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 open-ended responses to understand why people feel the way they do. Every poll asks respondents to describe in their own words what makes them angry, proud, worried, and hopeful about politics and current events.
We interview a lot of smart people on this show and it’s not surprising the they have interesting and thought-provoking responses to these questionsl. We revisit some of those responses in this episode and hear from Eric Plutzer, the poll’s director, about how what our guests say matches up with what everyday citizens say in the poll.
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 The United States does not have a national university, but the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 established a public university in each state.
Penn State, Pennsylvania’s land-grant university, is the home of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy and this podcast. We invited Nick Jones, the University’s Executive Vice President and Provost, to join us this week for a conversations about the tension between staying true to the land-grant mission and ensuring that the university remains financially stable as funding from the state remains flat or declines.
We also talk about the the skills needed to be good democratic citizens and the skills needed to obtain a high-paying job — and why land-grant universities in particular must pay attention to both.
What do you see as a university’s key responsibilities?
How do you think the role of university has changed over time?
Do you think schools have done a good job making their case as to the importance of higher education?
What do you think is contributing to the trend of many seeing higher education as being less valuable than it once was?
Do you fear that universities will be poisoned by the level of political polarization that we’ve seen take hold of so many institutions over the last few years?
How can universities address the problems pointed to in the last two questions?
If you are either a current student or a college graduate, do you think you’re getting a good return on your investment?
Land grant universities have often been referred to as ‘schools for the people’ in the sense that they’re accessible to the pubic. To what extent do you think this label still applies to such institutions?
Nick: I absolutely believe that view of land grant institutions still applies. One of the key tenants of a democracy is an educated and informed citizenry. Our mission here is to ensure that we’re helping to produce that educated citizenry to enable democracy to function.
Penn State manages many things that don’t directly relate to education, such as arenas and medical facilities. How does this tie into its mission as a land grant institution?
Nick: The service duties of institutions like Penn State have changed since their founding as land grant institutions. Today, in 2018, providing medical services is seen as one of these duties of an institution like Penn State. Doing things like managing concert venues goes to another part of our mission which is to expose those in the commonwealth to the arts.
What goes into the process of deciding to increase the offerings of Penn State?
Nick: First and foremost, I think it is critical that we always stay focused on our mission as a university. It truly is the case that all of my decisions are made through the lens of the mission statement of Penn State. Whenever a new project or opportunity is presented to us, we always ask ourselves whether this is vital to our mission as a land grant university. If the answer is yes, we do it. If the answer is no, we don’t.
How do changes in funding from the state impact your decision making process?
Nick: When this process first began of the state reducing their level of financial support, it was ok because tuition costs for families was still relatively low. However, as support has continued to decline, the burden on students and their families has continued to creep up. This increased burden occupies a lot of our time. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to ensure that a valuable Penn State education remains accessible to all types of people across the commonwealth from all walks of life.
Do you see a change amongst the students as to how they view a degree? For example, do they see it as simply a requirement for getting a job or as acquiring a tool to enable them to contribute to the public good?
Nick: We want to ensure that we’re preparing students for life as well as for a career. We are mindful of ensuring that an education from Penn State prepares them for both aspect of the future in a balanced way. We want students to be successful both in their personal career lives as well as in their lives as part of the community.
We’ve seen a trend as of late of devaluing the idea of a liberal education. In part due to a conflation of the idea of a liberal education as being a politically biased education. Do you see this trend as being a problem? How does the university address it?
Nick: We do hear that a lot. We firmly believe that creating students who can address issues analytically is really important. We fundamentally believe in the importance of an educated citizenry.
Do you worry that higher education is going to get caught up in the political polarization that has crept into nearly every part of our lives?
Nick: We do worry about that a lot. We need to ask why this is happening as well as what we can do to address this. We also have to take ownership of our role in contributing to this problem. We need to again make the case that higher education is important to society and make a significant contribution in a democratic society. One example of a place where I think we have made progress in this regard is in the area of agriculture.
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 Trumpocracy, but chose to go in a different direction.
In The Last Palace, he tells the story of the Petschek Palace, where he lived while serving as U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic. The palace and its residents sought to defend liberal democracy throughout both world wars and the Cold War. The book, which one review calls a “love letter to liberal democracy,” also shows the ways in which ambassadors do the hard work of democracy abroad.
Eisen describes the cycles of democracy that occurred as public support waxed and waned over the years. He says that we are now an inflection point that will determine support for liberal democracy moving forward. Ever the optimist, he’s confident that democracy will come through this seemingly dark period to triumph once again.
Eisen is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings and chair of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington. Prior to becoming ambassador, he advised the Obama administration on ethics — a job that earned him the unofficial title “ethics czar.”
What impact do you think corruption has on democracy?
Where do you see democracy being harmed by corruption around the world?
There have been claims that corruption is harming democracy here at home. Do you agree?
During the interview, Norman Eisen spoke to the ability of democracies to be strong and fight back against corruption. Do you think the United States is in a good position to be able to fight back against efforts to undermine our democracy both at home and abroad?
What do you make of the large number of vacant ambassadorships currently in America?
[5:20] What made you want to tell the story that you tell in your book The Last Palace?
Eisen: There were multiple objectives in wanting to tell this story. Before even arriving, I heard so many stories about the residence itself. I continued to collect such stories while I was there, and I thought these would be something people would like to hear. However, I also thought there was a larger story about democracy itself in this place over the last hundred years. I wanted to tell that story as well. So the book is really a story of five people, an amazing house, and the history of transatlantic democracy itself.
[6:00] There is a quote on the back of the book of a love letter to liberal democracy. Was that your intention with this book?
Eisen: I didn’t realize the story of democracy that would come out of the research of past ambassadors and the unique residence. By the time I finished the book, yes, I intended it to be a love letter.
[7:40] In your book you take about the ebb and flow of democracy over time. Where do you think we are at right now?
Eisen: We’re at an inflection point. There have been three great surges of democracy in the past century. One was the post-WWI boom that included the founding of the League of Nations. The second was after WWII when the modern security structure of NATO was established securing Western Europe. The third was the post-cold war era. We had hopes after this third boom of greater growth of democracy into Eastern Europe and maybe Russia itself. However, unlike following WWII, we didn’t create anything like the Marshal plan to ensure growth of democracy into these new territories. Also, the United States looked away. One of the key stories of this century is when the United States looks away, trouble brews. That is where we are now with Putins rule and his partner Donald Trump.
[10:02] Your book tells the stories of ambassadors who have lived in the Petscheck Palace. What lessons can we take from their stories?
Eisen: One story is that democracy has endured in the face of much greater challenges than we face today. However, another important takeaway is that we can’t assume this will happen on its own. Over the last hundred years, it makes all the difference when the friends of democracy fight for democracy. We need to continue to fight that good fight if we want democracy to succeed.
[11:40] Has our ability to fight for democracy become weaker than that of past generations?
Eisen: In the initial days of the Trumps administration, those same tools of social media which he utilized to win office served as a vehicle to bring people together. Hopefully, these tools will lead to greater oversight of the president with the new Congress. Our polarization is no worse now than it was following the Civil War.
