Working for democracy, fighting misinformation

What are the obstacles that prevent lower-income and working-class Americans from serving their communities as political leaders? This is one of the major research questions for Nicholas Carnes, and a question for which he received one of the nation’s highest awards.

In 2021, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that Carnes received the Alan T. Waterman Award, the U.S. government’s highest honor for an early career scientist or engineer. Carnes is the first scholar of public policy or political science to earn this honor. As part of this award, Carnes received a five-year, $1 million research grant. Carnes was one of only two scientists nationwide recognized by NSF with the award during that year. He was honored alongside Duke alumna Melanie Matchett Wood, a mathematician at Harvard University.

With support from an NSF doctoral dissertation improvement research grant in 2009, Carnes’ research delved into how a person’s background affects whether they pursue public service.

Two of Carnes’ books center on the topic of working-class representation in policy making: White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making and The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office—And What We Can Do About It.

His research in public policy and political science focuses on the causes and consequences of the social class composition of Congress and other political institutions in the U.S. and around the world. His work has helped explain who is elected and why, why that matters, and what we can do about it.

Carnes’ findings that “only about 2 percent of members of Congress come from working-class professions … and only about 3 percent of state-level legislators come from the same” are regularly discussed in the media.

Recently, Carnes and Deondra Rose trained nurses and midwives on how to run for political office. The event gave nurses and midwives practical information, guidance and support to become successful political candidates. The event also included training in communications, messaging, media interaction and valuable networking. Participants developed plans to run for office, become more engaged in the political process, and help a fellow nurse to run for office.

Students are the primary beneficiaries of immersive learning experiences in democracy, part of Sanford’s DNA.

A multitude of policy opportunities occurs in the nation’s capital. Recently, Deondra Rose and Manoj Mohanan took a group of public policy students to Washington, D.C. to meet leaders at the U.S. Capitol and White House. This experience enabled students to make direct connections with policymakers, Duke alumni in DC, and organizations leading critical policy debates.

Another faculty member brought his lifetime of service in D.C. back to Sanford students, bringing his career full circle. David Price returned to Sanford to share his wisdom after 34 years of Congressional service. Volumes have been written about David Price’s 17 terms in Congress. E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote a farewell to the “institutional patriot” in The Washington Post, while Price himself recently finished his fourth edition of The Congressional Experience, a personal recounting of lessons he learned in his time in the “people’s branch” of government.

"He cares about good government. He has exemplified good government, and I can’t think of anybody better to add to the faculties in political science and public policy from which students can learn from somebody who has been through the rough difficulties of running for office," said Professor Joel Fleishman, Sanford’s founding director.

Students engage directly with policymakers to help address issues together.

The Sanford Policy Lab engages teams of students in aiding policymakers by researching requested policy issues. Led by Deondra Rose, Policy Lab is a non-partisan, service-oriented experience in which students develop and deliver policy memos on pertinent topics to legislators and organizations. Policymakers from across the state submit requests for policy analysis, and teams of students execute these as part of a class.  Policy Lab has partnered with members of the North Carolina House of Representatives, North Carolina Senate, non-profit leaders, North Carolina City Council members, a representative from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, and an analyst from RTI International. The connection can have direct impacts on policy. Case in point: Undergraduate research for a recent Policy Lab project about the effects of exhaust fumes (rolling coal) was used to introduce a bill into the N.C. Senate.

Students are also creating new tools for democracy.

The Patman Political Engagement Project Fellows program, an undergraduate experience offered through the Hart Leadership Program and Polis, provides students with resources to explore democracy in depth. Polis and the Hart Leadership Program recently welcomed the third cohort of Patman Fellows. This leadership initiative offers coursework, summer internships and mentoring for undergraduates interested in political engagement. Students in the program took on the “Democracy Challenge,” to address a democracy issue in a real-world context. For Caroline Avery, PPS ’22, that challenge was youth civic involvement. Avery came up with the idea of creating an education toolkit specifically designed for young people. “A High Schooler’s Guide to Political Engagement.” Patman Fellows also wrote a section of the N.C. “Fix Our Democracy” Bill on guaranteeing voting sites on college campuses throughout North Carolina.


Sanford faculty produce knowledge and prepare leaders for the next generation of policy challenges.


They are fighting misinformation, advancing fact-checking, studying media regulation, training future journalists, and preparing students for lives of leadership, civic engagement and public service.

