P4P Reading Recommendations

*Happy Holiday Season*

Thanks for making 2014 a year of wonderful literary and political conversations


 for growing our book club to over 200 members.

If you are looking to give some good books this holiday season–and who isn’t–I hope you will consider gifting three of our 2014 selections—


Revolutionary By Alex Myers


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The Warmth of Other Suns By Isabel Wilkerson


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Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality By Danielle Allen

I invited our authors to add two of their recommendations for your consideration. Alex Myers and Danielle Allen proposed some really interesting selections that I am looking forward to reading and giving.

From Alex Meyer

1) Historical fiction, published recently: I am Abraham by Jerome Charyn.
It’s a 13th century story of a girl who is raised as a boy!

From Danielle Allen

1)  Robert Caro, Master of the Senate from 2002

2) Megan Marshall, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, from 2013.  BTW, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

And Finally, a recommendation from me.  The best book on the history of the modern independent movement is Independents Rising, written by Jackie Salit.  It is a page turner and a great gift for people who want to know the principles and history of the progressive wing of the independent reform movement.  It is a gem!

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Independents Rising Jacqueline Salit

   Happy Holidays and Stay Tuned.  We will be announcing our first 2015 selection soon!




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!

Liberty, Equality Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

This Sunday, in our rich conversation with Danielle Allen, she referenced an opinion piece she wrote for the Washington Post last week that looks at the issues of liberty and equality.  I think you will enjoy reading her editorial.  And stay tuned, I will post audio highlights from our call soon.


Liberty, equality aren’t mutually exclusive

October 17

Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Study, is author of the book “Our Declaration.” She is at @dsallenIAS on Twitter.


One cause of our trouble is that we have come to believe that liberty and equality are in conflict, and this affects our policy debates. This misunderstanding began in reaction to Marx, took hold during the Cold War and found new strength in today’s libertarianism. But it’s wrong — and until we return to understanding how liberty and equality reinforce each other, we’re not going to solve our problems.

For millennia, political thinkers understood equality and liberty as concepts that provided mutual support. The ancient Athenians, who invented formal democracy, also conjured up the concepts of “equality before the law” and “an equal right to speak.” They opened political participation to all men regardless of economic status, while naming naval vessels things such as Eleutheria, or “Freedom.” The republican citizenry of ancient Rome conducted its politics under the banner of “equal liberty” and celebrated a mixed constitution that, as Cicero wrote, had “enough power in the magistracies, enough authority in the advice given by leading citizens, and enough liberty in the people.” For a time, that mixed constitution brought “equality,” “something free men are hardly able to do without for very long,” as he put it. The United States’ founding similarly drew liberty and equality together. In Abraham Lincoln’s formulation, the new nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The obvious flies in the nectar —slavery and patriarchy — actually reinforce these conceptual points. Those who were not equal were not free and vice versa.

Among citizen men, in Athens, Rome and America, equality and liberty were concepts understood to support and sustain each other. Bonds of political and social equality among the citizens were necessary to forge institutions that would protect each individually from domination by the others and all together from domination by external powers.

Up through the early 19th century, the search for definitions of popular government and the welfare of the people (or salus populi, to quote Cicero and Locke) yielded a diversity of approaches to equality. The ancient Athenians, for instance, and the early modern Americans, focused on political and social equality. The French cared about both of those but also pursued equalizing economic policies. There was, in short, a centuries-long fluidity of analysis around the concepts of liberty and equality — but also a basic orientation toward their fundamental harmony.

This disappeared with the rise of communism. Marx’s famous words, “A spectre is haunting Europe,” introduced an age that assimilated the belief that liberty and equality stand opposed. That age is with us still in the form of contemporary libertarianism.

In the “Communist Manifesto” of 1848 Marx wrote: “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state . . . . Of course, in the beginning this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property and on the conditions of bourgeois production.” Over half a century, the question of the meaning of equality and its connection to liberty came to turn entirely around a definition understood to require the equalization of property through forceful re-appropriation.

In this country, as the argument against socialism and communism gathered force, the battle was explicitly cast as a contest between equality and liberty by thinkers such as William Graham Sumner, the late 19th-century chair of political economy at Yale University. He wrote in an argument against socialism: “Let it be understood that we cannot go outside of this alternative: liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest.”

