An Academic Walks into a Diner (with Danielle Allen)
May 18, 2023
Click to read the full transcript
Danielle Allen [clip]: If we are serious about freedom for all of us, the only way you can achieve that is on a ground of equality.
Michael Tomasky: That’s Danielle Allen, our guest today, who’s going to answer questions like…
Felicia Wong Why is it inspiring to run for governor when no one knows your name?
Michael: What kind of freedom are progressives fighting for?
Felicia: What does it mean to architect democracy?
Michael: Architect as a verb. And how do we do that?
Felicia: I’m Felicia Wong, President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.
Michael: And I’m Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic.
Felicia: And this is How to Save a Country, our podcast about the ideas and people behind a progressive vision for America.
Michael: Felicia, we’ve talked a lot about freedom on this show. It’s a little bit of an obsession of mine as you’re vaguely aware. And I think our producer has put together a little montage of all the times it has come up in the past.
Elizabeth Warren [clip]: Democracy of freedom …
Julie Kohler [clip]: Our policies are pro-freedom …
Heather McGhee [clip]: Attacks on our children’s freedom to learn …
Amy Kapcynski [clip]: Women’s reproductive freedom …
Heather McGhee [clip]: The freedom to do things, to be creative …
Gary Gerstle [clip]: The four freedoms of neoliberalism …
Dorian Warren [clip]: What are all the conditions necessary for us to get to some sense of freedom and economic justice …
Felicia: Clearly there’s a lot to say about freedom. And so this episode, we’re going to dig into the question of freedom with Danielle Allen. It’s a question that I think is becoming more urgent every day. I think about these horrible, terrible, frightening instances of gun violence that have become … Michael, I don’t want to say they’ve been normalized in our country, but man, you look at the news and they feel increasingly regular.
Michael: I don’t think normalized is stretching the point actually, unfortunately, and we’re losing the freedom to feel safe in public spaces in schools, in churches, in shopping malls, in supermarkets. We’re not free to roam those places anymore because there’s another kind of freedom that the right is insisting on: the freedom to carry any kind of weapon, anywhere, under any circumstances.
Felicia: Yeah. Certainly Franklin Roosevelt wouldn’t have called that freedom.
Michael: No, no, no.
Felicia: He talked a lot about “the freedom from fear.”
Michael: I remember when I was covering politics in New York, Rudy Giuliani said the first freedom is the freedom to feel safe in your person. And if you don’t have that, you don’t have other freedoms. Well, he was aiming that at liberals then over crime, but now it’s aimed at the right over guns. Exact same sentiment.
Felicia: I can’t believe you just cited Rudy Giuliani somewhat approvingly!
Michael: Well, we’re able to haul his argument onto our side. So, in that way, it’s okay.
Felicia: All right. Well, I do agree with you that progressives, all Americans, but especially progressives, we have to really start making the case that freedom from violence is more important than the freedom to easily and quickly purchase something that’s really a powerful weapon of war.
Michael: What we’re really arguing about here, left and right, is two long-standing different definitions. Negative liberty versus positive liberty. Negative liberty is basically the freedom to be left alone, for the state not to interfere in your life very much, that the right emphasizes. Positive liberty or positive freedoms are freedoms to improve one’s lot in life through the help or actions of an actor, usually the state. So the state gives people the tools to live a freer life, a better life economically, a freer life socially and personally. And this is summarized in Roosevelt’s four freedoms, of which I think only two were positive freedoms.
Franklin Roosevelt [clip]: Freedom of speech … freedom of every person to worship God in his own way … freedom from want … freedom from fear.
Michael: So, Danielle has been a real intellectual leader in pushing us to think more about how we frame these arguments and this idea of positive liberty?
Felicia: Danielle is a professor of political philosophy at Harvard, and she’s just so immersed in these questions of the relationship between democracy, justice, and freedom. She recently ran for governor of Massachusetts, which is pretty brave for a Harvard professor. And she’s also the founder and president of the organization Partners in Democracy.
Felicia: I want to start with your experience in the reality of politics, your run for governor of Massachusetts in 2022. What inspired you to run for office and what was it like to be on the campaign trail?