[14:00] We currently have many ambassador positions that are not filled. What impact does that have on the role of promoting democracy that ambassadors do?
Eisen: The fact that this administration has failed to at least nominate people for some of the most important ambassadorships does lead to a democracy deficit. It is incredibly important to have some sort of head executive, confirmed by the Senate, who can work on the behalf of our values and democracy in a foreign capital city. They are there to speak up for our Wilsonian post 1918 idea of western values. Having an ambassador established in a foreign nation enables us to work with civil organizations to promote all of the core tenants of a democratic society.
[16:00] What is the relationship you see between authoritarianism and corruption? How does that impact democracy?
Eisen: It is a problem that authoritarians, including our own president, always see it as part of their initiative to get control of the public’s purse. We’ve seen this through world leaders such as with Mr. Putin who some have said has become the worlds riches man through corruption. We’ve also seen this with President Trump who has tried to benefit himself and his family. That is a sign of autocracy.
We are heading the first ever case in which a judge has found a cause of action for accepting forbidden government cash benefits relating to the president. This has helped established a climate in the public where people are now keeping an eye on these issues. Another key part of this effort to control corruption is the Muller investigation. We are now awaiting his report as to whether the president obstructed justice or not. I think the rule of law system is working as it should.
[19:30] In your book, you show how you’re more optimistic while your mother is more pessimistic. Do you think democracy works better when both points of view are represented?
Eisen: Perhaps if we had been a bit more pessimistic following the Cold War we would have put in place some sort of Marshal Plan for Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time we have to be aware of the profound difficulties we’ve overcome. It all fits in together. I try to lay out this balance in the book.
[22:00] Can you expand further on the dangers posed to democracy by corruption?
Eisen: Corruption in a democracy infringes upon the voting freedoms as well as others that are critical in a democracy. You can see this playing out here in the form of campaign contributions. The special interests have more money to spread around than average people. They spend more on elections, they get people elected, then they call in favors of those they helped get elected. This is legal corruption.
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. There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether these 20 and 30-somethings will vote in the 2018 midterms. This episode touches on that, but also explores some of the reasons why Millennials feel disengaged from voting and other traditional forms of political engagement.
Our guest this week literally wrote the book on this topic. Stella Rouse is co-author of The Politics of Millennials, which draws upon existing data about Millennials, as well as surveys and focus groups that Stella and co-author Ashely Ross conducted. They found that events like 9/11 an the 2008 financial crisis profoundly shaped the way Millennials view the world and their place within it — views that run counter to older generations and their views of democratic engagement.
Stella is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and Politics, Director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship, and Associate Director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll at the University of Maryland.
If so, do you see them engaged more traditionally in campaigns and voting or non-traditionally in the form of protests?
How do you think Millennials world views will translate into public policy?
If you are not a Millennial, what is the biggest difference you see between this younger generation and your own? Also, what similarities do you see?
What do you think the political views of this generation will look like in 20 years?
[4:49] How do you define a millennial and what about them made you interested in studying their generation further?
Stella: Generally the accepted timeframe is those from the late 80’s to the late 90’s. Millennial are those who grew up mostly around the turn of the century.
[5:30] What are the identity characteristics of this generation?
Stella: It’s composed of a number of factors. Most notably, it is a very diverse generation in American history. They’ve lived around different races and ethnic groups more so than any other generation in the nations history. They are also the first “digital natives”. They don’t know what it’s like to be without the internet or a cellphone in their pocket. This impacts how they experience politics and communicate with others. Also, the events of 9/11 is a significant aspect of this generation in terms of how it views the world around them and the role of America in it.
[7:30] How to millennial see themselves as citizens?
Stella: Millennials are more engaged in non-traditional forms of engagement such as voting or working on campaigns. People look at this and then see the generation as being apathetic politically. However, this doesn’t take into account their engagement in more non-traditional political formats such as protests and rallies. They are also more engaged in the local level than the national level. The key question is how is this activity translated into voting. I don’t have a straight answer for that. A lot of it involved getting them into the habit of voting.
[10:08] Do you sense any momentum on the part of this generation to shape the political system to fit to its interest rather than it adapting to the current political climate?
Stella: Yes. We are seeing a lot of Millennials run for office. Particularly, minorities of this group are running for office. I think in the next few years we’re going to see this continue. Then, once in office, they’ll be able to shape the political landscape to better reflect their world view.
[11:10] This generation also identifies at a greater rate than those before them as global citizens. How does this square with their involvement in local political issues?
Stella: When I say local I don’t mean they’re voting at the local level. Where the participate traditionally is still higher at the national level than the local level. One thing about this generation is that they’re very distrustful of institutions. This includes political parties. This makes sense given the fact that their time has been filled with the greatest partisan divide in American politics in generations. Therefore, they are much more likely to identify as independents. Their lack of identification along party lines leads to lower levels of traditional political engagement in the form of campaigning and voting.
[13:00] We’ve talked about the separation of liberalism and the democratic norm of institutions. Do you see this divide growing as this generations comes into political power?
Stella: It could be, but the jury is still out on this. They have an internal conflict that they distrust institutions but they know they have to play by the rules in order to change it. It’s not clear if they’ll play the game and try to bring about change from the inside or whether they’ll maintain their outsider status and try to change things from the outside.
[14:35] We saw Obama and Sanders as two political figures who resonated with this generation. What about them do you think made them so appealing to this generation?
Stella: They spoke to the issues they cared about. Particularly, Obama really addressed them in the mediums they cared about, such as social media. Even though he is not a millennial, he became the millennial president.
[16:09] How does Donald Trump play among Millennials?
Stella: Not too well. He is not very popular amongst them. That’s not to say there isn’t a segment of the generation who support him, but about two thirds of the generation don’t support him or his policies. His policies related to immigration and diversity go against the preferences of millennials.
[17:02] Is there anything to suggest that millennials will become more conservative as they get older?
Stella: That is a really good question. An important point we try to make is that this group is not monolithic in that they aren’t all liberals. On a number of policies they are more liberal, but on others, they look a lot like older more conservative generations. One particular issue is abortion. Their numbers on this issue look more like those of generation X or the baby boomer generation. This is also repeated when it comes to issues of the economy. They aren’t some socialist block. However, they are very liberal on issues such as healthcare where they think it should be a government protected right. This has a lot to do with the time in which they came to age. Especially on issues such as student loan debt which is another issue area where they’re very liberal. It remains to be determined whether these positions will drift to the right as they get older.
[22:32] What do the older generations need to know in order to work better with Millennials?
Stella: I think one reason why those in government don’t’ reach out to millennials is because they don’t’ see them as an electoral threat because of their low voting numbers. To reach out, they have to meet them halfway. They need to acknowledge that millennials have a lot to say. However, they have to reach out to them in their preferred medium. Ultimately, I don’t think we’ll see politicians change their approach until millennials force them to by showing up on their radar as an electoral issue.
[24:00] What role does the financial situation of this generation have on their willingness to engage politically in more traditional formats?
Stella: Economic power speaks to political power. Their inability to acquire economic power due to unemployment or underemployment prevents the acquisition of this power in order to challenge political leaders. However, we’ve always had this issue amongst the current young generation at any given time.