By the Cold War, both communists and libertarians structured their ideas, to an important degree, around the tenet that there is “an Eternal Conflict” between liberty and equality, to quote the title of a 1960 article from the Freeman, a publication of the Foundation for Economic Education. Iconic thinkers on the right adopted the theme and built economic theories around it: Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. But liberals and thinkers on the left — Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin — also assumed a basic opposition between liberty and equality, even if they sought to undo it.

The stakes of this conceptual error are significant. We might, for instance, view our partisan gridlock as the sad result of a conceptual error applied over long duration. The Democratic Party, which now wears the mantle of equality — if any party does — thinks it cannot in a full-throated way befriend liberty. The Republican Party, which wants to style itself the party of liberty, thinks it can give no quarter to equality. But these ideals belong together like hand and glove. If the command economy was an extreme political form, so too is the libertarian counter-vision.

It’s now 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell — long past time, in other words, to dismantle the second wall established by a putative opposition between liberty and equality. We are overdue for a return to the task of ascertaining how those two concepts work in tandem, and what institutional forms can best sustain them as the twinned ideals that they are.

Our own political tradition gives us the resources for doing that, beginning with the Declaration of Independence. I would urge us all to renew our education there, diving afresh into the meaning of equality, and discovering just how it can live harmoniously  with liberty.

Reminder–Conference Call at 7 pm EST Today

Join us and as we explore

Our Declaration:

A Reading of the Declaration of Independence

in Defense of Equality

 with Danielle Allen


Tonight, Sunday

October 19th at 7 pm EST

Call in number 805 399-1200

Access code 767775#

Listen to the Declaration

As we prepare for our conversation with Danielle Allen, I wanted to offer this recording of the Declaration of Independence.  It runs for just over 10 minutes. The Declaration is a remarkably short document at 1,137 words.

As you listen, be thinking of your questions for Dr. Allen.  What lessons does the Declaration hold for us today?  What have you been thinking about Dr. Allen’s thesis, put forth at the start of her book– “Equality and liberty–these are the summits of human empowerment; they are the twinned foundations of democracy.   What fragile foundations they are!”



Book Club Conference Call with Danielle Allen

Sunday, October 19th at 7 pm EST

Call in number 805 399-1200

Access code 767775#

The Facets of Equality

The Case for Equality

A Review by Anthony Del Signore

In contemporary political jargon the word equality almost becomes pejorative. Some argue that equality is synonymous with social justice and should be superseded by individualism. In this interpretation, we are all endowed with “equality of opportunity” in which we are all lined up at the starting line and due to our faculties and talents we will either succeed or fail. Others make the claim that the United States should do more to alleviate inequality – a term almost universally applicable to economics. Neither claim is made by Danielle Allen in Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. Instead she focuses exclusively on equality in a political sense. In her nearly 300 page tract, she delves into the intricacies of who the founders were, how they came to choose the words that we see today, and how their ideas manifest themselves in those words. Specifically, she makes the argument that the 1,337 words written in the Declaration of Independence succinctly make the argument for equal political empowerment.

Anthony Del Signore

Anthony Del Signore

She reaches this conclusion through a painstaking reading and re-reading of the Declaration, taking each word and digesting its meaning, its context, and its placement among the other words. She makes particular note of the Declaration’s punctuation. The use of dashes versus periods, commas versus colons, all are meticulously accounted for. All of a sudden a hyphen becomes a necessary transitional mark, allowing the Declaration to flow from the individual to the collective. It is akin to a skilled painter, carefully calculating each brush stroke, framing them in the greater picture he or she is about to create. Allen is the skilled painter in this sense and we are merely guests in her art gallery. What we are viewing is a striking portrait of the Declaration’s “Five Facets of Equality” which become particularly clear if we were only to give the Declaration the time it deserves. The five facets are brilliant in their simplicity and so rich in meaning despite their brevity.

The first facet of equality is simply that the colonies and Great Britain are both sovereign. Sovereignty is a novel concept denoting not only freedom and independence but equality with other sovereigns. Thus, the United States can stand side by side with Great Britain as brothers and sisters in the international community. But, what ensures the United States’ sovereignty? Perhaps a better question: what ensures the continuation of government? Just look at the language of the Declaration, according to Allen. “We hold these truths to be self-evident… – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Thus, the individual is politically empowered and equal in his or her own ability to dissolve the government if it cannot secure these rights which are self-evident. Therefore, the United States and Great Britain are both equal in their duties to the people to protect their rights with the consent of the governed.