Danielle Allen: I’m from people who have loved and fought for democracy for generations. I have a granddad who helped found one of the first NAACP chapters in Northern Florida in the ’40s. And on my mom’s side, I have a great grandmother who helped fight for women’s right to vote and ended up as president of the League of Women Voters in Michigan in the ’30s. So I grew up in a context where my family was just deeply committed to empowerment: empowerment for individuals, for families, and for communities. And I really believed in democracy. I do still believe in democracy, but as I was watching my own generation come up in the world, I saw something very different from what my parents experienced. In my parents’ generation, everybody pretty much came up together. My granddad had been a fisherman. His kids were small business owners and professors and the like. But then for my generation instead, it was what I call the “Great Pulling Apart.” So here I am sitting as a tenured professor at Harvard, which is a position of great privilege, incredible freedom and security. I have a brother who’s a corporate executive. And at the same time, as you mentioned, I’ve lost cousins, my dear, beloved cousins, and not in ways I can feel at peace about: substance use disorder, and homicide, for example. So I’ve been since 2009, when I lost my youngest cousin, Michael, really just trying to answer the question of “How can we change the dynamics of our politics so that we can pull together, take generational cohorts forward together?” It’s a necessary thing to achieve if democracy is going to be worth what we say it’s worth. So it’s not just abstractly valuable. Democracy is valuable if and when it also delivers for people in real ways. I ran for Massachusetts motivated by those two things. And a sense of just the powerful and painful disparities that we are watching from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic here in Massachusetts; I was in this protected bubble in Harvard and, just a couple of miles away in Chelsea, we had some of the highest mortality rates in the country and I saw that disparity is flowing directly from governance problems, from failures in our state government. I just honestly got angrier and angrier and angrier. My feeling was we had an immensely popular governor. It didn’t look like anybody was going to run against him and I thought somebody needed to.
Michael: So just say how long your campaign lasted and how far you got.
Danielle: In Massachusetts, we don’t say this out loud very often, but we have the fiftieth most restrictive candidate ballot access procedures in the country. So I didn’t make it out of the party process, basically, is what happened. You have to make it through a party process to get your name on the ballot, even for consideration by the primary electorate, and I did not make it through that process. So that was interesting to me, a huge eye-opening learning experience. It’s embarrassing to be a professor of political science and to have understood parties as little as I did, in all honesty, before I entered into the whole endeavor. Massachusetts is distinctive because as I said; the party control is greater here in Massachusetts than any other state in the country.
Michael: So you didn’t make it through the party process, but you still hit the trail for a long time, correct?
Danielle: Yeah. So I was on the trail for 15 months, which was really wonderful. I’ll have to admit, I started out with a kind of going to grit my teeth and eat my vegetables attitude. And then it was a truly joyful experience. It’s incredibly humbling and moving. I had zero name recognition when I started. That meant when I was meeting with people in their backyards or in cafes, I was just literally a stranger off the street coming in and saying, “Hi there. I’d like to be your next governor.” And the thing that was amazing about that was how frank people were in sharing about their lives, challenges, frustrations, tragedies. Also, they were just incredibly fulsome in sharing their ideas for what could be better. I quickly realized this was no reflection on me whatsoever. They literally didn’t know me, and again, I had no name recognition. What I came to understand was that this actually conveyed a deep faith and optimism in the power of our institutions to deliver for people. They didn’t want to miss the chance to tell somebody who might just end up as the next governor a thing or two about how things could be better. And that just really shifted me. We spend so much time thinking about how alienated people are from our institutions. And here was just the deepest well of faith of trust in them. So I left with a really great sense of responsibility.
Michael: You crafted a platform. You thought about the things you wanted to go out and say to people, obviously quite a bit progressive platform. Did that meet people where they were, or were you, like, “too left,” did anything about the reality of politics make you think, I don’t know, I can’t really persuade people of this?
Danielle: In terms of the politics of it and the agenda and the policies: no, honestly, it wasn’t hard to convince people. And in truth, I mean, the current governor’s agenda is ending up in a lot of places quite similar to things I advocated for. I began the campaign with a listening tour because I didn’t want to just come in and drop policy ideas from nowhere. I wanted to really understand what people were experiencing. And it was the result of that listening tour that led to a policy agenda that prioritized housing, transportation, schools, good jobs, justice and safety for all, in that order. And lo and behold, what’s our governor spending all of her time on? Housing and transportation.
Felicia: You can pick any of those: housing or transportation or justice and safety for all. I’d like to know very specifically what are the things that you really wanted to change? And how did people react to those?
