Democracy in Danger

Hosts Will Hitchcock (left) and Siva Vaidhyanathan.

Democracy is facing its toughest test since World War II. Although the United States has a robust democratic tradition, political deliberation has been buckling under the weight of disinformation, nativist  ideology, voter suppression and other efforts to weaken participatory government. Indeed, many analysts are alarmed by the growing parallels between the behavior of  U.S. political leaders  and that of autocratic rulers elsewhere — Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, Putin in Russia, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Modi in India, to name a few. America’s problems fit into a global pattern.

On Democracy in Danger, hosts Will Hitchcock, a professor of history, and media studies scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan explore that pattern and its implications here and abroad. Taking a view that’s both historical and contemporary, Will and Siva talk to experts about the resurgence of authoritarianism, what it all means, and what might be done about it — not only to save democracy for posterity but to make it work better.

Our show is produced with support from the UVA Democracy Initiative and the College of Arts and Sciences. We’re also a member of The Democracy Group, a network of podcasts that looks at what’s broken in America’s democracy and how concerned citizens, working together, might fix it.


Special Episode. Insurrection

Much as the nation was stunned by the violence and mayhem at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the assault was not unprecedented or unpredictable. Siva and Will — together with their University of Virginia students — reflect on what happened. Read more >


Episode 18. Aftermath 2020

In one little, seemingly interminable year, a virus laid America low, protests over racial injustice erupted across the country, climate change unleashed record-setting wildfires and hurricanes, and citizens voted in one of the most fraught national elections in history. Will and Siva are joined by a panel of experts for this bonus episode — recorded live — to break it all down and build it back up. Read more >


Episode 17. So Long, Mr. Trump

Americans delivered the presidency to Joe Biden last week. But they also issued a referendum on the U.S. electoral system itself. This week we talk to Jamelle Bouie and Dahlia Lithwick about what those voices seem to be saying. Read more >


Episode 16. Border of Cruelty

Many people still refer to unauthorized immigrants in America as “illegal” — but it’s the country’s immigration system itself that is lawless and inhumane, says political scientist Elizabeth Cohen. Read more >


Episode 15. Judicial Review

Is the Supreme Court above politics, or is the law just politics by other means? UVA Law School Dean Risa Goluboff helps analyze the role of the federal judiciary amid America’s cultural shifts and rifts. Read more >


Episode 14. Culture of Himpathy

Kate Manne argues that contempt for women is not a bug but a feature of Donald Trump’s politics. More than that, she says, misogyny runs deep in American culture and shapes how our government works — for the worse. Read more >


Episode 13. The ‘F’ Word

Fascism. Can a creeping enthusiasm for World War Two–era totalitarianism prevail in the 21st century? Yale philosopher Jason Stanley thinks so. Not only that, he says: democracies are especially susceptible to fascist ideals. Read more >


Episode 12. Trump Speak

Is Donald Trump a rhetorical genius? Communications expert Jennifer Mercieca thinks so. This time on the show, she unpacks Trump’s linguistic virtuosity — and explains why it makes him a demagogue. Read more >


Episode 11. Big Bad Data

Phil Howard has studied — and lived through — misinformation campaigns around the world, but he never thought Western countries like the United Kingdom and the United States could fall prey to bots, trolls and digital operatives. Read more >


Episode 10. Voting Blocked

The core safeguards of the Voting Rights Act are unraveling. We’ve been here before, historian Carol Anderson tells Will and Siva. But Americans won’t sit by as their ballots are shredded. Read more >


Episode 9. No Lone Wolves

Charleston. Tree of Life. Christchurch. All these deadly attacks have some grim details in common — their death tolls were massive... white-power ideology fueled their architects... and they only seemed like the work of loners, according to historian Kathleen Belew. Read more >


Episode 8. Tempting Hate

The attraction to violent far-right extremism often begins with innocent online chatter before it’s fed by degrees — and algorithms, says Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociologist and education expert who tracks such groups. Read more >


Episode 7. Disinformation Wars

Internet giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter aren’t just part of the disinformation problem — they are the problem, according to author Nina Jankowicz. She says they’ve abdicated their role to protect the public from trolls, bots and outright lies. Read more >


Episode 6. The Prison Pipeline

America incarcerates more people than any country: nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population. And U.S. inmates are disproportionately Black and Latino. Elizabeth Hinton explains how we got here, while Siva and Will consider what hope there is for truth and reconciliation. Read more >


Episode 5. Broken Promises

Leah Wright Rigueur calls America a failed state. As a polity, she says, the United States has failed Black people, falling short of its promises of equality and justice. This summer’s protests are a dramatic diagnostic of that failure — the latest in a long history of wake-up calls. Read more >


Episode 4. Xenophobia

Nativist ideology in U.S. politics — and policy — is no Trump-era invention; it dates back to the country’s founding. Immigration scholar Erika Lee walks Will and Siva through America’s spotty record as a nation of immigrants, from the Naturalization Act of 1790, which barred nonwhite people from becoming citizens, to the Trump administration’s Muslim ban in 2017. Read more >


Episode 3. God’s Country

The U.S. Constitution guarantees religious freedom, but also freedom from religion — an idea that rankles many white Evangelicals who would like to see America remade in their own image of Christianity. Religion scholar Matt Hedstrom speaks with Siva and Will about the ideology of Christian nationalism and its harder-core variety, dominionism. Arguably, Hedstrom says, it’s not traditional religious piety but a muscular resistance to pluralism that lies at the core of this belief system. Read more >


Episode 2. Populismo

Populist regimes are gaining ground across the world, and perhaps nowhere have the consequences been more dramatic than in Brazil. Under the chaotic leadership of president Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil has become a major hot spot in the coronavirus pandemic. In this episode, Will and Siva talk to historian Federico Finchelstein about the rise of populism in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America. For someone who grew up during Argentina’s Dirty War, these current populists trends echo fascist regimes of the past. Read more >


Episode 1. Illiberal Media

Government by the people can’t work without getting reliable information in the hands of the people. So when disinformation artists hijack the media, democracy itself is put at risk. On this debut episode of Democracy in Danger, political historian Nicole Hemmer joins hosts Will Hitchcock and Siva Vaidhyanathan to explore the roots of the powerful right-wing media in America, and their influence on Republican politics. How did the party of Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt become the house of Trump and Breitbart? Read more >


In the works

Be on the lookout for news about Season Two, starting in February.

Want to suggest a topic for a future episode or tell us what you think of the show? Find us on Twitter or send email to uvamedialab@virginia.edu.