The second facet of equality ties well into the first and creates a syllogism, as Allen rightly points out, between the individual and the collective.  This second facet is that “all men are created equal.” It is a simple, yet powerful statement. This statement goes beyond equality of opportunity, despite what many politicos assert. It again reaches into the domain of equal political empowerment. We are equal to use government as a tool for securing our happiness. We have equal capacity to look upon our communities and change as we deem necessary. Why would the Declaration bring this up? Although Allen does not go into it, it seems that this point is an argument for unity. Not unity in the sense that every colonist is for independence. The Founders knew quite well that was not the case. Rather, unity in that this principle of equality is accepted, everyone’s voices can be heard, grievances aired, and a political consensus can be had. This is not possible under the shackles of oppression the British Crown had on the colonists.

The third facet of equality Allen calls “epistemic egalitarianism,” also known as the “potluck method.” In this the Founders relied upon extensive networks of common people to relay their everyday lives and how those lives were affected by colonial oppression. Through these communications, a list of grievances was created. This list compromise 18 “facts” – as Allen rightly calls them – which “paint the portrait of a tyrant.” But these facts are not haphazard; they are meticulously chosen and worded. They prove political points on how government ought to be administered. Perhaps Allen herself says it most succinctly: “we can strengthen our individual and collective capacity to analyze the relation between present and future by drawing everyone into the work of understanding the course of human events.”

The fourth facet is the idea of “reciprocal responsiveness” – or, equality in relationships among participants. In this, the colonists are asking for redress for past wrongs committed against them (the list of grievances), only to have the door figuratively shut in their face. How can freedom be secured without dialogue? It simply cannot. Thus equality and freedom are tied inextricably together as freedom for the individual is tied to equality as a collective. Once again Allen makes it clear: equal political empowerment is what she means by equality.

The final facet of equality is, I believe, the most important. We all have equal ownership of the political order in which we live. We have equal opportunity to participate, to vote, to speak, to write, to petition, to protest, to run for office, to do a whole host of things which improve our collective community and our individual lives. It is romantic in its imagery yet startling in its implications. A single mother of four has as much political power as the Koch brothers (in theory). Perhaps this equality is the one in which contemporary society has forgotten the most. Since Citizens United, and even before that going back to the ‘70s, money in politics skews our ability to equally participate in our political order. Even more striking is the sheer inequality between partisans and non-partisans. In an overwhelming number of elections nationwide the vote of the non-partisan is meaningless as elections are decided well before the general election. While Democrats and Republicans shut out the vote of the non-partisan, a skewed and frankly inaccurate picture of the electorate is formed. In a political sense, non-partisans are treated as second class citizens. This broken system leads inevitably to the injustices the Founders were trying to rid themselves of. This being said, it is quite clear that our political system does not subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea of equal political ownership. Nevertheless, on the local level equality of participation is alive and well. Any one of us can participate on community boards, in town hall meetings, and serve in an elected capacity. This I do not believe will ever change and is a testament to the Declaration’s assertion of equal political ownership.

Allen’s book brings to light an argument lost in the political vacuum created when anyone brings up the Founding Fathers. Most use the Founders’ language as a call to their specific ideology, when in reality, the Founders probably would not agree with that ideology. They were radicals of their time, yet steadfast in their mission. Disgusted with the old political order, these men set out to blaze a trail for a new and independent people; a people whose principles are based upon… equality.

Anthony Del Signore is a senior at Pace University studying political science.  He has worked in countless political offices and is currently an intern with the New York City Organizations of the Independence Party. Anthony is also a frequent contributor to IVN.


Book Club Conference Call with Danielle Allen

Sunday, October 19th at 7 pm EST

Call in number 805 399-1200

Access code 767775#

The Washington Post Reviews Our Declaration

Book review: ‘Our Declaration,’ by Danielle Allen

     June 26, 2014

In this algorithmic age of quants, wonks and hackers, where statistics and big data take all the credit for explaining the world, Danielle Allen, a political philosopher at the Institute of Advanced Studies, rolls back the numbers to the mere 1,337 words written by our founding fathers and reminds us that words matter, too.

In “Our Declaration,” she applies a geek’s gaze to America’s core text and shows how our founding fathers declared their independence from England in the most spare and carefully chosen of words. Although briefly stated, the declaration brims with large ideas crafted by deliberate and principled men who took on what appeared to be a lost cause. Having exhausted all other means of trying to reason with the tyrannical King George III, they were left with no choice but to break their bond with England.