Danielle: Yeah. Housing is a big one. We have a huge undersupply, and this is a place where I do consider myself allied with folks who are describing themselves now as abundance Democrats, or where the political economy model is supply side progressivism–
Michael: Okay so Felicia, let’s take a little pause here, a little step back and define some terms for people because these are new categories of democrats that most people have probably never heard of.
Felicia: New categories of small ‘d’ democrats.
Michael: Right. Yeah. We’ve got abundance democrats and we’ve got supply side democrats. So explain to our listeners who these people are and what they’re arguing about.
Felicia: It’s a good question, Michael, because it is this new or emergent debate. What I would say is that what both abundance democrats and supply side democrats—again, small ‘d’—would agree on is that one of the big problems in our economy is we don’t make enough of some things. We don’t make enough green energy. We don’t make enough housing. So the supply of something is really important and having that supply is important for our ability to thrive and to participate in our democracy. The difference, though, between abundance dems and supply side dems is that abundance democrats are skeptical that people participating in our democracy in a way that Danielle Allen advocates for, it’s going to really slow down our ability to build. Where supply side democrats would say, maybe, but we have to figure out ways to produce things like housing and green energy and childcare in ways that also include people’s voices and allow people to have a say in what happens in their towns and in their communities. So that’s the similarity and the difference between abundance democrats and supply side democrats.
Danielle: The goal is to change from a limited supply, restricted supply of some critical good to an abundant supply of that good. That means some alternative policy paradigms, and it means movement on both sides, movement on the left as well as anything else. So it means, for example, reconsidering how zoning operates, and it seemed really important in Massachusetts to try to break out of the cage of NIMBYism. NIMBYism really flows directly from municipal zoning decisions and the like, as people try to control who’s in their community and what kind of housing stock. And so the question was, how could we achieve a state-level housing policy that would unlock development, permit more mixed income housing in a greater variety of places around the Commonwealth, permit greater density in places that had been used to really protecting big lots and things like that. That was a major paradigm change that we were driving toward. And it’s underway. I mean, there’s actually legislation in the state house now that picks up a lot of that. And again, the governor has separated the housing and economic development secretariats in the cabinet in order to develop a statewide housing strategy for Massachusetts.
Felicia: How does that approach to supply side progressivism or more abundance, especially in the provision of important goods like housing, how does that relate to your theories of power and your theories of participation? Who should be participating in a regional or city planning process so that we can have enough housing for all of us?
Danielle: That’s a really great question. One of the challenges about housing is because in the first instance, when I say to you, “Oh, municipal zoning is one of the challenge areas,” a response might be, “Well, but isn’t that how people get to participate in their own local government and have a say in their own lives?” And the challenge, of course, is that there has to be an alignment between the jurisdictional level at which people are participating the impact of the decision. One of the real problems with housing is that the housing market is not bounded by municipal jurisdictions. People are making decisions in their municipalities that affect many others who do not necessarily have a say in that decision. So that’s why there’s a really important need to lift decision making up to a regional level or a state level, it’s still possible for people to have participatory rights, even in that shifted jurisdictional framework. It’s also really important to see how basic elements of our democracy directly connect to this housing issue. When you track who’s voting in Massachusetts, the electorate is hugely skewed in the direction of property owners. Renters do not participate at remotely close to the same rates. And one of our most challenging political problems in Massachusetts is the nonadoption of same day voter registration. Same day voter registration, right, is when you can show up at the polls right on the day of the election and register right then. So it doesn’t matter if you’ve moved in the last month, your address is not a problem for you. And so same day voter registration is a particularly valuable voting access provision for people who rent. So that’s been stuck in our legislature for about 20 years, and it shows in terms of the non-attention to renters in our public policies.
Michael: Just one more question on your experience as a politician. I want to expand this and make it a little bit more national in this way. So okay, the three of us are all involved in our different ways in this fight for a new economic paradigm, right? And, in each of our minds, that paradigm consists of X number of policies and programs that we think the president and the congress should enact. Did you learn anything in your 15 months as a politician to change the way you think about what the specific elements of that program should be? What might work? Is there anything that you were persuaded, “Eh, this is not going to be popular. This is not going to work”?
