American democracy has gone more than a little awry. Nearly 300,000 Americans are dead in no small measure due to the failure of Congress to implement a nationwide testing and tracing regime. But this failure hasn’t much hurt the incumbent Republican Party. The GOP gained ground in the House. They may hold their Senate Majority. Trump wasn’t repudiated nearly as decisively as many of us wish, and he’s still out there spreading outrageous lies about the credibility of the election he lost.
I think there’s a connection between the brokenness of our democracy and the deadliness of the pandemic. That’s what I talk about in this episode with Danielle Allen — though I never quite managed to put it that way. I got to know Danielle by working on pandemic response policy with a group she was leading. This is how I discovered that Danielle Allen is no mere mortal. She’s a distinguished classicist, political philosopher, and theorist of democracy. I knew that already. What I didn’t know is that she’s also an exemplary practitioner of the art of collective self-government. Within weeks of the pandemic’s onset, Danielle had assembled a working group of epidemiologists, economists, computer scientists, entrepreneurs, and policy experts through the auspices of Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, which she runs. Danielle seemed to immediately assimilate everything everyone else had spent a lifetime learning. She was able to get everybody to happily work together in complementary roles. And she motivated us to turn out a set of impressive practical pandemic response plans at an incredible pace. Her effortless intelligence, openness to others’ views, easygoing but authoritative leadership, and inspiring level of energy and drive made me feel a little like I was in a pick-up game with LeBron James. I guess that’s how you get to be the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard, which is what she is.
In this episode we touch on why we couldn’t get the Senate to take up legislation funding the sort of testing regime that works, what we can do to make our democracy more responsive and less dysfunctional, and why Danielle loves the U.S. Constitution, despite the concessions to slave states that continue to plague our political system. I regret that we didn’t have time to go longer and deeper, but we should all be grateful that Danielle is working overtime trying to save our lives and democracy … which means that she always has another meeting.
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Readings: Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience and Pandemic Resilience: Getting It Done by Danielle Allen et al., “The best way out of this pandemic is to massively scale up testing. Here’s how to do it.” by Danielle Allen, “The Brutal Clarity of the Trump-McConnell Plan to Protect Businesses” by Will Wilkinson, “We Know How to Beat the Virus. This Is How Republicans Can Do It.” by Puja Ohlhaver and Will Wilkinson, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing Democracy in the 21st Century by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission for the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, and “The Flawed Genius of the Constitution” by Danielle Allen
Will Wilkinson: Hi, Danielle.
Danielle Allen: Hi Will, great to talk with you today. Thank you.
Will Wilkinson: Likewise, thanks for coming on Model Citizen. I really appreciate your time. I wanted to have you on, Danielle, to talk about a number of things. You are an expert in a bunch of the subjects that have been roiling our nation democracy, the Constitution. And maybe not a lot of people know that you’ve been working really hard on pandemic response policy and what we ought to have been doing and trying to make something happen. So you and I worked together a little bit. I was a tangential member of this group out of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, you published a couple of big papers on pandemic resilience and how to make it happen. Tell us what those plans entailed and maybe contrast it with what we actually got.
Danielle Allen: Sure, no, happy to. We had a big group of people from all kinds of expertise working really hard: public health, medical expertise, economists, philosophers, lawyers. The overarching goal of the body of work, which we started in early March, was to help people shift their perspective from thinking that there was a trade off between protecting health and protecting the economy, to seeing that the job was actually how to align the objectives of protecting health and economy and liberties. So lives, livelihoods, and liberties altogether. Indeed, at this point, I think it’s very clear to many that the full recovery of the economy depends on success at protecting health, beating back the disease and reestablishing a stable foundation of health.
So at any rate, in those early days in March, people were really stuck on this fight between two different perspectives; economists versus public health. The question was framed as, “Should we lock down and stay locked down, or have repeated applications of lockdown, or should we just have an open economy?” We had to pick one or the other. Our view was that these were not the relevant options, that there was a third path that we could in fact, really accelerate ramping up of the economy, mobilizing the economy to deliver testing, diagnostic testing, contact tracing, and supported isolation to suppress the disease. So in other words, we mapped out a strategy in March and published it in early April to suppress COVID through mobilization of the economy. And then we did a lot of work with mayors locally to render that policy form in a way that municipal and county decision makers could act on it. So if you were a mayor or a county public health official, how much testing would you need in your community to be in a position to suppress COVID?
And then we also worked really closely with National Governors Association and with members of Congress, both houses and both parties to try to drive legislation forward to support that kind of testing tracing and support isolation framework. And indeed the policy paradigm made it into the HEROES Act and also made it into a bipartisan bill that was introduced in both houses in Congress, in August known as the Suppress COVID Act. It is what we ought to have done as you put it, and it didn’t happen. So it was absolutely one of the most painful things of my professional life to watch that progress that, how it unfolded.
Will Wilkinson: That whole effort that we’re a part of actually spun me out into a kind of depression. Working on that it was very clear, and I’ll put these links in the show notes, the papers are Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience, and then the practical one is Pandemic Resilience: Getting it Done. And we were trying to sell that to Senate Republicans, and there were a number of receptive members of Congress. But it became pretty apparent to me early on that there was really no path forward. And that it was just really painful. I was convinced, I’m still convinced that this was exactly what we ought to have done. It’s not that different from what the countries that have successfully suppressed the virus have done, countries like Germany, New Zealand, Australia. They’ve done a good job and this is what they’ve done: testing tracing, supported isolation. That was our own playbook that we just didn’t implement. So it’s not some exotic strategy.
Danielle Allen: Not at all.
Will Wilkinson: And it doesn’t take that much money in the scheme of things compared to the economic stimulus aspects of the CARES Act. It’s just a fraction of that. So it wasn’t a matter of expense, but there was just no political will to do it. And you’re a philosopher, there’s this big distinction in philosophy between killing and letting die. And I felt like this ended up somewhere in between those two things.
