way from the days of polar bears and melting ice caps, but as our guest this week shares, there's still a long way to go in creating truly inclusive climate policy. In order to do that, those who are most impacted by environmental racism need to be involved in the policymaking process. Rhiana Gunn-Wright is the director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute and one of the intellectual architects of the Green New Deal. She grew up on Chicago's South Side and talks about how environmental justice shaped her life from an early age — event if she didn't know that's what it was. We also discuss how climate reform is connected to other parts of America's political system and efforts to reform democracy.

Francis Fukuyama on the promise and peril of liberalism

It's no secret that liberalism didn't always live up to its own ideals. In America, many people were denied equality before the law. Who counted as full human beings worthy of universal rights was contested for centuries, and only recently has this circle expanded to include women, African Americans, LGBTQ+ people, and others. Conservatives complain that liberalism empties the common life of meaning. As the renowned political philosopher Francis Fukuyama shows in Liberalism and Its Discontents, the principles of liberalism have also, in recent decades, been pushed to new extremes by both the right and the left: neoliberals made a cult of economic freedom, and progressives focused on identity over human universality as central to their political vision. The result, Fukuyama argues, has been a fracturing of our civil society and an increasing peril to our democracy. Fukuyama isthe Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a faculty member at Stanford's Institute on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. His previous books include Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment and The End of History and the Last Man. Liberalism and its Discontents