Danielle: For me, I think the thing that was really interesting about being on the campaign trail was taking a lot of policy ideas that many of us have been working through in workshops and seminars and so forth for a long time, and thinking about them at the state level. That felt, to me, where the real learning experience was. We do very often think first about what federal policies would best exemplify a given policy strategy or policy paradigm. And so it was an interesting break. For 15 months, I honestly didn’t think much about federal policy or politics at all with the exception of what role I wanted the federal government to have in relationship to supporting state efforts. And so that did reorient me in various ways. It did help me see places. For example, if you think about climate for a moment, I came to have a much stronger interest in having the federal government facilitate regional collaborations around energy infrastructure. So not the kinds of things we are always talking about, right? Not the sort of electric vehicle investment and stuff like that. Our problem is we can’t actually manage energy flow regionally, which is something that we need to do. And for whatever reason, this one I never really quite figured out, the governors of the various adjacent states were just actually not in conversation about.
Felicia: Is this about building better transmission for clean energy?
Danielle: Exactly, yeah, the grid. The grid, basically. And not just that, but also the question of: If you’re going to really be relying on renewables, that means you need to have your energy moving, multi-directionally, and not just unidirectionally. You need to re-architecting of the whole grid structure. Europe has achieved regional collaborations to do this. We have not. So that would be a kind of example of a policy idea. I like to say, sometimes our political debate gets stuck in this fight between whether or not you should privatize everything or subsidize everything. But we should spend our time reorganizing lots of things. That would be an example where some basic infrastructural reorganization would unlock some supply blockages and let us make much better use of renewable energies than we’re currently able to make. So that became visible to me by virtue of campaigning and I wouldn’t have seen that otherwise.
Felicia: So, Danielle, what I love about our conversation so far is it’s a great illustration of pragmatism. And you actually describe yourself philosophically as a pragmatist. So I’d love you to talk a little bit more about this pragmatist and participatory approach to your intellectual politics.
Danielle: So often when people hear the word pragmatist, they just think of smoke-filled back rooms and deal making. That’s, I think, person-on-the-street understanding of “what’s a pragmatist.” And as you allude, I connect myself to that label coming out of the philosophical tradition of pragmatism. The philosophical tradition of pragmatism is one that is really focused on a concept of human well-being and human flourishing. There is a possibility for us all to live well, to be flourishing creatures, to thrive, but there aren’t a priori answers about how to achieve that. We have to experiment our way toward figuring out what those answers are. That’s what I am philosophically speaking. I do have a view that well-being is possible. I have some rough ideas about what well-being is like, what is necessary for it. Those rough ideas are captured by concepts like freedom and equality and empowerment, for instance, and then, you go about trying to design organizations and laws and policies to achieve that, knowing you’re going to screw up. There’s going to be mistakes. So you have to bring humility to it, and you have to be ready to correct and adjust as you go. Then that’s where the democracy part really comes in. For all of that iterative problem solving that we need to do around collective problems, the only way you can do that is if you’re building a big community of thinkers and knowers and feelers who are sharing their reactions to the experiments together and learning together. I think of democracy as a continuously learning experience that we’re all a part of.
Felicia: Yeah. And I’m also struck by, obviously your learning orientation, but also your building and architecting metaphors that you sometimes use. I’m going to quote you back to yourself and I would love to get your reaction to this—
Danielle: That’s alarming.
Felicia: So here’s something you said in the widely acclaimed Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, “The purpose of democracy is to empower individual citizens and give them sufficient control over their lives to protect themselves from domination. Political equality is not, however, merely freedom from domination. The best way to avoid being dominated is to help build the world in which one lives—to help, like an architect, determine its pattern and structure.” So say a little bit more about this building and building together.
Danielle: It’s a pretty simple idea. I often credit W. E. B. Du Bois with it. He talks about the aspiration to be a co-creator in the kingdom of culture, and that’s really what I’m getting at. Each one of us, in seeking to thrive, we want to steer our own lives in our private spaces, but our lives are never just in private spaces. We share the world with others. In sharing the world with others, we are always subject to norms and constraints, rules, procedures, and the like. So the only way in which one can have a sense of empowerment in relationship to those things is if one has helped to create them, to be that co-creator in the kingdom of culture or in the kingdom of law and policy, for example. I suppose it’s because those things that are collective creations, whether it’s culture or law or policy, have a structural effect. I think that’s where then the building metaphor comes in for me.
Felicia: Sorry, what do you mean by “structural effect” in that sentence?
Danielle: In the sense that there’s a certain kind of rigidity once the law is passed, right? It structures the world. You can’t kind of fudge with it. You can’t walk around it. It’s unbending or unyielding until you develop a new law. So there’s that sense of, we are inside a world that does have some fixed walls and fixed parameters. The only question is really, “Have we helped to design those fixed walls and fixed parameters or are we subject to somebody else’s design?”
