Highlights from Book Club Conversation with Danielle Allen


Danielle Allen and Cathy Stewart

Danielle Allen and Cathy Stewart

On Sunday, October 19th, the Politics for the People book club spent an hour talking with Danielle Allen about her book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.  I have pulled out just a couple of excerpts from our conversation. You can listen to our entire conversation at the end of this post.  (Note: if the audio links do not appear in the email version of this post, just click on the email to come to the blog.)

Here is my introduction of Danielle Allen and the book.


In my opening question to Danielle, I ask her to share with us what she thinks the Declaration of Independence offers us today.  At a moment where many Americans are grappling with the rising level of political and social crises and a paralysis and political gridlock.  We face a failing education system, poverty rates that have not budged in decades, environmental and health care crises, and the list could go on… And we’re at a time in our country when 42% of Americans are independents–have left the two major parties that control so much of the apparatuses of our government.  I think you can make a serious case that we are at a moment where the consent of the governed is eroding to a very alarming point.  And–as I said on our call–the two parties have become, perhaps tyrants that have erected many barriers to the full participation of the American people.  I asked our guest if she thought the Declaration was a guide in these times, and what does it suggest the American people should do.  Give a listen to her thoughtful response.

Dr. Jessie Fields and Dr. Allen had a rich conversation about the compromises on slavery in the Declaration.

Here is an excerpt of what Danielle had to say:

“It is important to understand precisely where the compromises are in the document.  There are two compromises. One was a compromise that went in favor of the anti-slavery party and the other was a compromise that went in favor of the pro-slavery party….They did embed a contest in the document. This is where I get to the sort of general point about compromise and democracy. Is it a structural flaw or is it actually a valuable way of working out the hardest problems. So here’s what happens when you have a compromise of this kind.  Both sides think that the tools that they have built will let them get what they want. Only one side can be right about that. So, the virtue of the compromise is that it slows down the process through which people go about figuring out at the end of the day, which side’s tolls are right for the whole country. So although it meant that the struggle would be ongoing, they weren’t going to resolve the issue then, it did mean it was actually possible eventually to resolve the issue in a way that was not possible at that time….It’s one of the hardest and most important questions and I give you this answer, but do I feel that I’ve come myself to rest entirely in thinking about this question, I wouldn’t say so.  I think it’s one we all have to wrestle with perpetually.”

Harry Kresky, IndependentVoting.org’s general counsel asked Danielle a fascinating question:

“What happened…? How did we become disconnected from the process, the activity, the democratic coming together that the Declaration embodies? Is it just a question of periodically having to recharge our democratic batteries or did we… did a series of things happen which has caused us to lose this connection from the activity?”  Give a listen to her answer.

Harry’s question sparked a conversation, one to be continued for sure!

Danielle shared some of her thoughts in response:

“I do think that professional political parties have not helped all in all, and certainly the power of big money has made it harder, I think, to engage people in grassroots activity.  I think all those things are true.  I think that in the academy there’s been a sort of disinterest in some of the core texts that, at least in the American context and tradition have helped sustain an understanding of democracy. That’s something that needs to be rebuilt.  The last thing I would say is that there’s a part of me that thinks that one of our challenges is simply going through another major demographic transition.  Economists talk about the demographic transition of the early 19th Century where populations had been quite stable around the world until the industrial revolution hits and then you have this huge population boom.  The structure of economies generally changes and there’s a period of revolution, upheaval, and social strife and that sort of thing….I wonder about the current population explosion we’re experiencing all around the world and whether or not there’s a sort of scale shift that means we actually have to think afresh about how to build the institutions of mass democracy under different demographic conditions.”

 Here is the full book club conversation with Dr. Allen.  ENJOY


And stay tuned–

we will announcing our next selection soon!

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