Category Archives: Democracy in Action

Bonus: A dose of optimism about the future of democracy



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 the Baltimore City Council. She believes Baltimore is on the cusp of something big and is doing everything she can to help bring that change to fruition.

Stephanie Keyaka
Stephanie Keyaka

Stephanie’s spent her summer canvassing in support of an amendment that will give the council and the city’s residents more control over its budget and answering calls from city residents who are looking for help for problems ranging from the serious to the mundane. During the course of those conversations, she’s had the chance to deliver some optimism about the city’s future.

The Underground is an all-digital news platform at Penn State that covers campus and community events through a multicultural lens. Stephanie sees firsthand the power of the free press in a democracy and tries to instill a sense of passion and tenacity in the reporters she oversees.

Stephanie, like all of our Nevins Fellows, is extremely bright and very well spoken. It’s hard not to feel at least a little hopeful about the future of democracy with people like her poised to take the reins.


What should voting look like in the 21st century?



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 surrounding campaign finance and electoral maps.

Kathy Boockvar
Kathy Boockvar

Pennsylvania tends to fall on the more restrictive side of things, and Governor Tom Wolf is trying to change that. Earlier this year, he announced the 21st Century Voting Reform Plan, which includes same day voter registration, changes to the absentee ballot process, as well as campaign finance reform.

Kathy Boockvar, Senior Advisor to the Governor on Election Modernization, has spent the past few months traveling to each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to build consensus the plan. We talked with her about using technology to increase voting access without compromising voter data in the process, and about the criticism from Pennsylvania Republicans that the voting reform plan is a convenient tactic for a Democratic governor in an election year.

While this episode talks specifically about Pennsylvania, the compromises that must be made across counties and municipalities exists everywhere and is indicative of why states are sometimes referred to as “laboratories of democracy.” It’s also an insight into the hard work that it takes to make large-scale change to one of the most fundamental parts of democracy.


Michael Mann on the hockey stick and the future of expertise



Michael E. Mann in the studio with Jenna Spinelle.

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

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

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

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


Bonus: Democracy In Action #1



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 Action and heard how they are using the power of conversation to reframe the gun debate and reinvigorating a sense of civic engagement among members. A recent meeting also included a “government 101” presentation that covered the basics of how a bill becomes a law and the best way for someone to contact an elected official.MOMS Demand Action logo

In this mini episode, you’ll hear from Lori Wieder, who is a founding member of the central Pennsylvania Moms Demand Action Chapter, and from Katie Blume, deputy political director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. Both Katie and Lori are firm believers — as we are — in the power that can come from everyone exercising their power as small-d democrats regardless of political affiliation.

Do you have a story of democracy in action? Drop us a line at democracyinst@la.psu.edu; we’d love to hear about it and consider it for a future Democracy Works episode.


A conversation about conversation



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 explanation that goes a bit deeper.

Laurie Mulvey
Laurie Mulvey

Laurie Mulvey, executive director of World in Conversation, is the perfect person to help us explore this question. World in Conversation has facilitated more than 10,000 dialogues over the past 15 years. They bring people from all walks of life together to have dialogues about important issues from climate change to race relations. In the process, they break down the misconceptions and preconceived notions that often get in the way of one person understanding — and relating to— someone else.

Of course, most dialogues do not happen in a controlled environment with a facilitator in the room. Laurie shares some advice for how to handle your next family dinner or other situation where things might get a little heated. She also shares how the World in Conversation is preparing the next generation of democratic citizens to overcome the partisan divides that bog down political discourse.

As we say in the episode, Laurie raises the optimism quotient of this podcast quite a bit.


Ten thousand democracies



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 at the grassroots level.

Robert Asen
Robert Asen

If you’ve ever been to a school board meeting, you know that they’re not always exciting. However, the work that these boards do directly impacts the schools, the children who attend them, and the community at large. Board positions are not full-time and the people who hold them are rarely career politicians. Rather, they’re everyday citizens who want to make an impact — exactly the type of people come together to make democracy work.