[28:00] What do you expect to see in terms of Millennial turnout in the 2018 midterms?
Stella: I suspect that we’ll see higher rates than we’ve seen in previous elections. Whether this motivation actually translates to votes is still open to debate. If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll see an increase in voter participation amongst this generation.
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 toward “risk management policing” that Frank Baumgartner described in last week’s episode, but there’s something else at play — and that’s what we explore this week with Peter Enns.
Peter is an associate professor of Government at Cornell University and author of Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World. Peter argues that, since the 1970s, media coverage has shaped public opinion about incarceration, which lead to an increase in people going to prison even as the crime rate went down. This created a vicious cycle of people seeing news about crimes, becoming more supportive of punitive measures, and a shift away from viewing prison as a rehabilitative experience.
Much like we heard from last week about the empathy gap in policing, a similar gap exists between the people going to jail and the people watching or reading news stories about the criminal justice system. Peter taught in Cornell’s prison education program and saw firsthand what daily life looks like for inmates and the possibilities that exist for prison reform programs.
One final note: We added a new voice into the mix this week. Andy Grant, our audio engineer, had some questions for Peter that you’ll hear toward the end of the interview.
Why do you think the general public has largely supported more punitive measures over the last several decades?
Do you think the saying ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ holds true? What role do you think media has here?
What other changes would you make to the current criminal justice system?
Is it antithetical to a democratic society to have so many people incarcerated?
We have a very high recidivism rate. This means once you’ve been to jail, you’re likely to end up going back due to a parole violation or another violation. How do you think the system can better prepare convicts to get out and stay out?
Going forward, do you think our incarceration rate will decrease?
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 are and where you live. If you’re African-American or Latino, you are much more likely to be searched or have your vehicle searched — and much more likely to be pulled over in the first place, according to research conducted by analyzing data from millions traffic stops in North Carolina over more than a decade.
Frank Baumgartner, Robert J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, lead the team that analyzed the data published the book Suspect Citizens: What 20 Million Traffic Stops Tell Us About Policing and Race.” In the book, Frank and his colleagues make the case that an empathy gap exists between people with political and social power and the people who are most likely to be pulled over. The result is that segments of the population who are already disenfranchised become even more distrustful of the police and the government and less likely to vote and otherwise engage with democracy.
We’ve long heard that racially-motivated police violence is the result of a few “bad apple” officers. However, the data from North Carolina show a much more pervasive suspicion from police officers about young men of color. Combined with a move toward what Frank describes as “risk management” policing, the result is a clear pattern of behavior that has direct implications on democratic participation.
P.S. A huge thank you to everyone who supported us in the 2018 Podcast Awards. We are incredibly humbled and grateful to have won during our first year.
Do you believe that there is racial bias in policing in America?
Based on your own experience with law enforcement, do you trust the police?
Do your interactions with law enforcement impact your view of the government and your willingness to engage in democracy?
Do you think the aim of police should be to solve crime or try to prevent crime?
Do you think policing in America is getting better? Why or why not?
[3:41] How did you come about the data for this book?
Frank: An investigative reporter in North Carolina conducted an investigation into possible racial profiling in the police department in 1996. This was also a time when people were becoming growingly concerned with racial profiling by police. At this time, North Carolina became the first state to mandate the recording of data about traffic stops, including the race of the individual stopped. I was then invited to look at the information they had collected in the early 2000â€™s as part of a task force.
[5:25] Can you walk us through how a traffic stop experience might differ along racial lines?
Frank: As a middle class white man myself, I have very few interactions with the police. But when I do, it is always very respectful and by the book. It is extremely rare for someone in this demographic to get pulled over by the police. For someone of color, it would be frustratingly common. These traffic stops usually lead to no citation or ticket. However, such stops are more likely to extend into a search of the vehicle.
[6:54] What did you find to be the cause of this variance in frequency and nature of stops?
Frank: We think party of the problem is that police officers are usually dealing with a low information situation when making a stop. Too often, they rely on visual cues to evaluate whether someone is a threat or not. And under the law, which has been confirmed mostly by middle class white men, it assumes that these stops will only be temporary inconveniences. However, as the data showed, these stops are not that uncommon. There is also an empathy gap where white people have a difficult time understanding the situation faced by minorityâ€™s in terms of traffic stops.
[9:18] In the book you refer to “risk management policing.” Can you explain what that is?
Frank: In the 60â€™s, the focus of policing used to be reactionary in the sense that they used to simply work to solve crimes. However, there has been a shift where as police now are working to try to prevent crimes using methods such as profiling. Policing is now more proactive and aggressive. This system didnâ€™t happen to white people. This happened on the other side of town to minorities. It happened to people who themselves were seen as likely criminal elements.
[14:24] What impact do these stop rates have on the level of democratic participation among minorities?
Frank: Just a single traffic stop can reduce the odds of that person voting by as much as ten percent. We found that in areas where black people have greater political power, the percentage of blacks that are stopped is considerably lower. There is a national effect. Unjustified stops do alienate people and cause them to not trust the government. In Fayetteville North Carolina, they instituted some policy changes. What resulted was that there were fewer stops. Also, the number of calls to 911 that actually resulted in a crime being committed went up. This showed that people who were no longer being wrongfully stopped began to trust the police more and were willing to reach out to them when they actually needed them.
[18:21] We often hear during the more salient cases that this is simply the result of a few â€œbad appleâ€ officers. Is this the case or is this a more systemic problem impacting more officers?
Frank: The short answer is that itâ€™s both. In our research, we were able to categorize and study the stop of every officer by their badge number. We did find many officers who showed trends of discriminatory trends in stops. The racial disparity were highest amongst men. While there are bad apple officers, there also is a more systemic problem.
[22:20] What impacts have your findings led to?
Frank: Many police leaders have started looking at their own statistics more closely. When these departments have done this internal investigation they have often found that they have discrimination problems. Ferguson Missouri is just one example. While Ferguson is seen as the epicenter of bad policing, the situation in many others communities is not really that much better. We have to recognize that the data and the patterns are clear and consistent. It is time to question whether weâ€™re getting the right bang for our buck out of the random traffic stops as a mechanism to fight crime. This is alienating people without having much good to show for it.
As a piece in The Atlanticrecently 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 classroom. Beyond reading, writing, and STEM skills, students have an opportunity to engage in dialogue and debate facilitated by their teachers and learn what it means to be part of a democracy.
The term most often used to describe this is civics education, which probably brings back memories of learning about the branches of government how a bill becomes a law. As you’ll hear this week, true civics education is about so much more than that. In in a polarized political climate, are teachers afraid to engage controversial subjects? How should they address things like citizenship and patriotism? How do they have time to engage in these wide-ranging discussions given the constraints they face to prepare students for standardized tests? Mark Kissing helps budding teachers find their way — strengthening their commitments to democracy so they can pass that spirit along to their students.
Mark is an assistant professor of social studies education at Penn State. His work focuses on citizenship education, or the practice of preparing civic-minded individuals. We’ve recently seen the importance of civics education play out in the months since the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Our look at Generation Z and the future of democracy earlier this year is worth revisiting as proof that what Mark and his colleagues are teaching is having an impact.
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 women to run and helping them raise the money and build the relationships needed to make it into office.