Michael: I want to ask you about freedom. I talk a lot about freedom on this show and I write a lot about how Democrats and progressives need to recapture that word and reframe it and redefine it. So just talk about the word and the concept and how you think progressives need to define and think about freedom.
Danielle: I really appreciate your asking that, Michael, because I said before, I affiliate myself or ally myself with folks who call themselves abundance democrats. But what I really call myself is a freedom democrat.
Michael: There you go.
Danielle: And for me, abundance is the political economy for freedom democrats. But what I really want to be is a freedom democrat.
Michael: If we were in the House, you and I would be in the Democratic Freedom Caucus.
Danielle: There you go. That’s right, exactly. But that’s an important thing to say is to reclaim that word, right? Not to let it just have the meaning it has developed of anarchic desire to be free from all governmental interference or all governmental activity. That is a limited and partial understanding of freedom. It’s one that erodes the capacity of societies to pursue the common good. So I proudly embrace the concept of freedom for all, freedom for all requires equality that we be on equal footing with each other, political equality. And it is a concept that is about empowerment. Fundamentally, again, I come back to that. Am I empowered in my private life? And am I empowered with others, working with others, in my public life? And importantly, that freedom requires what, in jargon, we would call “capacitation.” That is to say, you have to have a foundation to stand on in order to carry out acts of freedom. So there’s a certain material foundation that is necessary to support freedom. This country has known this for a long time. When George Marshall was developing the Marshall Plan for Europe, the grounds for that plan was that it was necessary to build the economy that could support a free society. And that was about material capacitation. So freedom is closely connected to economic realities. You need a political economy that supports people’s empowerment in their work lives, in their personal lives, and in their public participation with one another.
Michael: One of your most oft-quoted lines is, “Equality is the bedrock of freedom.” Spell that out a little bit more for listeners. I mean, because those concepts are usually presented to us as being intention, but you say no, no, no.
Danielle: That’s right. I do say, no, no, no. The short of it is, if we are serious about freedom for all of us, the only way you can achieve that is on a ground of equality. By definition, if some are in an unequal position, in relationship to others, their freedom will be eroded. So equality, in multiple meanings, is a necessary foundation for achieving freedom. And it really goes that way round. So when I say multiple meanings, there has to be political equality; that means voice and choice for all, full participation in voting, but also in running for office, in seeing and shaping your community, which is about access to a healthy information ecosystem. It’s also about money in politics and whether or not that’s skewing legislators’ attention, and the like, all those kinds of issues. But it’s also about social equality. Do we have a culture and habits of treating each other with mutual respect? Can we name grievances that we have in relationship to each other and redress them when they appear? It’s about what I call “epistemic egalitarianism.” It’s that learning process I was talking about and recognizing that people who are situated very differently all have things to contribute to trying to solve a problem. I’m a big advocate for researchers working to co-create research agendas with communities that are affected by a particular problem. Not on high deciding what the most important question is. And then there’s an economic egalitarianism that’s necessary as well. If you can’t find your way to provision of life’s necessities, you can’t participate in our politics. Let me just give you one very powerful story I heard on the campaign trail. One day I got an email from a young woman who said she’d been at one of my events a few days ago, and could we please possibly talk? She had some questions she wanted to ask me. So I called her, of course, and she said, “You told all these stories about how your family had this deep history of civic engagement, and I was really moved by them, but what I was really struck by was my family has those stories too, and I’m not engaged.” So she said then that that led her to ask the question, “Why was she not engaged since she had this history in her own family of engagement?” And she realized that it was because her rent was so high she knew she was moving soon. And she’d been moving soon for quite some time! So she was not in any community. She was never going to have roots enough to engage. So that’s a very clear and concrete example of the way in which economic realities affect the chance of having freedom, of having that full participation in your civic life.
Felicia: Yeah. That notion of freedom in particular strikes me as very Arendtian. It’s the freedom to participate and to live the active life, the vita activa, which is how Arendt talked about it.
Michael: You have a new book. I mean, brand new, just out, Justice by Means of Democracy. So I’m just going to ask a very open ended question here, why don’t you tell our listeners what your thesis and argument is in the new book?