Through the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, Duke Reporter's Lab recently released its latest findings from the 10th annual global fact-checking census. The sober result: Misinformation is spreading, but fact-checking has leveled off, despite increasing concerns about the impact of manipulated media and political lies. As of 2023, there are 417 active fact-checkers worldwide, verifying and debunking misinformation in over 100 countries and 69 languages. This number is roughly the same as in 2022 and 2021, indicating a leveling off of fact-checking's growth. The continued research in fact-checking has led to a new grant from Google to study global patterns in misinformation, led by Bill Adair.

Sanford offers valuable policy perspectives during election seasons. Polis ran the NC Politics 2020 website to provide nonpartisan analysis and easy-to-access reference materials on North Carolina politics. In addition to being Duke’s home, the state’s demographics and history of political volatility make it a fascinating microcosm of the country. Media and democracy are critical at all levels, and Sanford is at the ready.

Learn more about several Sanford centers and programs focusing on media and democracy:

Lines stretching across page

Examples of media and democracy impacts


nonpartisan redistricting

Polis hosted a two-day conference in January 2019 on redistricting reform with Common Cause. Previously, Polis worked with former UNC System Chancellor Tom Ross to create a mock redistricting panel comprising a bipartisan group of former N.C. judges and Supreme Court justices to show the potential for a nonpartisan redistricting commission. The General Assembly discussed the panel’s maps as it redrew districts in the fall of 2019.

About the project

2020 Elections

In 2020, Season 5 of the award-winning documentary podcast, Ways & Means focused on issues in U.S. politics and civic life and hot topics in the 2020 elections, in partnership with Polis.


Listen to the series

Why Vote Challenge

The Hart Leadership Program hosted the ‘Why Vote’ Video Challenge in 2020 to lift student voices during the election season. Almost 90 Duke students submitted 30-second videos aimed at convincing non-voters to vote.

Watch highlight reel

NC Campus Voting Challenge

The Hart Leadership Program and Polis: Center for Politics organized the 2020 U Can Vote NC Campus Challenge to support student voting, a competition among eight North Carolina colleges to see which school can get the most students registered and voting.  You Can Vote (YCV), a Durham-based nonprofit dedicated to nonpartisan voter education, supported the competition.


Redistricting Convening

Scholars, practitioners, advocates and students gathered in 2021 at Duke University to examine the topic of redistricting, the process of drawing congressional boundaries. The Duke gathering included judges, mathematicians, investigative reporters, activists, researchers, and more.

Read about the conference

Rural North Carolina

In March 2022, Polis hosted “Politics, Policy, and a New Economic Strategy for Rural North Carolina,” a conference that brought together an all-star group of policymakers, community members, practitioners, activists, and scholars to consider some of the most pressing questions facing North Carolina and the U.S. as we think seriously about investing in rural communities. 

Conference overview

Discourse for Democracy

The Sanford Development and Alumni Relations team partnered in 2022 with the Duke Forever Learning team to bring Sanford's knowledge and expertise to the Duke alumni community. A recent notable partnership was the “course” Discourse for Democracy.

Justice and Mercy

The 9th Street Journal turned five years old in 2023, and in that short time, the news site has had a big impact on students and the community. Student reporters get experience covering real-world local news stories under the guidance of professional editors. And in these days of scarce local media, The 9th Street Journal contributes to local coverage in a meaningful way by partnering with a local news outlet, IndyWeek. Students’ stories are shared with IndyWeek, which gives the stories a wider readership while giving the students professional clips. Student reporters have gone on to internships and full-time jobs at major national news outlets, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Politico, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and many more.

Watch video

Assisting the President

Stefanie Feldman PPS’10 works at the White House as President Biden’s Deputy Assistant for Domestic Policy. 

Read Stefanie's story

Guiding Durham

Jillian Johnson PPS’03 is an American politician and non-profit administrator. Since 2015, she has served on the Durham City Council and is the first LGBTQ member to be elected to the council. From 2017 to 2021, she served as the Mayor Pro-Tempore of Durham, N.C.

Read Jillian's story

International Reporting

Isabella Kwai PPS/English ’16 is a breaking news reporter for the London bureau of The New York Times. If you have opened The New York Times and read a new headline under the international section, chances are you have stumbled across a piece written by Kwai.

Read Isabella's story

Consul General - Wuhan, China

Melissa Lan PPS’01 recently served as the Consul General of the United States in Wuhan, China. In that role, she helped American citizens and promoted cultural programs and exchanges that enrich the relationship between the United States and China. Lan wrapped up the assignment in Wuhan in early 2024 and began a new role as a Deputy Executive Secretary.

Read Melissa's story

Faculty: Media & Democracy

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