Rebecca Kreitzer, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has been studying the groups that exist to help elect women into office. She and Tracy Osborn from the University of Iowa have counted more than 400 groups around the country modeled in the tradition of Emily’s List.
Much like the groups Lara Putnam described, this is grassroots-level politics in action with women working to promote each other and make their voices heard. As you’ll hear Rebecca describe, there are several reasons why it’s important for women to have a voice in the legislature. However, with so many groups operating at the same time, there are bound to be conflicts and missteps, which Rebecca has also studied.
This interview was recorded at the 2018 American Political Science Association State Politics and Policy Conference, which was held at Penn State in June.
How important is diversity in a legislature for a democracy?
How (if at all) do you think our democracy would change if there were more women in office?
Rebecca mentioned that female candidates are a harder time raising money. Why do you think this is?
What do you think is the best way to elect more women into office?
According to Rebecca, many group that support female candidates use abortion as a litmus test to determine whether or not to endorse someone. What do you think about this policy?
Beyond women, are there other groups you feel need to have a higher level of representation in elected office?
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.
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?
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. As with a lot of things in life, too much of a good thing might not be so good after all.
If you’ve followed any of the recent news about Facebook — from Mark Zuckerberg’s comments about Holocaust survivors to the decision to ban InfoWars — you’ve probably heard the company make claims about giving its community a voice and other things that sound very democratic. However, as Matt Jordan explains in this episode, that is not the case at all.
At the end of the day, Facebook is a company and its goal is to make a profit. The result of that, Matt argues, is an algorithm-fueled avalanche of information that mixes news with opinion and fact with fiction to reinforce existing thoughts and feelings rather than exposing us to new ideas and perspectives.
Matt has also spent time studying the history of the term fake news and found that it goes back much farther than Donald Trump. He talks about how fake news in 2018 looks different than it did in 1918 and what responsibility journalists and news consumers have to push back against it.
Matt is an associate professor of media studies at Penn State and co-director of the Social Thought Program. For a look at how journalists are working in this media landscape, check out our interview from last season with Halle Stockton of PublicSource, a nonprofit news organization in Pittsburgh.
Note: This episode was recorded before Alex Jones and InfoWars were banned from Facebook, YouTube, iTunes, and other platforms.
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 violence. One year later, the Robert E. Lee statue at the center of the controversy is still there, and it seems the conversation about what it stands for has stalled.
The Lee statue is part of a complicated public memory about the south’s Confederate past. These shared stories of the Civil War and what it means make it difficult to change the conversation and have a productive dialogue about how to move forward.
Joining us to unpack the public memory around Charlottesville is Brad Vivian. He is the director of the McCourtney Institute’s Center for Democratic Deliberation and a professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State. Brad studies public memory, particularly around Confederate iconography. He also grew up in the Charlottesville area and recounts some of his experiences there during the interview.
We are excited to begin the second season of Democracy Works with such an important and timely topic. If you like what you hear, make sure to rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts.
What are your memories of the events in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017?
Do you think that the national narrative following the events was focused on the right issues?
What do you think leads to the development of an inaccurate memory of past events? Especially ones that tend to look at past actions through rose colored glasses?
How do you think the concept of public memory relates to democracy?
What do you think we can do to ensure that the story of past events maintains more truth over the years?
[2:20] What was it like growing up in Charlottesville and what went through your mind as you watched the events unfold there last summer?
Brad: It is sort of a closely held secret. It is a great college town. It has sort of this small town living with a sort of metropolitan feel to it. Sort of like State College. The town is part of this growing corridor from DC down to Richmond Virginia. A lot of those coming here to study from Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey are turning a once red state into a purple or even a light blue state.
[3:50] While you were growing up there, was the Robert E. Lee statue something people would talk about?
Brad: Everyone knew it was there but it wasn’t really a part of the discussion in the circle I was in, which consisted of the university. Surprising, after the riots, we didn’t really talk much about the statue. What we did talk about was Thomas Jefferson and his legacy there.
[6:20] What is public memory and how does it form?
Brad: It’s really a metaphor. For example, people say we have a collective memory of what the civil war was like. The way this is formed of long ago events is how they’re talked about in the immediate aftermath by those who experienced them. This then gets carried on throughout the ages. Part of these stories might have some accuracy to actual historical fact, but they don’t have to in order for this memory to form and take hold. There is a lot of fact but also mythology here. This sense of memory is very important in that it creates a personal connection to the event.
[10:00] What many don’t realize is that these statues didn’t go up until long after the end of the war. How does this speak to your concept of a public memory?
Brad: Public memory can become very political when a certain group wants to change the way that a particular story is told in public. In my view, this can be a very anti-democratic practice especially when this group tries to use the threat of force to effect this change.
[11:50] How do you have conversations around something like these monuments when so many have personal connections to wanting to protect and keep them?
Brad: One of the reasons this is so difficult to do has to do with the way the main stream media frames discussions. What the media does is light of these sorts of events is put attention towards what power holders say. In the case of Charlottesville, it was the comments by Trump that got all the attention and drove the narrative of the discussions after the event. Another problem is the softer mythology of the Civil War and its figures, such as Lee. For example, the textbooks in the south portrayed the war as a battle between two honorable sides. This is not a good framework for having a discussion as to what these statues actually mean. In order to get to important conversations such as what these statues really mean in terms of southern pride, we have to break the trend of the media coming in and setting the narrative around comments of those holding power.
[15:00] Where can people go to get these conversations away from the established narrative from the media?
Brad: One place to go would be southern black communities. There are millions in this community that don’t identify with the idea of confederate pride image of southern pride. We need to acknowledge that the south is a rather diverse place with different ideas of what the culture is and what pride of the south is.
[16:20] At what point does public memory start to form? For example, when will the memory of the events in Charlottesville begin to form?
Brad: I think it will be a relevant point for a while. Especially in black communities. I’m still concerned that we aren’t going to be able to have important conversations, such as one about the events in Vinegar Hill around the issue of desegregation. I think the people in the city will be debating this issue for a long long time. I know the city is still divided over it.
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 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 this summer. Here’s the rundown of the books we discuss:
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.
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’s Jud Mathews, an associate professor of law at Penn State. He has a law degree and a Ph.D. in political science (both from Yale, no less). Jud says we’re not in a constitutional crisis yet, but that constitutional norms — much like democratic norms — are eroding more and more each day.
Jud also cautions against using the term constitutional crisis too loosely because of the “boy who cried wolf” problem that we’ll become so desensitized that we won’t recognize one when it actually occurs. Beyond being a legal scholar, he has made the Constitution his life’s work. He’s passionate about what it represents and understandably upset to see its force as a roadmap for the country called into question.
If there’s one bright spot to take from this conversation, it’s that there are many dedicated public servants throughout the government who are committed to upholding constitutional norms and preventing a crisis from occurring.
Do you think were currently in a constitutional crisis?
If so, what role do you think citizens play in solving it?
In a situation similar to that described above where one branch ignores the constitutional order of another, how should we go about enforcing the rule of law?
Are you concerned that the pace at which current events develops today will prevent us from either identifying a constitutional crisis or being able to handle it when we spot it?