We talk about the role that school boards play in a democracy with Robert Asen, a professor of rhetoric, politics, and culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Asen is the author of Democracy, Deliberation and Education, which is based on a yearlong study of three school boards in Wisconsin. While the examples he references are specific to Wisconsin, it’s easy to hear the conversations and deliberations playing out at schools across the country.

Asen visited Penn State to deliver the 2018 Kenneth Burke lecture in the McCourtney Institute’s Center for Democratic Deliberation.


Satire is good for more than just a few laughs



Political satire has been around nearly as long as politics itself and can provide a much needed laugh in times of crisis.

Sophia McClennen
Sophia McClennen

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 engage the public around issues that might otherwise go unnoticed — both of which are essential for a healthy democracy.

But, are we reaching a place where the comedy has become the news? The success of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and most recently John Oliver suggest that we might be heading in that direction. What about fake news? It’s all fun and games until you can’t tell the real news from the satire, and that’s concerning.

On the bright side, people who consume satire tend to be more well-informed about politics than those who do not, suggesting that one needs a solid foundation of what the news actually is in order to get the jokes that are being made about it.

Steve Brodner
Steve Brodner

We discuss the current state of political satire and where it might be heading with Sophia McClennen and Steve Brodner.

Sophia, a Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at Penn State, writes regularly for Salon and recently appeared on StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Steve is a cartoonist at caricaturist who has drawn every president since Ronald Regan. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and The Washington Post just to name a few.


Tommie Smith: From sharecropper to Olympic protester



Tommie Smith with the Democracy Works podcast team (Jenna Spinelle, Michael Berkman, Chris Beem)

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 fist during the National Anthem.

As you’ll hear, Tommie didn’t grow up in a political family and didn’t see himself as an activist when he enrolled at San Jose State University. That changed when he met Dr. Harry Edwards and became involved with Olympic Project for Human Rights, where he found his voice and used it to speak out against racial segregation in sports and elsewhere.

When Tommie and teammate John Carlos raised their fists on the podium in Mexico City, many interpreted the gesture as a symbol of the Black Power movement. However, as Tommie says, the action was not necessarily about one cause or movement. Rather, it was a symbol of a broader struggle for power and equality.

Tommie visited Penn State as part of a yearlong look at the events of 1968 organized by the College of the Liberal Arts.

For more on the relationship between athletes and protests, check out our episode with Abe Khan, who has studied this topic extensively and draws comparisons between Smith and modern-day athletes like Colin Kaepernick.


Generation Z and the future of democracy



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 Lives events held around the world on March 24.

Kayla Fatemi speaks at the State College March for Our Lives event.
Kayla Fatemi speaks at the State College March for Our Lives event.

We interviewed several students from State College, Pennsylvania (where our podcast is based) who attended March for Our Lives events locally and in Washington, D.C. They speak passionately and articulately about what they believe in and how they’re working to carry forward the energy they’ve created.

In this episode, you’ll hear from:

  • Kyra Gines and Kayla Fatemi, high school students who organized the March for Our Lives in State College.
  • Lilly Caldawell and Lena Adams, who organized a walk out at their middle school.
  • Hannah Strouse and Cian Nelson, who attended the March for our Lives in Washington, D.C.

If what we saw and heard from these students is any indication, the future of our democracy looks very bright.


What can Pennsylvania voters do about gerrymandering?



Chris Satullo
Chris Satullo

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 against gerrymandering, but not the war.

Satullo, a civic engagement consultant for the Committee of Seventy, is involved with several initiatives to sustain the changes that were enacted this year and ensure that a fair map is drawn after the 2020 census.

The Committee of Seventy works closely with two organizations, Fair Districts PA and Draw the Lines PA. Fair Districts is a nonpartisan grassroots advocacy group working to ensure that the map doesn’t revet back to a gerrymandered state in 2021, while Draw the Lines aims to “fix the bug in the operating system of democracy” by empowering students and other groups to draw new maps.

