On Oct. 19, the college hosted “Why Democracy Matters,” a virtual lecture part of the Amherst Conversations Spotlight Series. At the event, Danielle Allen H’18 was interviewed by three students particularly interested in Law Jurisprudence and Social Thought, Bella Edo ’21, Ryan Kyle ’23 and Jeremy Thomas ’21, during which Allen expressed her thoughts on the definition of democracy and the compatibility of democracy and justice, as well as democracy’s importance in the contemporary political climate.
The dialogue, which had more than 180 live viewers, consisted primarily of Amherst students, faculty, alumni and other Amherst communal members.
In addition to her role as a former Amherst College Trustee, Allen is a professor in the department of government at Harvard University and director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. Allen has published work in the spheres of democratic theory, political sociology and the history of political thought. Recently, the professor received the 2020 John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity from the Library of Congress.
Threading together the conversation, Allen’s responses drew on her definition of democracy. For Allen, democracy revolves around creating structures that enable collaboration. In particular, she argued that the function of a democracy is to provide mechanisms that disperse power and empower its citizens.
At the beginning of the conversation, she spoke about the tools necessary to a democracy. “For me, [democracy is] a pretty basic concept. It goes back to its original Greek etymology. ‘Demos’ and ‘Kratos’ — the power of the people, is power in the hands of ordinary people,” she said. “Sometimes people think that if you call something a democracy, what you’re referring to is a majority vote. That’s not the case from my point of view. A majority vote is one tool, but one among many tools that you have to use together to make sure that power is well distributed throughout the people. The goal to be achieved is the egalitarian empowerment of a citizenry. So you also need minority protecting mechanisms, you need, sometimes, modes of decision making by deliberation or consensus rather than by majority vote.”
This definition flowed into a discussion of the intersection of democracy and justice. In response to a question from Edo about the role of justice, Allen explained that justice and democracy are compatible and synchronous. Drawing on her definition of democracy, Allen described her investigative efforts into the convergence of law and individual empowerment.
“One of the things I’m doing is focusing on what I believe is a necessary pathway for human flourishing, namely that individuals be empowered. When I say this, I am speaking about the idea that human well-being depends on a person’s ability to chart their own life course, sometimes that gets called autonomy,” Allen said.
“We have a bad habit of thinking of autonomy as a private matter — that is, it’s about charting my own life of course in my own private sphere — but at the end of the day, none of us can escape the constraints that come from our lives together, whether those are laws or social norms or whatever else,” she added. “Given that we all shape our lives in the context of constraints, if I am going to actually thrive through empowerment, I have to be able to shape those laws and norms. So in other words, in order to thrive and be an author of my life, I have to also be a co-author of our shared rules and laws.”
As the discussion moved towards individuality and autonomy, Allen returned to the original discussion of democracy and expressed that the only possible way to cultivate a society is to set up structures that make up individual expertise and allow for bipartisan decision-making.
At several moments during the lecture, Allen emphasized that it is the job of the next generation to amend the mechanisms of the United States’ political system to fit “the conditions in which we live.” For Allen, the founding fathers were “revolutionary radicals”, but their ideas are not perfectly suited to the new age of social media that began almost 15 years ago.
After the interview, listeners were able to ask Allen questions. In response to a question from Bob Howard ’76, Allen explained that democracy depends on a “strong and liberal education of a free people.”
“Whether we’re voting for an elected official, or we’re making a judgement on a policy, we are actually making judgments about our social objectives, the value set that we want to anchor, and so to speak, operationalized for our society,” she said. “And then, we’re also making judgments and effectively empirical judgments about what we think the most effective pathway of realizing those values might be. And we have to make those judgments and conditions of uncertainty. We have to make them understand their implications for the people around us. And the skills entailed and making judgments of those kinds, are skills that are taught by the liberal arts.”
Chuck Lewis ’64 called attention to the fact that contemporary discussions of democracy often use terms such as “equity, diversity and inclusiveness,” prompting Allen to contemplate the present political climate and the changes that must be made to ensure that U.S. democracy endures.
“I think it’s necessary because take a substantive domain like police brutality, or our pandemic response. In both cases, we’ve seen clarity, actually about what needs to change and an inability to drive the change to our political institutions,” she said. “So our political institutions are the blockage, the democracy reform movement needs to connect to the justice movement and needs to connect to the health movement. It needs to become consolidated.”