What role do you think the rising polarization of politics will have in being able to handle and correct a constitutional crisis if one were to develop?
[3:00] What is a constitutional crisis?
Jud: You can think of the constitution as a road map. One way to think about a constitutional crisis is that the government is going off the road or off the rails. Such a situation could be the fault of the public or it could be the fault of the document itself. For example, we might face a situation that the constitution does provide guidance for. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen very much in our system. It is also possible that the constitution does provide clear guidance, but we have a single actor who simply refused to follow this guidance and do what they want.
[4:30] Are there examples where we’ve been in such a situation in the past?
Jud: I think the biggest example that people would look at would be the secession preceding the Civil War. The constitution doesn’t really tell us what to do when a state wants to leave. This arguably led to a war over this issue. My definition is rather strict. Therefore, I wouldn’t say we’ve face many constitutional crisis type situations. One reason I’m strict on my definition is because of a potential “boy who cried wolf” problem. Here, someone complains of so many false emergencies that no one listens when there is an actual crisis. Another reason for the strict definition is that being in a crisis situation leads to serious uses of force potentially.
[7:15] We’ve heard people around the president say that he is above the law. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Jud: There is a strong respect within the constitution for the idea that while the president isn’t completely above the law, he is subject to it only through his own actions in executing the law. Under the constitution, the executive is charged with ensuring that the law is effectively carried out. Because of this, there is little the other branches can do to control the executive. While this does not mean that the executive is above the law, it is not the place of another branch, such as congress, to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the executive. Given this level of power, it’s incredibly important that the executive respect the law. To ensure this is done, there are many norms in place to sort of curtail the actions of the executive. What concerns me with this administration is at best an indifference and at worst a hostility towards these constitutional norms.
[9:42] What happens when these norms are violated?
Jud: There isn’t law about what happens when these norms are violated. However, elections can serve as a control when these norms are violated. When an executive violates a particular constitutional norm, they can be voted out of office in a following election. There is also the impeachment process. This is largely a political control option. While the constitution does spell out specifically what can be the ground for impeachment, whether the house goes through with filing charges or not is largely a political decision.
[11:00] Another view of a constitutional crisis is when one branch doesn’t follow order from another. Could you speak to a situation like this in terms of a constitutional crisis?
Jud: I think something like this with the executive not following an action by the legislative, such as overriding a presidential veto, absolutely is a constitutional crisis. However, it is possible that this stems from a legitimate dispute between the branches as to what the constitution requires. This is also a situation where there is not really a great solution or end game. Here, one branch is going to have its power limited and look inferior to another. However, if nothing is done, then we all loose as the constitution is disrespected. Something similar to this happened during the Civil War when Lincoln disregarded an order by the Supreme Court to honor the right to habeas corpus. Eventually, the country fought through it and got past it. However, the court perhaps lost some power and legitimacy as a result of the executive never really being held accountable for this.
[14:00] Today we see the events in the news greatly outpace development of the law. How do you see this impacting respect for the constitution and law?
Jud: It seems as thought our political life is on fast forward right now. I think this has a numbing effect on those who watch the legal actions of the administration.
[15:00] As a constitutional scholar, how does it make you feel to see constitutional norms being eroded?
Jud: It does make me concerned. One thing I think the president has yet to understand and respect is the fact that we have a set of legal norms to protect the proper role of constitutional governance. Many of the factors that influence constitutional governance will never see the inside of a court. These important matter will be decided by those in the administration. To ensure that these decisions are proper and respect the constitution, there is a large number of procedures in place. The president simply doesn’t show a lot of respect for these procedures. That being said, I’m confident because there are still a lot of very talented dedicated public servants in departments all around the government.
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. Teachers are one visible example of a public sector union, but many other state and federal employees from bus drivers to accounts are part unions, too.
In fact, public sector union participation is higher than it is in the private sector. In theory, this means that public employees can advocate for the resources they need to make public life better for everyone. However, only about half of the states give their employees the right to unionize, and unions within the federal government are limited in what they can bargain for.
Those bargaining rights could become even more limited as the Supreme Court prepares to rule in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which will decide whether people who are not members of these unions have to pay union fees.
To help sort through this, we talked with Paul Clark, the director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State and an expert on unions. This is a wide-ranging conversation that covers everything from the history of public sector unions (they’re newer than you might expect) to the implications of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Janus case.
We also talked with Paul about the impact that public sector unions have on democracy and what happens if they continue to weaken. Even unions that don’t have the ability to bargain over wages have managed to get creative about making their voice heard, but that can’t last forever. These are some of the people who are out there every day doing what it takes to make democracy work, and any efforts to curb their collective power could weaken their ability to do so.
Do you support the idea of public sector employees being able to unionize?
Why do you think they should or should not have this right?
Do you think there is something uniquely different between private and public sector workers that impacts whether or not they should be able to organize?
Given that tax payers pay the salaries for public workers, should they have a seat at the table when dealing with public sector unions?
Paul discussed a pending Supreme Court case where public employees may no longer be required to pay membership dues to unions that they don’t want to join. Where do you fall on this issue?
Do you think union membership will increase or continue to fall going forward?
[6:00] What types of public employees unionize that people might not think of naturally when they think of public unions?
Paul: Unions represent public workers at all levels. This means there are public unions at the federal, state, and local level. There is a wide array of services provided by people who are member of public workers unions.
[7:00] How did those groups come to be unionized?
Paul: Private sector workers got the right to organize and strike in the 1930s. Public workers were specifically restricted from getting those rights. This meant that public workers salaries lagged behind those of private sectors because private sector salaries increased as a result of being able to unionize. However, in the 60s, as part of other social movements, we saw public sector unions finally get the same rights to organize as those in the private sector. This was done at the state level. However, even today, only about half of the states extend this right to public employees. At the federal level, these rights are limited.
[8:40] In the time since public workers could unionize, have their salaries caught up with those in the private sector?
Paul: These public unions have been successful in improving the conditions of their workers in the states where workers have been able to organize. Pennsylvania is a good example as they were the first state to allow public workers to organize and strike. Here, you can track the improvement in benefits of these employees since the 70’s.
[10:00] There is the idea amongst the public that going into public work is almost altruistic because such workers can usually make more in the private sector. Does this play into union efforts of public workers at all?
Paul: Yes, it does. But just because these workers feel the need to bargain for better wages to support their families does not mean there is any less of a sense of service in doing what they do for the public.
[11:40] In the private sector, union fights are seen as the people against “the man”. How does this relationship look in the public sector?
Paul: Just like in the private sector, the managing director in public positions make the critical decisions for those workers. Much like a democratic system, unions work to ensure that all the power isn’t held by a small few over the masses. Unions bring this democracy to the workplace.
[14:30] We’ve heard a lot about a decline in private sector union membership. Is this trend reflected in public sector unions?
Paul: One reason we’ve seen private membership decrease is that private companies have decided to take them on and limit their power. In 2010, we saw these efforts to limit private sector being turned towards public sector unions because public membership was on the rise. The first battleground for this was Wisconsin. There, we saw a number of laws passed aimed at limiting the power of public unions. This turned into a wave within other states to limit the ability of public unions to operate effectively. The result is that we’ve seen considerable decline in public union membership. The next step in this effort to weaken public sector unions is a Supreme Court case that could prevent unions from being able to charge all of those receiving benefits under it four dues to the union.