Danielle: My thesis is that 200 years worth of philosophers, just to be very ridiculously grandiose about it, 200 years worth of philosophers on both right and left have made a fundamental mistake about freedom. They have prioritized freedom from interference over the freedom to participate. So they have prioritized freedom of conscience and religion and association over the freedom to vote and to run for office and to hold leadership roles and to participate in all those different ways in shaping society. And because of that fact, we have had over and over again policy frameworks that have reserved power to some and excluded others from it. Basically every time you do that, ultimately that leads to the abuse of the people who are excluded from power. And therefore, none of those liberal paradigms, whether left or right can ever actually deliver justice. The only way you can actually deliver justice is if you fully include in full sharing of power responsibility all those who are in the polity who are impacted by decision making. So Justice by Means of Democracy is about finally achieving universal inclusion in democracy, in all the aspects of participation and power sharing, but then answering the question, “If you take that protection of the freedom to participate as nonsacrificable, as fundamental to human well-being, then what theory of justice flows from that?” And then you start to get that picture of political economy that I was articulating earlier as well.
Michael: Yeah. And it implies a government that has to be more active in ensuring those freedoms to participate as opposed to freedoms from—philosophy calls those the negative freedoms—the freedom to be left alone. You emphasize the positive freedoms, the freedom to participate. That implies a more activist government, doesn’t it?
Danielle: It’s certainly a more activist government than a libertarian would develop for sure. It’s not as big state a government as a fully Keynesian social democracy state might perhaps pursue. I can’t remember exactly who said it, but I like to say libertarians fail at inequality or fail at the common good and statists fail at innovation. I’ve tried to craft a view that addresses both of those problems. So, yes, you do need a more active government, a stronger commitment to public goods and to a notion of the public good and what’s shared in society. But wherever possible, you also want to really activate the powers and capacities of civil society, both the commercial sector and the nonprofit sector so that you’re looking for three-way partnerships among the public sector, the commercial sector, and the nonprofit sector. And sometimes you only need public sector, or sometimes you only need the nonprofit sector. You need different blends for different problems.
Felicia: One of the things that you say in your new book is that in the wake of all of the crises we’ve experienced in the last decade or two, the financial crisis, the election of Donald Trump, and Brexit, and many, many, many authoritarians throughout Europe and frankly the world, and then in the wake of the Covid pandemic, you say that the need for a reinvented political economy has only become more pressing, but that the way to actually reinvent the political economy is to step back from economics. Love to hear you talk about that.
Danielle: Well, so there I’m ventriloquizing Keynes actually, who at some point said, all of the living economic and policy theories are really an aftereffect of the writings of some long-dead philosopher. That is: First comes moral orientation, and after moral orientation comes the question of how you deliver on that.
Felicia: So we have to put philosophy first and then economics, is that what you’re saying?
Danielle: Basically, yes. It’s a certain amount of disciplinary, parochialism, and bias.
Felicia: So you’re ventriloquizing Keynes, but?
Danielle: What we’ve been living with, the neoliberal economic paradigm, which does really emphasize privatization, emphasizes boilerplate development policies around the world, and highly technocratic approach to economic policy as well. All of these things are direct outgrowths of a body of work developed in the middle of the twentieth century, including philosophical work, and it’s time actually for revisiting some of those core philosophical questions. The biggest question that the earlier generations of philosophers failed to address was power, and how power interacts with the economy. So that’s what I’m really trying to put on the table a different picture of how power should operate in society.
Felicia: Do you mean like through big companies, through lobbyists? When you say “how power interacts in the economy,” can you be specific about what you mean?
Danielle: At the moment, I’m saying something quite abstract, which is about the relationship between power and human well-being. That brings me back to my case for democracy. But as I said, lots of philosophers really didn’t care about power. The idea was, “No, your right to participate, it’s not such a big deal. You can let that go if somebody’s just taking care of basic material well-being” and I’m saying, “No, we can’t let that go.” Because when we let that go, what we get is companies with too much power over all our lives, all kinds of things. The reason we have the big concentrations of power that we have the reason that in the workplace, workers do not have sufficient control over their own time, for example, and are too dominated by employers and the like, I would say is because the orienting philosophies out of which economics, thought developed stripped power out of the picture.
Michael: I want to ask you about one idea that you’ve been promoting recently, that’s also a pet issue of mine. And I want to see what our listeners think of this because it’s not particularly intuitive to people that the size of the house of representatives is far too small. But it is, it’s 435 people. It hasn’t changed in more than a century, about a century, when back then one member of Congress represented about 90,000 people. Now it’s 760,000 people. No other legislative body in a large democratic country has anywhere near that ratio. So, I’m with you all the way, so explain to people why this is needed and what it would accomplish.