One idea that is central to Allen’s book is the role of equality in the declaration. In the sound-bite-driven, cliche-laden conversations of our present age, equality, as it appears in the declaration, has been neglected and misapplied. The founding fathers had a clear vision for what they expected of democratic governance. And what they extolled, and what Allen trumpets like a good soldier in the Continental Army, was a co-dependent relationship between equality and freedom — neither was more important than the other.

Yet today freedom permeates our public discourse like an obsession, while equality is regarded as a bastard stepchild of the revolutionary age. Everyone purports to know the meaning of freedom; few have any idea how to comprehend equality, much less apply it. Allen points out, however, that only through equality — and how it elevates the dignity of ordinary people — could the colonies have mustered the intellectual and emotional mettle to finally break free from the crown.

This book sets out to debunk the notion that freedom alone is the supreme virtue arising from the declaration. In doing so, it restores equality to the level of importance it once shared with freedom as equal partners in the revolution that gave birth to a nation. And Allen does not fail to address the limits of what equality meant to these founding white-skinned, land-owning fathers.

Most people have never read the Declaration of Independence all the way through. What passes for generally accepted cocktail-party trivia is that Thomas Jefferson wrote the document, that it says something about “all men being created equal,” and that people have the “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — whatever that means.

“Our Declaration” is a primer on all we have been missing. First, Jefferson was not the sole author. There were many contributors to this evolving document, including the man who inscribed the words on the parchment and the female publisher of the broadside that brought these fiery words to the people. Each made stylistic changes to the declaration that were not in Jefferson’s original.

Indeed, the Committee of Five — Jefferson and the other authors, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston — proved that sometimes having too many cooks in the kitchen can result in the perfect revolutionary meal. What Jefferson delivered was treated as a most malleable first draft. It was edited down considerably and stripped of the Lord of Monticello’s flowery, hyperventilated language. God was added ; the condemnation of slavery was removed. No one can truly claim authorship of the declaration, which is a good thing, to Allen’s mind, since it represented the important first step in the functioning of a new government committed to democratic ideals.

Even those members of the Continental Congress who were not among the declaration’s collaborative authors nonetheless participated in spirited debates and procedural dealmaking about what should go into the document. In contrast to the fractitiousness and coarsened debate of today’s Congress, our founding fathers created a precedent for political consensus-building at its most elegant and refined.

“The art of democratic writing supports the development of collective intelligence and does not seek credit. It does not know intellectual pride,” Allen writes. “The Declaration succeeded, and succeeds still, because it took on the task of explaining why this quantity of talk, this heap of procedures, these lists of committees, and this much hard-won agreement — such a maddening quantity of group writing — are necessary for justice.”

Allen knows a little about how group learning can enrich the minds of a community. Indeed, “Our Declaration” developed in somewhat the same way that the founding fathers assembled the actual declaration. For years Allen taught the declaration to privileged college students during the day and students with financial and family challenges at night. What better way to experience the majesty of the declaration, and glean its deeper meanings, than to read it closely, surrounded by citizens of varying backgrounds all representing the polity of 21st-century America? Her class was a collective exercise of getting inside the heads of men of the Enlightened 18th century by parsing their precise words. The stakes were far less fraught, to be sure, but in its own way Allen’s dissection of the declaration matched those exhilarating and transformative early sessions of the Continental Congress.

“Our Declaration” is not just an invaluable civics lesson but also a poignant personal memoir. Allen, her family and her students are characters in a post-American Revolution tale. The professor learned the mysteries of the declaration with the aid of her students, seeing in them the very embodiment of what the founding fathers wished to bequeath to future generations of Americans.

With a light touch that does nothing to conceal her civic fervor, Allen is an evangelist for this romantic moment in American history when men of uncommon vision and political deftness stated their case and listed their grievances against the most powerful nation on Earth.

Thane Rosenbaum , a novelist, essayist and law professor at New York University, is the director of the Forum on Law, Culture & Society and the author, most recently, of “Payback: The Case for Revenge.”