[19:14] In Arizona, we saw a teachers union endorse a political candidate. Can you speak to this new growth in the political activity of public unions?
Paul: Many aspects of public workers careers are impacted by public laws. Therefore, they have a strong incentive to become active in the political process. The interesting thing about the developments in Arizona is that this is a state where public workers aren’t able to organize. While there are technically workers unions in that state, they can’t be involved with setting salaries in any way. As a result tax cuts have passed unchallenged and the about of tax dollars going towards education has decreased over the years.
[22:00] Do you think it’s possible for a new public sector union to develop in 2018?
Paul: This would be a very ambitious goal given the current political climate. However, even without formal unions, you have individuals who can use their voice to advocate for these types of things. I think these cases are instructive in showing the importance of these unions. There is a correlation between states with the best education standards and the best benefits for their teachers.
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 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.
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?
[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.
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 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.
[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.
The very idea of civic engagement has changed drastically in the past decade or so as communities form online instead of in person. Does this mean young people are more likely to become engaged in civic and political issues? And, will that engagement translate into votes? Peter and his colleagues study these questions and will be watching closely heading into November’s election.
The interview with Peter also touches on what today’s young people can learn from their predecessors 50 years ago. We heard from Tommie Smith about the struggles he faced in 1968; Peter reflects on how civic engagement looks different today and how students today can keep activism alive.
For more information on Peter’s work, visit the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at civicyouth.org or his website at peterlevine.ws.
[7:00] What do you think about the activism of Generation Z?
Peter: I am excited about what they’re doing. I would attribute a lot of this to good civil education. I also think its relevant that they’re coming to age in an era of political energy and engagement. While I wouldn’t say this is exactly the dawning of generation z, I would say it is the beginning of a very interesting time in American history.
[8:15] How can people find a common ground to facilitate discussions on difficult topics?
Peter: I wish I had a good answer for this. For example, the gun debate is a good one to have but I’m not sure how much change it can lead to. I think the kids protesting for gun control have the right to do that. However, they shouldn’t be carrying the burden to do so. Also, it isn’t their responsibly to lead a balanced debate on the topic. They are allowed to advocate for their specific stance on the issue.
[11:00] We are in a very important anniversary year of 1968. What can youth activists learn from their predecessors fifty years ago who found themselves in a contentious time?
Peter: The most inspiring stories to me are the high points of the civil rights movement during that time. There is also a lot to be learned from that movement. For example, it’s important to teach students that Rosa Parks wasn’t just some tired old woman who had simply had enough. We should teach kids that in fact she was a long time activist with the NAACP, and that this was a planned political action. This teaches kids how to operate activism today.
[12:20] How do you ensure that proper history is being thought to kids?
Peter: There are several problems with ensuring accurate teaching of this history. One problem is that its presumed that this civil rights movement was led by a relatively small number of individuals. Most of them being men. Also, it is incorrectly described to children as a rather spontaneous movement and development. When it reality, it was a long fight that is still being fought today.
[13:00] Do you thin that social movements today still need the sort of big movement leaders of the 60’s?
Peter: This is difficult to balance. Especially given the fact that we’re in a time of celebrity politics where our president is in the position due mostly to his celebrity status before taking office. On the other hand, we have social movements that are almost allergic to any one figure being the leader. They don’t’ like to structure themselves with strong leaders. Occupy Wall street would be a good example of this disdain for structured leadership within a movement. There is absolutely a less prominent role within these movements than the movements of the 60’s. It feels like a rapidly shifty terrain where we have an increased value of celebrity along side of movements that are focused on not having specific leadership structures.
14:30: Another key question about youth engagement is whether or not they’ll vote. What is your take on this aspect of the issue?
Peter: I do think they’ll boost youth turnout. However, it will be an increase from a terrible point in the last election. This turnout will also make a difference in terms of who will win these races. For example, the different results in the 2006 and 2014 midterm races can be explained by the variation in youth voting. I think the Parkland kids have a potential to impact turnout by a few percent specifically because of their focus on getting out the vote.
[16:10] Why do you think the youth turnout in the 2016 race was the lowest we’ve ever seen?
Peter: It had been pretty bad for a long long time. There are many relevant factors leading to this. Part of the problem is that there isn’t a concerted effort to getting out the youth vote. Many tend to ignore the youth vote. While we see good youth turnout in the presidential races, this dips considerably in mid term races. This is due partly to the fact that smaller local races don’t have the resources to target the youth vote. Also, it is easier for young voters to get to the information they want without having to come in contact with information about their local races. This negatively impacts their interest and therefore their participation in these races. Also, young people are less connected to large institutions that would have informed them of these local races.
[17:45] Do you see anything coming up to replace these traditional institutions that used to get the youth involved in voting?
Peter: I think there is a variety of possible replacements. From social media to apps, there are many places for young people to gather. However, none of them have the infrastructure or business model of the traditional media outlets or churches from the 50’s. It is mostly a question of how to transform these possible replacements into more substantive long term institutions. I don’t think we have that yet. The channels available now weren’t designed specifically to be these new institutions. This is also causing a problem.
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.
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.
[6:00] What are the factors that motivate people to join a school board?
Robert: What connects people to these groups are often times their own experiences, including those with their children. There were others who didn’t have children at the school, but saw the school board as an opportunity to get involved with their community.
[7:30] Did you find that people joined the school board because there was a particular change they wanted to see?
Robert: It wasn’t the case for everyone, but there were some who wanted to see particular policy be passed. Across the districts we looked at, there was a more general sense of bringing about change in an effort to improve the schools. They were more focused on improving the lives of students rather than any one particular issue.
[8:40] While these board members are voted on, they are not what we would think of as politicians. How does this play out?
Robert: One of the things that separates these governing boards from other types of elected positions is that these members are not politicians. They don’t have dedicated staff or resources. Many of these members also worked another full time job. This was an additional burden they decided to take on. There are many democratic institutions in our society run by people without formal government education or training. However, they manage to succeed nonetheless. There really is a strong sense of connection to community here. These board members very much see themselves as part of the community working to improve things for citizens.
[11:10] How are these members successful without being career politicians?
Robert: What I mean when I say they succeed is that they are able to make what they believe to be the best decision for the community moving forward. To be successful in this type of setting is to have a sense of what is it that they want to achieve. In this case, they succeed because they’re in communication with education professions and are able to reach their collective goals.
[12:30] Surely there is a good amount of compromise being reached in order to get things done. Can you speak to this in your research?
Robert: There was one example in particular that comes to mind here. One district was considering a proposal from a student group to create a gay student alliance. One board member spoke about his personal experience with this group given that his own son was friends with one of the students trying to create the group. He described him as just your average kid. He described them as normal good kids rather than some political revolutionaries looking to upend the community. He also talked about his own teenage years and how he and his friends might have acted inappropriately around this subject. He spoke about how times are changing and the fact that these kids just wanted a way to meet and be recognized in a group. Here, it was more about practicality winning in the end.
[14:50] What about school boards enables them to tackle difficult issues that other institutions can’t?