We talked with Chris about how Pennsylvania’s map became so gerrymandered, what drove the desire to change it, and how people across the Keystone State can get involved with the effort to create a better map. In many ways, this effort embodies the essence of Democracy Works — people coming together build something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

For more from Chris, check out his podcast, 20 by Seventy.

Interview Highlights

[5:50] What are Committee of 70, Fair Districts Pennsylvania, and Draw the Lines Pennsylvania, and how do those groups work together?

The Committee of 70 is a non-profit that is Pennsylvania’s oldest “good government group” founded more than 100 years ago in Philly. Fair Districts PA is a grassroots organization that was formed about a year and a half, two years ago, to work specifically on the redistricting, anti-gerrymandering front. Draw the Lines PA is a new initiative of us here at Committee of 70 which looks to connect with and support and sustain the work of Fair Districts PA.

[8:04] Why did it take so long for this effort to come to fruition, to get the map changed?

What changed dramatically in the last twenty years is the advent of computer technology and big data. Mapping software and big data about individual voters buying habits, not just election and political habits.

[9:44] If the 2016 election had gone a different way, would we be sitting here talking about this right now?

I’d like to assure you that Committee of 70, and I personally would’ve been talking about this issue because, it’s been a concern of mine as a journalist covering these legislatures for a long time.

[12:34] So what are you hoping people will do [with the map tools]? Why should people want to take part in this work?

What we want to show people is that, if you have the right tools in your hand, it is not difficult, in fact it is relatively easy, to draw a common sense map of Pennsylvania.

[15:06] How does the product of all this work make its way to the people who are responsible for what the states new map will look like?

A big focus of Draw the Lines will be getting this opportunity and this software and these tools into classrooms across Pennsylvania, both secondary school and colleges, professional schools, law schools and the like.  

 

[19:40] Do you think we’re heading for a crazy decade ahead of maps changing all the time and all these challenges, and people not knowing what’s what or where their districts are or where things stand?

In the short term, yes, a lot of confusion. In the long term, I think what we’re seeing is the first glimmers of voters beginning to realize how significant this issue is in how disappointed and frustrated they are with what they get out of their State governments and out of Washington D.C.

[21:00] If people only have to time to do one thing, what should that be?

Right now they should contact their representatives in the State Legislature, both Senate and House, and tell them they want them to vote for the Constitutional Amendment.


Fake news, clickbait, and the future of local journalism



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, managing editor of PublicSource in Pittsburgh.

Halle Stockton
Halle Stockton

PublicSource is a nonprofit journalism organization in the style of ProPublica, funded primarily by Pittsburgh’s foundation community. Halle talks about how PublicSource’s funding model impacts its reporting, ways that the organization is breaking the fourth wall to engage with readers, how the team responds to allegations of “fake news” while doing in-depth reporting, and why they’ll never write clickbait.

Halle is a Penn State alumna and was the 2018 Hearst Visiting Professional in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.

Interview Highlights

[6:00] What is PublicSource and what is your role there?

Public Source is a non-profit independent, digital first media organization, so in human speak that means that we are focused on in depth and investigative journalism in the Pittsburgh region.

[7:37] How does PublicSource fit into Pittsburgh’s media landscape?

Public Source is fitting in in a way that people are seeing it as a more straightforward platform for the type of news that they’re not getting elsewhere and the type of voices they’re not getting elsewhere.

[8:48] What role does the community itself play in that, in terms of feedback you get?

We engage with the community quite a bit via social media but also in person. A couple of the ways that we interact with people, are one, through educational events we call citizens tool kits.

 

[13:35] How do you strike the balance between catching people’s attention and writing hard-hitting stories?

We’re never going to fall victim to clickbait. That’s just something that we’ve decided we cannot do. We firmly believe that people’s stories, seeing other people going through things is catchy enough.

[14:50] Are you and your team feeling the impact of the attacks agains the media that are coming from Washington?

Surprisingly enough, even in Pittsburgh, it started off as sources kind of laughing about it like “oh are you the fake news?” but even in the past few months when we’ve had some really important stories drop, those institutions who we’ve pressured in those stories through our reporting, we have heard rumors about them trying to cast us as fake news.