Danielle: So it’s super interesting the difference that this makes, and it is counterintuitive to people. So the House of Representatives has the job of communicating the voice of the people, and therefore has the greatest burden of responsiveness to the people, the greatest burden of actually delivering constituent services, directly to people, and so also, the greatest sort of immediate accountability of the people, or in principle, that should be the case. That protection of our liberties by making sure we can hold our elected officials accountable. So with large districts, you lose a lot of those things. You lose that sense of connection to your representatives and responsiveness. It’s harder to hold representatives to account because it takes more money to run in a bigger district. And so money starts to matter more in politics, you sort of go down the line and you can see the effects. Germany has a particularly large legislature, they’ve got about 735 legislators despite being about a third the size of our country. And among OECD nations, they have one of the lowest levels of political alienation and disaffection in their populace. And my hunch is that this is directly correlated.
Michael: Really interesting. I think people would want to know, looking at the future, there are a lot of signs of hope. There are a lot of things to be worried about. Heck of a lot of things to be worried about. Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the next 10 years of this country’s civic life?
Danielle: I always say to people, for me, it’s not about optimism or pessimism. I just have such powerful commitment to human flourishing and I see democracy is necessary for that. So figuring out how to navigate these complex times to achieve healthy democracy, I just consider non-optional. So I always just say I’m a nonoptionalist, nonoptimist, I’m not a pessimist. I’m just a nonoptionalist.
Michael: That’s a good one. Here’s a question we ask everyone. This show is called How to Save a Country. So if you could name one big thing, how would you save this country?
Danielle: I think every state needs a new electoral system called Top Five Electoral System. This is when you no longer have party primaries, you have all-comer preliminaries, and then the top five finalists from that all-comer preliminary go along to the final round of the election and you use instant runoff in that final round so that the winner has to get over the 50 percent threshold before they can step into office. I think if every state had that electoral system, we’d see a congress that could increase its size and get back to the business of making decisions.
Michael: That is the most impressively concrete answer we’ve ever gotten to that question.
Danielle: Well, good. Let’s go do it.
Felicia: Yes, I like it. Danielle Allen, thank you so much for being on our show and sharing with us the remarkable life that you are leading as a democrat, small ‘d’.
Danielle: Thank you so much, Felicia. I appreciate it. Thank you, Michael. It’s really a treat to speak with both of you.
Michael: Thank you.
Felicia: So Michael, I have to say this conversation with Danielle, it’s such a strong argument for people getting involved in politics, Not everyone has to run for governor of Massachusetts, but so many people in our movement, our prognosticators, opinion people who are pushing a message of doom and—maybe just getting up and getting involved, maybe that’s a good answer to that.
Michael: Yeah, that was good to hear. And, how she was focused on fixing things at the state level. I think we need a little more of that too. And of course, I liked what she had to say about freedom, and I think the term “freedom democrats” is a good one that more of them should use and could really catch on.
Felicia: Yeah, her arguments that freedom emerges from conditions where people are empowered to participate, to architect, to structure the world around them, it’s great.
Michael: Since we’re taking this optimistic note here, Felicia, you have any good news this week that you think people might want to hear?
Felicia: Yeah. Well, Michael, what if I told you that I think the good news emerges from our conversations about the debt ceiling?
Felicia: You sound skeptical, Michael
Michael: Well, have at me.
Felicia: So obviously the debt ceiling is legitimately scary. There is absolutely no world in which we should feel good about House Republicans forcing us toward the possibility of an actual default, the United States not paying our debts, not paying social security checks, not paying federal employees, that is terrible. But here’s what’s good about it, a lot of legal scholars recently have actually been making the argument to say: We don’t have to be trapped, that actually the Fourteenth Amendment of our Constitution says that the validity of the public debt of the U.S. shall not be questioned. The President is constitutionally obligated to go ahead and pay our bills. We can make democratic, small ‘d’, choices about how to interpret our Constitution and interpret our Constitution in the ways that most Americans want.
Michael: I thought it was a big moment in early May when Larry Tribe came out in favor of it, reversed his position from the past.
Felicia: Yeah, eminent constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, Joey Fishkin, who is a constitutional lawyer from UCLA, Bob Hockett from Cornell. These are very eminent scholars who are basically saying: The best way to deal with a terrible situation where a few people are weaponizing obscure rules is actually for the president to declare that he has a better way forward and that better way forward is based on the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.