Robert: School boards certainly do struggle with deliberation and decision making. However, there are different approaches taken here to solve difficult problems than say within state and federal institutions. The way that polarization manifests at the local level is much different than at the state or national level. We know that communities can sort of segregate themselves naturally along racial and economic lines. This leads to small or medium school districts that may be completely contained within these homogenous areas along what can be rather divisive lines. There is also a unique sense of community. These members feel as though they are a part of the communities that they are impacting with their decisions. This goes a long way towards these bodies reaching important decisions for their institutions.
[19:20] How do school boards work with district administration?
Robert: That is usually the most important and difficult relationship for a school board. When these two work together, a lot can be accomplished. However, when they’re at odds, that can undermine all of the decisions within a district. Everyone has to negotiate their roles. When these relationships begin to break down it is because of a collapse or misunderstanding of each others roles.
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 Constitution, and the data collected has wide-ranging uses.
The normally routine process has been disrupted this year by Trump administration, which is pushing for the reintroduction of a question about citizenship. As you may have heard, there’s a debate going on about whether this question is appropriate, and whether the resource-strapped Census Bureau will have time to implement it before 2020.
Jennifer Van Hook, Roy C. Buck Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State, served on the Census Advisory Board from 2007 to 2011 and is an expert on how census data is collected, how it’s evaluated, and how it’s used. She talks about the process for creating and testing new questions, the implications of asking about citizenship, and some of the ways you might not realize census data is used.
Do you think it is necessary for a democracy to have this sort of information that the census gathers?
How often do you think the census should be performed?
Do you think the citizenship question should be added to the census? Why or why not?
If you could add a question to the census, what would it be?
Do you plan on participating in the 2020 census? Why or why not?
[6:06] What do you see as the role the census plays in a democracy?
Jennifer: It is fundamental for a representative democracy. The United States was actually the first nation in the world to require that a census be conducted. This was done because they wanted to distribute power according to population within the states. The number of representatives each state gets in the House is proportionate to the population. Therefore, the census is very important.
[7:28] In addition to determining representation in Washington, what are some of the other purposes of the census?
Jennifer: One of the other uses is the civil rights legislation that has been passed since the 60’s. This helps tell us if certain groups are under represented. This information can show us if certain groups are being discrimintated against within society. The people conducting the census are expected to be non-partisan. Therefore, they collect the information while not saying anything about the data. They simply give it to the public because they want to stay out of the politics of this information.
[9:20] In the era of “fake news” and people being able to cherry pick their facts, how will the census be viewed and used going forward?
Jennifer: The staff that conducts the census takes considerable measures to strip the data of any political leanings. One way this is done is by having multiple authors for all reports to prevent any one bias from impacting how data is reported. They also work in large teams with multiples checks for each bit of data collected.
[10:40] There are reports that the there is underfunding for the census. How will the organization continue to meet its standards with this funding issue?
Jennifer: There is no set director of the census bureau. This lack of direction could cause a problem. One of the thing people have been worried about is the ability of the bureau to conduct out reach and inform people about the census. For example, many people don’t realize that the bureau can’t share its information with Ice. This is significant to share with immigrants who might fear participation in the census out of immigration police fears. This goes to the importance of building trust amongst the public to get them to participate.
[12:35] How does the bureau actually go about counting everyone in the country?
Jennifer: Everyone gets a postcard in the main informing them they have to participate. If you don’t respond to that, you might get follow up contact. This is the most expensive part of the process. If people don’t respond to the first contact, and they have to be contacted again, this is where the cost can really increase for the census process.
[13:25] How does the bureau use past experiences to improve the process?
Jennnifer: They do but it takes a lot of time. They try to improve their operation. However, this is difficult given the size of the debarment. It is difficult to turn on a time and change the way they conduct their business. Any small change takes a lot of time.
[14:30] What goes into deciding on the wording of a question for the census?
Jennifer: Every part of the question is tested. The introduction of a new question typically takes several years because of all the test to make sure people interpret the question correctly as intended. We also consider a question from the standpoint of its impact on people’s willingness to participate in the census in light of it. In terms of the citizenship question, this has become more of a hot button topic especially given the anti-immigrant rhetoric in society today. This means that the field test questions done in the past for this topic might have to be changed because we just don’t know how people will respond to it this time.
[16:37] Wilbur Ross has said that he thinks the benefit of the citizenship question will outweigh the potential risks of lower response rates. Do you agree with that?
Jennifer: No, I don’t. I don’t think the bureau has shown that this question is really necessary. Typically, questions that make the census form have to be dictated by law as being necessary. So you can’t just add questions because you think they wont’ harm the utility of the census. Every question has to be there because it is required. There is another survey called the American Community Survey. They have been collecting citizenship information for years. This data has been used to enforce the voting rights act. I’m not aware of any problems with this survey being used to gather citizenship information.
[17:50] Can you talk about how this survey differs from the census survey?
Jennifer: It is a much longer survey. The questions change from year to year. It is administered to roughly 3.5 million people every year. It provides more detailed information on an annual basis for the population. It provides us with more specific information even down to the county level.
[19:37] How is census information used to impact federal policy?
Jennifer: It is particularly useful when we need to know something about the populations health. One example would be looking at the changing life expectancy. This information wouldn’t be known without procedures like the census. It is the backbone of our federal statistical system.
[21:20] What would you say to someone about why they should participate in the census?
Jennifer: It is good to be counted because we don’t know about our population unless we measure it.
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 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.
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.
[7:02] What is the role of satire in a democracy?
Sophia: It doesn’t have that big of a role because it usually comes into the picture when things aren’t going that well. Satire emerges in moments of crisis. Today it is playing an extremely big role. Largely because the news media has shifted in how it informs the public.
[8:01] What about the nature of a crisis makes satire more popular and come out more in political conversations?
Sophia: Satire tends to come about when people are faulty or are doing stupid things. Satire is typically a contrarian position.
[8:42] What are creators of satire trying to accomplish?
Sophia: Satire is typically used to get the audience to think critically. The idea is to get people out of the binary option mindset. Many see the satirist as someone trying to tell them what to think. However, what they’re actually doing is trying to call out the way in which a conversation it being framed and recommend a change to that.
[10:05] What do we know about the types of people who consume satire?
Sophia: People who consume satire tend to be smarter. They also seem to be more creative on average. Part of the reason for this is the fact that satire depends on irony, which is art of playing with language. In terms of irony, the ability to hear a word and be able to comprehend that it has multiple meanings is a sign of an ability to be brighter and more creative.
[12:07] Is there a “my team, your team” dynamic in the application of satire to politics?
Sophia: It is suggested that we have a better ability to detect irony if it confirms our political positions.
[12:38] Where does the First Amendment fit into the creation and use of satire in politics?
Sophia: Following the ruling in the Falwell v. Hustler case, satirists were found to be protected under the First Amendment under a particular clause of creativity. This differs from what a newspaper might be able to get away with. A key component is how the creators frame their comment. A key in Huslter was the fact that the intent of the offensive comment was to make fun of the individual rather than attempt to make a factual claim regarding their actions.
[15:38] What other effects have you seen satire bring about?