Book Club Conference Call with Danielle Allen

Sunday, October 19th at 7 pm EST

Call in number 805 399-1200

Access code 767775#

An Unusual Book-A review by Harry Kresky

Our Declaration is an unusual book in many ways. The author, Danielle Allen, an African American woman, insists that the Declaration of Independence is a bold statement about equality despite its failure to address the fact that slavery was a critical feature of the American economy or the subservient status of women. The European colonists considered Native Americans “merciless Indian savages” to use the Declaration’s own words. Allen’s book is a close reading of the text and seeks to find its meaning there with limited reference to historical context.

Harry Kresky, General Counsel to IndependentVoting.org

Harry Kresky, General Counsel to IndependentVoting.org

Allen sees the Declaration as a profound example of “democratic writing.” The document began with a directive from the Continental Congress to a committee to set forth the reasons why the colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft, which the committee then edited. The committee’s draft was presented to the Congress, which went through it line by line so that the final text gave unanimous expression to the perspective of a group whose members, despite favoring independence, differed on many other issues, most particularly the issue of slavery. Allen notes that there are several published versions that differ in some details (such as punctuation). At least one of these differences gives rise to divergent meanings. Yet the document is remarkable for its eloquence, clarity, and logical structure.

This method of writing has particular relevance to the independent political movement, which brings together people from many different backgrounds with many different points of view in pursuit of a common goal – the structural reform of our electoral system which, like the dominion of Great Britain over the 13 American colonies, is less and less representative of the American people.

Allen focuses on what she calls “political equality,” the belief that each human being has the right and the responsibility to contribute to the governing process as best he or she can. No one person is more privileged or has more rights in this regard. This notion of equality must reckon with the obvious inequalities in America, then and now. What does this notion mean in a country in which racial, educational, and economic inequality are so pronounced?  I look forward to our discussion with Allen on this point. We might ask her how this notion of equality squares with today’s hyper-partisanship and the significant disparities in the access people have to the process of choosing our representatives and impacting on how they govern.


Book Club Conference Call with Danielle Allen

Sunday, October 19th at 7 pm EST

Call in number 805 399-1200

Access code 767775#

Dr. Allen on Political Equality

I hope you will enjoy watching this video conversation of Dr. Danielle Allen and Christopher Phillips, a Senior Education Fellow at the National Constitution Center.  Their dialogue took place on June 27, 2014 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.  It is a rich exploration of the book, the issue of political equality in the Declaration of Independence, the current political dysfunction in the country and much more.  A great prelude for our dialogue with Dr. Allen in just 8 days.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from Danielle Allen in this conversation:

“…you need political institutions that do empower everybody to contribute to the public conversation about how collectively we can build institutions that make sure we have our safety and happiness together.”


Midway through their conversation, there is an interesting exchange. In response to Christopher Phillips question about the woefully dysfunctional political system in the US today and whether we need a new kind of declaration, Dr. Allen talks about need for the American people to invest in fixing our process and re-engage in the political process.  She goes on to talk about our primaries.  Something Politics for the People members are very interested in!  Here is what she had to say:

“…the folks who vote most in primaries are the people who are also the most polarized with regard to their political opinion.  If we want to moderate our politics, if we want to restore the center, if we want to restore our capacity for compromise, what we really need to do is maximize turn out in primaries.”

I am looking forward to sharing with Dr. Allen the independent movement’s work to democratize our primaries and to break down the barriers erected by the two parties to the full participation by independent voters–now 42% of Americans– in those primaries.




Book Club Conference Call with Danielle Allen

Sunday, October 19th at 7 pm EST

Call in number 805 399-1200

Access code 767775#

A strange and remarkable book

I think you will enjoy Gordon Wood’s review of Our Declaration.

A Different Idea of Our Declaration                   AUGUST 14, 2014 ISSUE


Danielle Allen at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, 2008 Photo: Cliff Moore


This is a strange and remarkable book. There must be dozens of books on the Declaration of Independence written from every conceivable point of view—historical, political, theoretical, philosophical, and textual—but no one has ever written a book on the Declaration quite like this one. If we read the Declaration of Independence slowly and carefully, Danielle Allen believes, then the document can become a basic primer for our democracy. It can be something that all of us—not just scholars and educated elites but common ordinary people—can participate in, and should participate in if we want to be good democratic citizens.

Allen, who is a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, came to this extraordinary conclusion when she was teaching for a decade at the University of Chicago. But it was not the young bright-eyed undergraduates whom she taught by day who inspired her. Instead, it was the much older, life-tested adults whom she taught by night who created “the single most transformative experience” of her teaching career.

