The Good Fight
Danielle Allen on the Enduring Relevance of the Constitution

Danielle Allen on the Enduring Relevance of the Constitution

Yascha Mounk and Danielle Allen discuss how greater experimentation could strengthen democracy.

Danielle Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, where she also directs the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics. Her forthcoming book is Justice By Means of Democracy.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Danielle Allen discuss why the great American political texts of the 18th century can still inspire; how we can build a political system that invites more and more kinds of people to participate; and how such a form of "power-sharing liberalism" can reinvigorate our societies and promote human flourishing.

The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: The debate about liberalism, which used to be a kind of academic debate, has now become a much more urgent political debate. You have an interesting position in this debate as somebody who sees the flaws of liberalism and the need to reform it, but ultimately wants to defend it. 

What are some of the things that traditional liberals got right, and what are some of the things traditional liberals got wrong?

Danielle Allen: It’s a really hard political moment, and sort of the opposite of the End of History that Francis Fukuyama predicted when the Cold War fell and it looked as if liberalism was all-ascendant. I think your question is important because it points to how there have always been varieties of liberalisms, and it's really important to pay attention to what those varietes have been. 

But you have to start, of course, from the core: the commitment to basic human rights. And then, for me, the question is which categories of rights are at the focus of any given liberalism. You have your liberalisms that really focus on things like freedom of expression, or freedom of contract and free market participation. Philosophers will call those the “negative freedoms”—freedom from interference. Then you have varieties of liberalism that focus on the right to participate, to vote, to run for office, to help shape your community. Philosophers call those the “positive liberties.”

I think liberalism has gone wrong when it has focused exclusively on the negative liberties, the liberties about our own autonomous private sphere, separate from everybody else, where we control things, consume things and the like. And liberalism goes right, I believe, when we focus just as much on the positive liberties of participation, of playing a role as a coauthor of our collective lives and our political decisions.

Mounk: What does it mean when you say that liberalism is focused too much (or perhaps in some contexts, exclusively) on those negative liberties? As you've outlined them, certainly in the self-understanding of the United States and of most liberal democracies today, we think of a need for both of those [positive and negative liberties], right? Clearly the freedoms of speech, of assembly, and some basic economic freedom are a core part of our political system and something that we're rightly proud of. But the ability to vote, the ability to run for office, the ability to have free and fair elections, are also thought of as being really at the core of our political system. That obviously doesn't mean that every country has been able to sustain that for all of its citizens, but it feels sort of comfortably within the mainstream of the tradition as an aspiration that we should have. 

What does it mean in practice to over-index on the negative liberties and to neglect the positive liberties?

Allen: I think you honestly give us all too much credit in the picture that you just painted. I don't think we have been so good at holding on tight to the positive liberties of participation and the like. And I think one can see this in all kinds of ways. I said there are varieties of liberalism. Let me just name three that are conventionally recognized. There's the classical liberalism of the late 18th and 19th century, there's the Keynesian or Rooseveltian liberalism of the early 20th century, and then there's also neoliberalism. And I think if you go back to the sort of earliest variant, it's fair to say that across those kinds of liberalism, there was a recognition of both categories of rights. 

Famously, the French philosopher Benjamin Constant drew a distinction between those, calling negative liberties the liberties of the moderns, those that protected the commercial activity of the modern economy. The ancient liberties were those that protected rights of participation. And his view was that at the end of the day, we should prefer those negative liberties, the commercial liberties, where we are free from interference and can tend to our own gardens and build our own prosperity, because, of course, prosperity provides a certain kind of important degree of autonomy. I think we've neglected the fact that even when you come to the early 20th century, you look at Roosevelt, and there's four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear—none of those are actually positive liberties. They're all about how we live in terms of our own pursuit of the good, what we want to worship, what we want to talk about—and in freedom from want and freedom from fear, a certain kind of protection from the vicissitudes of life. But they're not about the freedom to participate, or the freedom to be a decision maker, for example. 

The ancient conception is that participation is actually a part of the human good. The actual experience of empowerment is a component of human flourishing. I am making the case that we need to recover that idea. Absent that idea, our politics is paternalistic and technocratic. That's the problem with our politics. I think precisely because it's paternalistic and technocratic, it works incredibly well for elites. But for those who have been subject to oppression and domination over time, the point to be made—and it doesn't matter if it's David Walker, Frederick Douglass or WEB Dubois—is that we will own and direct and steer our own lives. That requires empowerment at a collective level and it's not just instrumental. It's not just about self-protection. It's about full human dignity, the kind of human dignity that elites claim as technocrats, as steerers of policy, is a dignity that everybody deserves access to.

Mounk: I think a lot of the time I completely agree with you that the policies we have, and a lot of decisions we have, are so influenced and controlled by an affluent, highly-educated elite that often has its own kind of social milieu and doesn't really track what people want. But I'm also aware of the fact that the two of us have chosen to build our lives around thinking about politics, and anybody who's listening to this podcast is choosing to spend their free time listening to two people argue about politics. So our preferences in the world and our idea of what we want to do with our lives are just very different from those people, some of whom have political interests, and some of whom hate politics. 