[16:38] What role do foundations play at PublicSource?

There’s a firewall between, just like in newspapers, between business and news, there’s a firewall between foundations and news, although it’s not totally the same.

[19:06] What impacts have you seen from your reporting?

One of the most recent ones was with Chatham University, it’s a small university in Pittsburgh, it used to be all female, and recently moved to co-ed, and we reported on a policy in their honor code. It was a policy that treated self-harm as a disciplinary matter. The stories of students who had been expelled or dismissed from campus housing for incidents of self-harm, suicidal ideation, and suicidal attempts , those had been never told.When we put tit [the story] out, within 24 hours the university launched a task force to review it [the policy].

[21:18] Where do you see PublicSource going looking forward?

There are a lot of opportunities. Right now, we’re really focused on the Pittsburgh region. I think in the future there’s opportunity and possibility that we could have somebody in Harrisburg covering state governmental issues in the Public Source way.


Is Colin Kaepernick a good democrat?



Abe Khan
Abe Khan

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 flag should be fired.

Kaepernick and those who followed him are the most recent example of athletes using their sports as a means to protest, but history is filled with others who have come before them.

In this episode, we talk with Abe Khan, assistant professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and African-American Studies at Penn State, about the impact Kaepernick’s actions had on NFL culture and the broader role that protest plays in a democracy.

Michael Berkman and Chris Beem draw parallels between modern-day sports protests and Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights protests, and discuss the public’s feelings on protests as reported in the McCourtney Institute’s Mood of the Nation Poll.

Interview Highlights

[6:28] Help us remember what happened with Colin Kapernick and where the issues have gone from there:

Kapernick’s first kneel came at the end of August in 2016, it was actually at the end of a preseason football game. It actually didn’t start as a kneel.

He used two phrases that came, at least in my mind, to define the substance of the protest. One is, bodies in the street.And the other is people getting away with murder.

[8:54] How did the protest spread after Kapernicks initial demonstration?

So I’ll admit to being surprised about how quickly the Kapernick situation spread, but the number of athletes included 48 NFL players, 8 NBA teams, 14 WNBA players, including the entire squad of the Minnesota Links, a gold medal swimmer, 45 high school teams, 22 colleges, a middle school, and a youth football team in Beaumont Texas. 34 states, 4 countries.

[10:10] To wrap up this section about the history of the protest, where do things stand now?

One thing that emerged immediately after this was of course huge outrage, especially among NFL players.

Where were at is essentially a split in the players coalition, because I think  that the NFL saw that the players coalition as an opportunity to co-op the force of the protest. Eric Reid (one of the earliest players to join Kapernick)  and Michael Thomas (player for the Miami Dolphins) left the players coalition after the NFL promised to spend 100 million dollars promoting an agenda on criminal justice reform. This was seen as a bribe.

[12:03] Let’s talk about that, NFL culture. Sports is is kind of the one non-partisan place in our society.

The problem is, is that all of the political place in sport had been consumed by simplistic and idealized images of the nation, especially in the 1980’s and 90’s. There’s been patriotic symbolism in sports forever.

Patriotism and nationalism frequently get coded as a-political. That underwrites a form of attack on the method of protest. So to the extent that the anthem ritual is apolitical, disrupting the ritual will always be seen as an inappropriate intrusion of politics into sport.

[13:04] Who were some of those [athlete protesters] that came before him [Kapernick]?

Athletes have always used moments of patriotic ritual to express dissent. Of course the most famous example is John Carlos and Tommy Smith at the 1968 Olympics.

[14:40] Kapernick and these other athletes are effectively “on the job.” What effect, if any, do you see this having on their actions?

The recognition that athletes are on the job is often used as the ground from which to criticize the protester.

[17:13] Do you think that Kapernick and those who have followed him were successful in making their points?

I think that the answer there is yes but I can understand those who say no.

[18:38] How do you think history will look back on Kapernick and the impact that he’s had?

It’s true that the problem of police violence and accountability got lost in the shuffle about free speech and angry screeds about patriotism but that, it seems to me, is a limited metric of success.