Sophia: Satire does have “boundary heightening effects”. This is the idea that it is ok to make fun of certain groups depending on ones particular membership in that group. When you cross into different groups, this can anger members of that group, or supporters of a particular individual that those members support. Therefore, one downside to satire is that it can deepen certain political gaps.
17:20 Would one then be accurate in saying that satire increases political polerization?
Sophia: Yes, this will absolutely happen. Satire does have a blowback effect on those who think the system is working. This is because the purpose of satire is often to attack the current system and the norms in which a particular issue is addressed in. However, there is research that suggests that the use of satire can create political energy and momentum and a shared narrative.
[19:40] Have you done any research looking at how satire has evolved?
Sophia: While it has changed, I’m not sure I would use the word evolved because that suggests that it is getting better. In light of the changes we’ve seen, it might be nice if there was still a difference between the news and satire. One measurable change is how news gathering and satire have merged. Today, many people use satirical displays and shows as their first source of news. Memes are also shaping public narratives. This mergering of news and satire is one that isn’t going away. In fact, it is increasing.
[21:00] Do you have any thought on where political satire might go from here?
Sophia: One problem going forward will be the relationship between satire and “fake news” because satirical headlines, if not understood as satire, can become taken as hard reporting and as factual. For example, the top shared “fake news” of last year was a headline that read “Pope Francis Endorses Trump.” We’re in a situation now that things are being shared around for the reason of tricking the audience come dangerously close to looking like satire news headlines. Years ago John Stewart on the Daily Show was referred to as creating “fake news”, and that wasn’t an insult at the time.
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 to democracy as “grinding work.”
The idea that democracy isn’t easy is a central theme of this podcast. As How Democracies Die illustrates, it’s much easier to succumb to the power of an autocratic leader than it is to stand up and protect the institutions that serve as the guardrails of democracy. Ziblatt, a professor of government at Harvard, talks about how the book came about and the impact it’s had since it was released earlier this year.
This episode also starts a new feature on the podcast, where we end with a lightning round featuring our Mood of the Nation Poll questions. The poll is open-ended and allows Americans to respond in their own words to questions related to American politics. Some questions vary based on what’s going in the world, but we always ask these four:
What makes you angry?
What makes you proud?
What makes you worry?
What gives you hope?
We were very fortunate to speak with Daniel and encourage everyone to pick up a copy of How Democracies Die.
[5:40] Why did you and Steven write this book?
Steve and I, we teach together, we’ve taught lots of courses together, graduate courses on democracies and crisis, democratic breakdown and democratization around the world, I work on Europe and he works on Latin America. We haven’t primarily focused on the United States in our work, but during the course of the 2015-2016 campaign season, really the republican nomination process, we kept running into each other and talking about the tenor of the political rhetoric.
[7:02)] Where does Donald Trump fit into all of us? Did this process of democratic erosion that you describe in the book, did it start before Trump? Or was he kind of a symptom of it?
In many ways I think that there’s a tendency to focus on Donald Trump, the spectacle of Trump and the latest offensive Tweet and whatever people respond to, but really one of the points of our book is to say that these dynamics long preceded President Trump.
[8:14)] What role do you see parties playing in this process of democratic decline?
Parties are really at the center of the story for us. One of the lessons from the book is that throughout American history there’s been around, at least in the 20th century period for which we have opinion poll data, there’s been around 30% of the American electorate that supports demagogic type of politicians.
[11:10] Can you talk a little bit more about what role you see the assault on the press playing?
In one of the chapters in our book, we lay out the strategies authoritarian inclined politicians have used around the world, and this is, again, drawing in lessons from other countries, and once in office, elected authoritarians often, we kind of have a sports metaphor; they try to capture the referees of the the court system, sideline the opposition, and go after the free press.
[13:39] One of the counter arguments to all this is that Trump is all bluster but no action and people on the left are ringing their hands over nothing. What would you say to that?
In our book we have this what we call an authoritarian litmus test, which is a set of indicators, which are questioning the legitimacy of the media, questioning elections, threatening violence or condoning violence; these are all things that candidate Trump rhetorically embraced before the election.
[18:04] You also say in the book that democracy is “grinding work” which ties back to the whole theme of this podcast, Democracy Works, so can you talk about what that phrase means to you?
It’s important to have big goals and big vision in politics, but it’s also about behaving in responsible ways. It’s a distinction between process and policy. At the end of the day, one has to remain committed to the process and forge alliances with people they may disagree with. That’s hard work and it’s grinding work.
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?
Following the interview, Michael and Chris discuss how congressional investigations tie back to separation of powers and why the ability for one branch to check another is critical to democracy.
[7:46] Your research shows that there were 12,000 days of these investigative hearings. What were they doing during that time?
Sometimes they were listening to themselves talk, which is what we often sort of derive from when we watch these things. It’s supposedly questions, and mainly the member talking for most of their time, and they get a little bit of response from the witnesses. But I think that’s almost exactly what they’re for.
[9:00] How much leeway do these committees have?
Committees have very significant leeway to investigate almost anything they want, which is why the Benghazi investigation is a great example.
[10:31] Can you give us some examples of when those checks by the legislative to the executive have been successful?
So back in the 1970’s, we were having a policy debate that’s immediately relevant to what’s going on right now. This was the Church committee, which was founded to investigate abuse in the intelligence agencies.
[12:00] Why should my taxpayer dollars go to fund these things as opposed to things that might have a more direct impact on the average citizens day to day life?
We know what Congress’s approval rating is, it’s abysmal, and it’s almost always been abysmal. It’s almost always been lower than either of the other two branches. So what is the public view on investigations? We went into the field with another survey in which we basically just asked the question about whether Congress should investigate, and whether people support this idea.
[15:18] Why would there be a need for the House and the Senate to both investigate the same issue?
Inter-chamber rivalry, right? The fact that “I’m a member of the House, why on Earth would I want to let the Senate do this? I want my own input.” And vice versa.
[17:06] How do the House and Senate investigations on Russia differ from the work that Robert Mueller is doing?
It’s very interesting, and it’s a matter that’s continually being litigated. What areas does Congress want to punt on, and leave to the special council, versus where do they think duplication, even, can be profitable?
[21:59] Do you, in this climate that we’re in, do you think that we’ll see an independent council come back around again?
It’s interesting. The number of Republicans who have expressed publicly support for the idea of legislation protecting Bob Mueller, essentially post ex-factum, making him an independent council, yet I don’t see any calls by really by many on either side of the aisle for reinstituting the independent council statute so I doubt that we’re going to see that.
[22:40] What is the difference between open and closed testimony?
The use of closed sessions, the frequency of it has been going way down over the years. The intelligence committees though are always the exception. It’s because of the act creating them after the Church committee that sort of gave members of the intelligence committee access to different folks within the intelligence community and different levels of classified information that other members are not able to, that they’ve always conducted a bit more of their business in secret than other committees.
[24:35] What do these committees look like moving forward?
You’re exactly right. If you look at time diaries of members of Congress they’re spending a lot less time on committee and a lot more time raising money, and fundraising and campaigning. That said, one of the beauties of investigations for the people who end up spearheading it is that, it might serve their reelection prospect.
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.
[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.