As she slowly worked her way through the 1,337 words of the Declaration of Independence with her night students, many of whom had no job or were working two jobs or were stuck in dead-end part-time jobs, Allen discovered that the document had meaning for them and that it was accessible to any reader or hearer of its words. By teaching the document to these adult students in the way that she did, she experienced “a personal metamorphosis.” For the first time in her life she came to realize that the Declaration makes a coherent philosophical argument about equality, an argument that could be made comprehensible to ordinary people who had no special training.

By reading and analyzing the words of the Declaration deliberately and with care, her night students found themselves suddenly as political beings, with a consciousness that had previously eluded them. They built a foundation from which to assess the state of their political world. They gained a vocabulary and rhetorical techniques for arguing about it.

The entire experience with her students “re-gifted to me a text that should have been mine all along. They gave me again the Declaration’s ideals—equality and freedom—and the power of its language.”

Allen is most interested in the idea of equality, and rightly so. Equality has always been the most radical and potent idea in American history. Once released by the American Revolution, it has torn through American society and culture with awesome power. It became what Herman Melville in Moby-Dick labeled “the great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy!” This “Spirit of Equality,” said Melville, did not merely cull the “selectest champions from the kingly commons,” but it spread “one royal mantle of humanity” over all Americans and brought “democratic dignity” to even “the arm that wields a pick and drives a spike.”

Allen doesn’t cite Melville and doesn’t accept his emphasis on the overwhelming power of equality in American culture. In fact, she thinks that we Americans have tended to neglect the idea of equality. Between liberty and equality, “equality,” she says, “has always been the more frail twin,” and “it has now become particularly vulnerable.” She assumes that “libertarianism currently dominates our political imaginations.” Indeed, she contends that for the past half-century we Americans have emphasized liberty at the expense of equality. Are these judgments correct? Aren’t the movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights all about equality? With politicians everywhere now talking about inequality, and President Obama even claiming that inequality is “the defining issue of our time,” ideas about equality seem alive and well.

But Allen’s book is not about equality in this conventional sense. She is not really interested in equalities of income or social status. Instead, she wants to focus on what she calls “equal political empowerment.” This involves an egalitarianism of co-creation and co-ownership of a shared world, an expectation for inclusive participation that fosters in each citizen the self-understanding that she, too, he, too, helps to make, and is responsible for, this world in which we live together.

Allen assumes that there are five facets of her conception of equality embedded in the Declaration and that a slow and deliberate reading of it can bring them to the fore. First, the colonists asserted that their new states were equal to the other powers on the earth. Second, by declaring that “all men are created equal,” the Declaration affirms that each person is the judge of his or her own happiness. Third, the Declaration assumes that each person, however common, contributes to the collective knowledge of the community. Fourth is the importance of reciprocity or mutual responsiveness to achieving the conditions of freedom. Securing conditions in which no one dominates anyone else requires a form of conversational interaction that rests on and embodies equality in the relationships among the participants.

Finally, the document contends that all of us have an equal stake in the creation of the political order. “If the Declaration is right that all people are created equal—in the sense of all being participants in the project of political judgment—then all people,” Allen concludes, should be able to read or listen to the Declaration, understand the work that it is doing, and carry on similar work on their own account, with no more help in unleashing their capacities than can be provided by the example of the Declaration itself.

Because Allen writes as if she were having a conversation with her readers, her book inevitably becomes intimate and personal. She tells us about her background as a mixed-race African-American woman. Both her black ancestors on her father’s side and her WASP ancestors on her mother’s side were progressives who gave her family a love of equality, freedom, and education. At the dinner table her parents frequently talked about the Declaration of Independence. But to her embarrassment, Allen admits that she never read the Declaration until she read it with her night students. Now she wants to pass on that experience of “personal metamorphosis” to all of us. Every American, she says, should study the Declaration as she and her night students did. “It would nourish everyone’s capacity for moral reflection. It would prepare us all for citizenship. Together we would learn the democratic arts.”

