Harvard Professor Danielle Allen and Wellesley President Paula Johnson Discuss What’s Next For Democracy

paula johnson and danielle allen talk over zoom
Published on 

What do you love about America?

When Danielle Allen, a political theorist and professor at Harvard, was working with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship and its report, Our Common Purpose, she had conversations with people all over the United States and found that there was often disagreement about ideas and words such as patriotism or solidarity, and what they mean for how we relate to one another. But one thing the people did have in common: A shared love of country.

“We might have very different reasons for loving the country,” Allen said during a conversation with Wellesley President Paula A. Johnson at a January 28 virtual event titled “What’s Next? Democracy After 2020.” “We all see its flaws, as well as its virtues...and the crazy thing was everywhere we went, everybody could answer that question, why they love their country.”

The event was the culmination of the College’s first January Project, a monthlong all-campus Wintersession that provided students with immersive, experiential learning opportunities and engaged the entire community through a series of seminars that addressed four themes: the COVID-19 pandemic, the changing environment, the movement for racial justice, and the 2020 election.

“What comes next for democracy? I’m thrilled to have a chance to pose this question to Harvard’s Danielle Allen, a renowned political theorist, classicist, and so much more,” Johnson said in her opening remarks. “Someone who’s changing how we think about democracy in recent years. [Allen’s] work has been both an inspiration and a source of hope for me. And I’ve no doubt, it’ll be the same for you.”

A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Allen is James Bryant Conant University Professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard. Previously, she served on the faculties of the University of Chicago and Princeton University before returning to Harvard, where she had earned her PhD, in 2015. (Johnson noted that Allen’s grandmother, Barbara Ethel Johnson, received her master’s in English at Wellesley in 1941.)

Johnson asked Allen to assess our current moment—on the heels of the Trump presidency and amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic. What has made some countries more successful in addressing the pandemic, Allen said, is “the ability of governments to lead across party lines, and without the drag of polarization” as well as “internal solidarity, a sense of the citizenry that it’s time to pull together and do things on each other’s behalf.”

The key to achieving that is a strong foundation of trust, she said. Through her research, Allen found that people get caught in a vicious cycle where they find institutions to be dysfunctional and nonresponsive, not empowering, and as a result, they participate less in civil society organizations and public life.

“Without the chance to participate in that way, they had fewer encounters with people who are unlike them, and therefore are falling into more separated groups, and then our culture of mutual commitment erodes,” she said. “You get a sort of downward spiral of nonresponsive institutions and civic culture that’s not helping people bridge difference, and the degrading of common culture.”

The goal, she said, “is to flip the switch from that negative equilibrium to a positive equilibrium or a virtuous cycle where we reform our institutions so that they can be responsive and empowering the citizens and provides equal representation.” She said we need to invest in our civil society organizations so that they have the capacity to create connections, and then “we work to rebuild a culture of mutual commitment to one another into our constitutional democracy.”

Allen talked about a project she created called 10 Questions for Young Changemakers, a set of questions to help young people reflect on their civic life online. “We really want to help them develop the ability to think about a ‘we,’” she said and to move them to a more community-minded focus, rather than focusing on the “I.”

Johnson asked, “What do you think needs to happen in the next 100 days to bring our country together to move forward?”

“I can’t pretend to have a magic wand or an easy solution,” Allen said. “I don’t think it’s a 100-day job. I don’t think we’re going to get there in 100 days, I think we’re in it for the long haul of a really serious body of work,” Allen said. “So I think there’s a great challenge with how we do the work of our government these days.”

Ultimately, Allen hopes that people in the United States can cease to see each other as enemies and come to recognize that our incredible division is actually our worst enemy. To do that, and build that trust, we need to listen to each other.

“The question is, when you are talking to somebody whose perspective is so different from your own, can you repeat back to them what they’ve said, and have them confirm that it’s a fair representation of their view?” she said. “That should come first, before you speak back, answer back, or share your opinion back. Can we actually represent each other’s points of view to one another in ways that each party recognizes?”