How do we balance a different set of preferences? How do we balance between real openness to participation, and the fact that some people will simply choose not to think that much about politics?

Allen: Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, there was this very romanticized picture of what democracy ought to be that did involve the conception of everybody participating all the time, in big deliberative assemblies and things like that. That's not the case I'm making. I'm making a case for what I call “power-sharing liberalism,” a kind of reconstructed variant of liberalism that I would put on the table now, in the wake of neoliberalism. 

The point of power-sharing liberalism is that for any given decision that has to be made, you want to make sure that the decision-making structure is pooling all affected into the process. Sometimes representation is exactly enough to do that, if representation is working. If you take a look at Massachusetts, for example, we have a population that is dissatisfied with our situation on housing, on transportation, on the black-white wealth wealth gap, and with the response to the opioid epidemic in the state. We also have the lowest voting registration rate for African Americans in the country, at 42%. We have cities where the majority are people of color, but we don't have office holders of color. So in those instances, obviously, representation itself is failing to actually achieve the kind of participation that would channel into policy the frustration people have with basic building blocks of well-being. 

Representation might be enough, but we have to be really clear on the places where it's not even working to do what it's supposed to do. We need governance innovation to make sure that we have decision-making structures that are simultaneously effective and inclusive, but not in that sort of romanticized, sitting around talking all the time about everything kind of way.

Mounk: What does that mean concretely, and how do we make sure we don't fall into a trap that I perceive quite a lot in American politics at the moment, where there are stakeholders in society, but the people who speak for them often don't have very organic links to those groups? The person who says that they are representing Latinos isn't necessarily in accordance with what most Latinos believe politically, for instance.

Allen: This is exactly where our knowledge about how to operate constitutional democracy runs out. This has been an experiment for 250 years, and there's a need for new experimentation. 

I would point to another lesson from the COVID context. One of the things that was so striking in the case of schools operating during the pandemic was how hard it was for office holders (those with administrative or executive power) to ask people down at the far end of the policy chain what their perspective was. There were any number of concrete cases of teachers being told, “What you need to do is keep the windows open”—when their windows were nailed shut. The only person who could communicate that information back up the chain was the teacher, because they were the only ones who knew what the actual state of affairs was in the classroom. But nobody was asking the teacher. So in that regard, I think it's incumbent on any administrative person to be doing their due diligence, getting really clear on who all the stakeholders are, and then pulling that information in. And you're right—that doesn't mean just starting with self-appointed stakeholders. There has to be a kind of actual diagnosis of the shape of the issue being addressed, where the pain points are, and who's experiencing them.

I'll just make one last point here. There is really good knowledge and understanding about this coming out of the travails of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. General Stanley McChrystal developed the concept of fusion cells, which pulled people together from across the array of points of contact for any given problem. He didn't worry that much about where they stood in the hierarchy or the chain of command, but just made sure that the people who had the best visibility into different pieces of the problem were brought together into a sort of shared deliberation space. You don't need to make those things permanent, because as the shape of the problem changes, you're going to need a different conversational shape. That's where I think elected officials and people with administrative power need to have that capacity to build and shape a conversation that actually tracks the shape of the problem. 

Mounk: To change the topic a little bit, you defend liberalism despite some of its historical flaws. In the same way, you defend the Declaration of Independence despite some of the obvious injustices about late 18th century America. You hear in the discourse today some people saying, “These ideas were formulated 250 years ago by people who are flawed in all kinds of ways. Why should we be bound by the dead letter of these documents?” I agree with parts of that; I think the United States Constitution is particularly hard to amend. But why, more broadly, should we continue to look back at these texts and be inspired by them? 

Allen: It's hard for me to answer that question without quoting the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

This was a revolutionary statement in two senses: because it anchored a revolution, and also because it was philosophically revolutionary. It established the people as the judge for how their lives were going and acknowledged the capacity of the people to name when things were not going well, and to self-consciously reorganize the powers of government in order to achieve their goals of safety and happiness. Nobody had ever put that much acknowledgement of the power and capacity of the people on paper before—not Locke, not Hobbes. 

They screwed up because they thought it was possible to organize the powers of government by putting power only in the hands of men of property, as if that then could still yield protection of rights for all. That is not possible. Absolute power over others leads to abuse of others, period. Powers have to be shared broadly. That's where power-sharing liberalism comes in, as reconstruction beyond that original moment. But the point is that the original incredibly pithy statement in the Declaration is very profound in its articulation of human agency, and what is possible when we acknowledge human agency. 