Allen begins her book with a conventional narrative of how the Declaration of Independence came to be written. She accepts Pauline Maier’s claim that Jefferson was not the author of the Declaration but simply its “draftsman.” Of the five-man committee assigned by the Continental Congress to write it, Jefferson was the least busy and most free to do the drafting. Like Maier, Allen does not get involved in the deep intellectual background to the writing of the Declaration. She simply concludes that “the ingredients of the Declaration of Independence were ready to hand”—ranging from earlier documents issued by the Congress, such as the 1775 “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms,” to John Adams’s Thoughts on Government of 1776 and the bill of rights written by George Mason for the Virginia constitution. The Declaration of Independence was in fact the product of many hands and many minds.

Since Allen concedes that her “book treads lightly on the historical side of the tale of the Declaration,” her narrative of its creation is not lengthy. In fact, she believes that history can sometimes “function as a barrier to entry” into a document. By playing down its historical background, she wants to make the “encounter with the Declaration easier for readers who have not yet built up a deep historical knowledge base.” Although Allen’s recounting of the process of creation is relatively brief, she does find room to emphasize the many “layers of conversation”—at least fifty, she says—that were involved in getting members of the Congress to agree to the document.

This was an object lesson in “getting things done by means of talk.” The creation of the Declaration involved “democratic writing—group writing,” something that is “not merely difficult; it’s exhausting and draining.” Despite all of its unsavory compromises—the Congress’s eliminating of all references to slavery, for example—this democratic writing, Allen believes, needs to be celebrated. “There is no other way for a free and equal people to chart its course.”

Instead of a historical account of the Declaration, her book is “intentionally philosophical; it focuses almost exclusively on the logical argument of the Declaration and the conceptual terrain of its metaphors.” Hence Allen believes that we don’t need to examine the books Jefferson read in order to understand the Declaration. “Slow reading” of the text is all that is necessary. That alone, Allen says, “is powerful enough to open up its logic.” Her reading of the text could scarcely be slower or more deliberate. In the most remarkable manner she examines and ponders every sentence of the document and sometimes every word of those sentences. The book is a tour de force of close textual analysis.

She begins by asking a simple question. What kind of text is the Declaration? Is it a sacred text? Or a treatise? Or perhaps a law? “In fact, the Declaration is just an ordinary memo.” In a brief chapter, entitled “On Memos,” she explains what she means. Memo, she says, is “short for memorandum, which is Latin for ‘something that needs to be remembered.’” And if that is not clear enough for the reader, Allen presents the example of a memo she had recently been sent by a dean of students at a northeastern college announcing that the dining hall would henceforth stay open longer on weekdays and offering reasons for that change. “The Declaration is the same kind of document: a memo that announces and, thereby, brings about a change, while also explaining it.”

This is her technique: very short chapters, fifty of them, averaging five or six pages each, written in plain and lucid prose. She frequently pauses to give the reader the Latin or other etymological origins of words and to analyze their precise meanings. When, for example, the colonists at the end of the first sentence of the Declaration say that “they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation,” Allen offers a lengthy discussion of the origins of the word “impel,” which, she says, implies that the colonists were “driven toward their revolution by something like the law of gravity. They go reluctantly.”

But that is not enough. “What is this strong, gravity-like force pushing them on?” Before she can explore this question, however, she says we have to discover “who is being impelled and to what.” The colonists experienced the force of necessity as “one people.” And then Allen launches into a discussion of what it means to be “one people.”

Allen illustrates this detailed textual analysis with the most commonplace images and prosaic metaphors, all designed to make the document accessible to the widest possible readership. In order to explain the meaning of “entitled,” for example, she invokes the notion of a title to a car. “When my neighbor holds title to a sporty little Toyota, which maybe I covet, I nonetheless respect the fact that it is his and accommodate myself to his ownership.” So in the same way, she says, the Americans were entitled to their equal station in the world.


National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian/Monticello Thomas Jefferson; painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1805


“Declaring reasons, presenting facts, declaring that a new state of affairs obtains, and making pledges: these are familiar actions,” she writes, “just like what brides and grooms do when they marry.” This simple metaphor, she says, can help us understand the Declaration. Just as when a couple says “I do,” the words of the Declaration make a new reality. Because the words of the document declare that a new confederation of states now exists and that the members pledge to one another their lives, property, and honor, the text “sounds something like a wedding.”

But actually, she says, the Declaration bears an even closer resemblance to a divorce. “We can confirm that the Declaration speaks in the dispiriting tones of divorce by comparing it to the high-profile breakup of Charles, Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne, and Princess Diana in 1996.” Like their divorce document, the Declaration declares that the marriage between Britain and its colonies is dissolved. But then, after confirming that divorce, the colonists “also declare that they are remarrying, now to one another.”