Michael: Yeah, how would that play politically? I don’t know. The right would be up in arms. Most Democrats would be supportive. Swing voters? I don’t know. I don’t get the sense that people are married to the idea that we have to have these ridiculous fights over the debt limit every couple years. He might win that argument.
Felicia: I think it’s also important, of course, how the markets are going to react to this.
Felicia: That is legitimately unclear and my biggest concern about the president doing something like just declaring that the Constitution says that he can go ahead and continue to pay the bills, full faith and credit of the U.S. is how the markets will react. So I’m not going to pretend to understand that, but I think on political grounds and on constitutional grounds, declaring that we aren’t going to be held hostage, that seems like a smart thing to do.
Michael: I think so. The other important reaction, of course, is that of the Supreme Court, because it may end up there. If he were to do this, it would be Biden calling the bluff of the conservative Supreme Court to see if they are willing to risk the full faith and credit of the United States.
Felicia: Maybe they should listen to eminent constitutional scholars, like Laurence Tribe and Joey Fishkin.
Michael: There you go. Nice little circle there.
Felicia: Tell us about our guest next week.
Michael: Yeah. Very cool guest. Nancy Folbre is an economist at University of Massachusetts Amherst. And she is one of the leading feminist economists in the country.
Felicia: Love it.
Michael: What is feminist economics? A lot of people listening to this show, I think, probably don’t even know that such a discipline or subdiscipline exists. I didn’t know until a few years ago, but I started reading about it and started reading some of Nancy’s work and what she has to say is interesting to me because it fits into this broader category of talking about a new economic paradigm and changes in the economic profession that we have discussed on this show with other guests like Brian Deese, like Heidi Shierholz of Economic Policy Institute. And I think feminist economics in the way it challenges those neoclassical assumptions is an important part of this puzzle.
Felicia: Totally right. I think feminist economics is one of the ways that we’re going to get to a high-care, low-carbon economy. And I’m really excited to talk to you about this, Michael, next week, because I think this was your first solo interview. So I get to learn from you and from Nancy at the same time. I’m looking forward to it.
Michael: Yeah, well, I’ve done a few solo interviews in my life, but it’s true that this—
Felicia: I meant on this show!
Michael: I know, I know. Anyway, it was a fun conversation.
Nancy Folbre [clip]: If you look at the history of economic ideas, It was very enthusiastic from the outset about the idea of men pursuing their self-interest. The possibility that women might be self-interested and might not want to devote themselves completely to the care of men and children, that was a very subversive idea.
Felicia: How to Save a Country is a production of PRX in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.
Michael: Our script editor is Christina Stella. Our producer is Marcelo Jauregui-Volpe. Our lead producer is Alli Rodgers. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzales, and our mix engineer is Pedro Rafael Rosado.
Felicia: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound with other music provided by APM. How to Save a Country is made possible with support from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that is reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal well-being at omidyar.com.
Michael: Support also comes from the Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society Initiative, working to foster the development of a new common sense about how the economy works and the aims it should serve.
One of the clearest ways to see how a political idea lands in the real world is to hit the campaign trail. These ideas go through the ultimate test in cafes and backyards, in conversations with people who want to share their own experiences. Last year, Harvard political philosophy professor Danielle Allen was able to experience this firsthand when she ran for governor of Massachusetts.
This week, Danielle—who is also the founder and president of the organization Partners in Democracy—speaks with Felicia and Michael about her 15-month campaign and what she learned about our political institutions.
“The thing that was amazing about that was how frank people were in sharing about their lives, challenges, frustrations, tragedies,” Danielle says. “And so what I came to understand was that this actually conveyed a deep faith and optimism in the power of our institutions to deliver for people.”
Michael and Felicia also talk to Danielle about the policies she advocated, what freedom for all actually looks like, and her most recent book, Justice by Means of Democracy.
Presented by the Roosevelt Institute, The New Republic, and PRX. Generous funding for this podcast was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network. Views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of its funders.
For more from Danielle, check out her book Justice by Means of Democracy. You can also learn more about her work and research on her website, including writing that’s appeared in outlets like the Washington Post and Boston Review.
In this episode, Danielle talks about her experiences going from policy and academia to the campaign trail. For more on the “distinction between governing and messaging,” as House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries calls it, catch up on his How to Save a Country episode from last season: “House Leadership: The Next Generation.”