Mounk: Let's go from theory to more practical questions. One of those practical questions is how much our institutions will have to change to work in the 21st century and to help to overcome some of the divisions in our society today. You were the lead author of an influential report on that. What can we do to actually change the structure of our political system in a way that makes a difference for the health and stability of our democracy?

Allen: You're referring to a report called “Our Common Purpose” that I had the pleasure of helping to draft, and this was a report issued by a commission sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The purpose of the commission was to think about the future of American democracy and try to propose a forward path.

The American Academy has been around for a really long time. We predate the Revolution, actually. George Washington was an early member. The purpose of the Academy was that this new country, this weird experiment in self-government, would always need (the founders thought) knowledge resources to help it meet the challenges of the day. And so we took up that charge in beginning to think about the challenges with democracy. We did that, but we also held listening sessions all over the country, and with people from very different kinds of backgrounds—those deeply committed to service like naval cadets, and those who don't vote at all, people from both political parties, and the like. But there's one person, one gentleman in Maine at a listening session there, who said something that really gave us the kind of core concept of our set of proposals for securing a healthy democracy. And he said, basically, “Right now we're experiencing kind of a vicious circle. Our institutions don't really deliver for us, and then that makes it feel like, ‘Why should I engage when we don't actually engage and participate?’ Then our awareness of each other, and our commitment to each other, degrades. Isn't democracy supposed to be a virtuous circle?” 

We really latched on to that idea and recognized that it's not just about institutions. We do need institutional reform. But we need those reforms partly in order to re-inspire people to participate and bring them back into the civil society organizations that give them a chance of learning about each other and learning how to bridge differences. And, of course, we need a media ecosystem that pulls all that together.

That's a very long-winded way of saying that there are things we can do to adjust our political institutions, and I don't see why we should anticipate less change in this century than either of our previous centuries have seen. If we stop and think about that, we've got a lot of change ahead of us, right? Think about how much institutional change there was in the 19th and 20th centuries. But at the same time that we have institutional change ahead of us, we need cultural change. We need those elites to abandon technocracy and paternalism. That doesn't mean abandoning expertise, but it means recognizing that their expertise needs to be complemented by the expertise of that teacher in the classroom who knew her windows were nailed shut.

Mounk: Perhaps my favorite work by you is a very personal book about your cousin. Tell us about his story and about what we can learn from it.

Allen: You're talking about my cousin Michael. We lost Michael in 2009, just before he was 30. And the thing about Michael's story is that he didn't start out with such different prospects from me. I wouldn't say they were identical, but they weren't worlds apart. We both grew up in Southern California; our parents had grown up in northern Florida and had fled the Jim Crow South looking for new opportunities. Michael's mother was my dad’s younger sister. My dad was making more progress professionally than his sister; he was a professor, his sister ultimately became a nurse, but it was definitely a much longer pathway there, for her.

Just as this country over the 50 years of my lifetime has experienced this great coming-apart, a pulling-apart, so too did our family. My lifetime has been exactly parallel to this incredible increase in income inequality and wealth inequality, to the incredible increase in mass incarceration, and so forth. And that's what we experienced in my family. Some of us ended up having the most extraordinary opportunities. Here I sit as a tenured professor at Harvard, and I have too many dead or debilitated cousins. 

In Michael’s case, in particular, he was arrested at the age of 15, in 1995: a first arrest for attempted carjacking in Southern California. That's an obviously terrible thing to have done. It was also a time, though, when punishment in California was at its most intense. So on that first arrest, he got a sentence of 12 years and eight months and served almost all of that from the age of 15. And that was the decisive factor of his life. He'd had two years out at the point in 2009 when he was shot and killed by somebody he had met while he was in prison. 

That was a real life turning point for me, and really pulled my attention into the question of how it is that we've built traps that catch talented people. Michael was an exceptionally talented young man. He was bright, full of curiosity, and charismatic. He made mistakes. He made bad mistakes. He had no second chance. And that was that, in effect. 

For me, the question is how to undo the traps that we built for people that result in the fact that some folks have just had a much higher degree of difficulty in their life, and a single slip is catastrophic—whereas others, in other circumstances, make a similar single slip, and it's not catastrophic. Substance use disorder is a huge part of that. But also, you make one slip, and then you can't get housing. You can't get into school. You can't get a job again because you've got a felony on your record. That has produced an extraordinary degree of hopelessness, and then that hopelessness ricochets and produces other problematic phenomena. I've been an advocate to end the War on Drugs for quite some time at this point, going on 15 years, and I'm also an advocate for really focusing our political economy on basic building blocks: housing, transportation, schools, jobs—all of those things have to exist in proximity to each other for anybody to have a chance. 

In the 19th century, this country had a focus on the concept of internal improvements: how do you put the infrastructure in place that gives people the chance to stand up and build a life for themselves? I believe we should replace our “safety net” conception with that foundational flourishing conception; that we should be invested in internal improvements that yield an infrastructure pack that makes it possible for people to stand up and find a pathway to flourishing.

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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.