To explain what “endow” means in the phrase “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” Allen says the word comes from the Latin doto, which describes giving a dowry to a bride about to be married. Allen then goes on to explain what a dowry meant in early modern England—money or property given to the bride in order to ensure that there was a permanent basis for her support. Since no one could take the wife’s property away, no one, says Allen, can take away our endowed property of inalienable rights. With these kinds of commonplace images Allen proceeds through the words and sentences of the Declaration, trying in simple and clear language to unlock the meaning of the document for the most naive of readers.

Finally, after all this sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word examination of the Declaration, Allen arrives at the meaning of equality she has been pointing to all along. All the five facets of equality add up to “political equality,” by which Allen means our gaining equal access to the instruments of government and our possessing an equal ability to organize them. “Nature,” she writes, “has given us an instinct for politics,” and this is “evidence that nature is organized to provide for our flourishing.” We humans have been “furnished with our powers of mind, spirit, and body in order that we may live, be free, and pursue happiness by means of politics.” All our conversations point to the “potluck” creation of the “collective intelligence” that is best expressed in the institutions of government. Allen wants everyone to feel equal so that they will be empowered to engage in politics. The Declaration, she says, more than once, is “a model of political judgment.” In the end “the Declaration teaches people how to do the very thing that it argues that everyone has the capacity to do, namely make political judgments.”

But political equality that leads to more political engagement may not be the kind of equality that we most need right now. As Pierre Rosanvallon, the director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, has pointed out in his recent fascinating book, The Society of Equals, “democracy is manifesting its vitality as a regime even as it withers as a social form.”* On both sides of the Atlantic the people as a political entity are overwhelming the people as a social body. “Political citizenship has progressed, while social citizenship has regressed.” In other words, according to Rosanvallon, we need to put government and our too vehement politics aside for the time being and focus instead on resuscitating a society that is failing badly.

Jefferson and many other revolutionaries in 1776 always put society ahead of government. They would never have agreed with Allen’s assertion that “human equality requires that each of us have access to the single most important tool available for securing our happiness: government.” Government for Jefferson, as it was for other liberals like Thomas Paine, was merely a necessary evil.

It was society that Jefferson and Paine always celebrated. Society, wrote Paine in the opening paragraph of Common Sense, “promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections.” Government acted only “negatively by restraining our vices.” To Jefferson and Paine government was a plunderer. All the evils in society—inequalities, privileges, social distinctions, monopolies, even excessive wealth and property—came from connections to government. This is why Jefferson and his followers believed that the government that governed least was best.

The confidence that Jefferson and the other revolutionaries had in society alone flowed from their assumption that every person, regardless of rank or education, had a natural social or moral instinct that tied them by affection to their fellow human beings. This social and moral sense, this natural feeling of affability and benevolence, became for the revolutionaries a modern substitute for the austere and martial conception of virtue that had sustained the ancient republics. Classical virtue had flowed from the citizen’s participation in politics. But modern eighteenth-century virtue flowed from the citizen’s participation in society, not government.

Even someone as different from Jefferson and Paine as James Wilson believed that government was merely the scaffolding of society, and “if society could be built and kept entire without government, the scaffolding might be thrown down, without the least inconvenience or cause of regret.” This confidence in social adhesives alone is what led the most extreme of Anglo-American radicals, like William Godwin, to contemplate anarchism, that is, a society without any government at all.

Although Allen has a brief chapter on the “moral sense,” and suggests its connection to equality, she never develops its social implications. For Allen the moral sense is all about the equal engagement of every person in politics. By contrast, the revolutionaries believed that it was all about each person’s engagement in the society apart from politics and government.

Jefferson’s notion of equality in fact went well beyond the political equality that Allen emphasizes. Jefferson believed that everyone, including the humblest of black slaves, had this moral sense, this capacity to feel affection toward his or her fellow human beings. This belief, stronger in Jefferson than in any other of the revolutionaries, is what has made him, a slaveholding aristocrat, the perennial spokesman for America’s democracy. Even as they differ on the meaning of equality, however, both Jefferson and Allen agree on one central point. Democracy requires that at some basic level everyone in a society must be considered the same.



Book Club Conference Call with Danielle Allen

Sunday, October 19th at 7 pm EST.


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