Danielle Allen: I would say it was a third thing. It was killing the hostage actually, is what it was, killing the hostage. Because basically, both sides had enough recognition that this was the right thing in Congress that isn’t leading the White House to a side because the White House took a different tack. They changed course in April to pursue vaccines instead of testing. And that was a really important moment and a real setback for the effort to build a suppression policy. But nonetheless, in Congress, in both parties, there was enough recognition that this was the right path forward, but the parties were fighting over something else. In particular, and most importantly, they were fighting over election security, election integrity, whether that was something that needed investment or whether it was something that needed policy change or not.
And so the Democratic package in May included that in it, and that was the part of the Democratic package, I believe that the Republicans wanted nothing to do with. And I believe both sides thought that the COVID stuff was so important that the other side would cave for the sake of COVID stuff. And that’s the sense in which the hostage got killed. At the end of the day, each side wouldn’t let the hostage go for what they wanted on the election security question.
Will Wilkinson: [inaudible 00:09:19], I wasn’t so clear that it was the election security aspect in general, which is ironic at this point, because it turned out to be the president who’s complaining about election voting machines like, “The Dominion voting machines are all screwed up and they’re switching votes.” Which illustrates that everybody has an interest in election security. And you’d think it would be something that both parties would rally around, but it’s less likely to be the case if you think that your victory is going to depend on cheating.
Danielle Allen: That’s, right. That’s why, as I read what happened over the last nine months, the climax of negotiations was the fight over the post office in September. That was actually the climax of the COVID testing negotiations, was the fight over the post office.
Will Wilkinson: The analogy that I used at one point in trying to think about the killing versus letting die kind of thing, because it’s not that the government actively was killing people. It’s not like you’re gunning them down in the street, but you know they’re going to die if you don’t do something. And over a quarter of a million people have now died. And it’s a mind-boggling number. It’s getting to the size where it’s just hard for people to comprehend, it becomes a mere statistic. But that’s all these analogies like how many American troops died in World War II, it’s getting in that neighborhood. And so it’s a big problem. And at least a hundred, some thousand of those lives could have been saved. That’s a lot of lives to save.
But it wasn’t exactly that we just let them die and could have helped them. It was more that there was active interference with the effort to help them. So the analogy that I used was like, there’s a bunch of people drowning in a pool and you could jump in and get them and save them. So that’s a classic letting die scenario. But instead of jumping in, what you do is arrest the lifeguard and then push a bunch more people into the pool.
Danielle Allen: Right.
Will Wilkinson: That’s what it felt like to me because Trump wasn’t just not getting on board with testing, he was hostile to it. He was constantly saying that our high infection rate was just a function of testing. If you test fewer people, we’d have fewer deaths, I guess. And he was getting in the way of states doing what they needed to do. The federal government was blocking state efforts to get medical materials. So it wasn’t just passive neglect, there was some active interference with stop gap efforts from states and municipalities including the very heated rhetoric around mask wearing and stay-at-home orders. And so I don’t think it’s just that people were allowed to die, that people were discouraged actively from doing the things that would have saved many thousands of lives.
Danielle Allen: Yes. No, I think that the active resistance to disseminating a sound public health message around masks has been immensely destructive. For me, that’s probably the most regrettable feature of what’s transpired, a combination of a mistake by the CDC upfront in their concern to ration the N95 respirators, producing this message that people shouldn’t wear masks, that really got us off on the wrong foot. And then when they needed to reverse course, and when it was the period that the right public health guidance was to wear a mask, the fact that the president didn’t support that has been just incredibly damaging.
And I think when people think about the damage of that, what they have to pay attention to too, is that one of the biggest costs of it has been schools. Because at the end of the day, schools could be opened if we had robust infection control practices in place. So that is masking, people being used to universal precautions, it is also physical distancing in the school building and various kinds of program changes to achieve de-densification. But it’s been very, very hard for schools and school leaders and educators to even contemplate reopening, particularly if they’re working in contexts where the broader community is not supportive of mask wearing. So I just think the damage done by that anti-mask wearing crusade has been profound.
Will Wilkinson: This might be a good transition to talking about how to fix our democracy. Because one of the things that I found extremely distressing about all of this was that the Republican party didn’t seem to be very, didn’t bear much of a cost. They weren’t punished at the polls for really botching the response to the biggest public health crisis we’ve had in our lifetime. They gained seats in the house, haven’t yet clearly lost their Senate majority. Basically, everybody down ticket of Trump did better than he did.
Danielle Allen: Actually, I think it’s also the case that the districts with the highest per capita death rates moved in positive directions.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And I think that’s really important. So back in April, I wrote a very pessimistic piece for The Times that was centered around the Republican demand for liability shields as a condition for going forward on any new pandemic relief bill. And my take on it was that the liability stuff was sort of a poison pill that Republicans would use as an excuse to not do anything. Because Trump had already settled on a strategy, which was to do nothing, to use the fact that states and municipalities were going broke because of losses of revenue, use their straightened condition to just create pressure for them to open up prematurely, to create the illusion that the economy was returning back to normal, that we’d gotten on top of the virus. And I was actually worried that this would work.
And I think Democrats didn’t really respond to it as well as they might have, because I feel like it was a trap that it’s true. For people like us who can easily Zoom, it’s not that big of a burden, but if your job is cleaning hotel rooms, you’re busing tables at a restaurant, you have to be able to go. And it doesn’t help to say, “Oh, well, if you elect us in n months, we’ll do something.” The rent was due last week, what are you going to do? And Republicans are very clearly saying, “We want to open things up. We want you to be able to go to work, clock in, buy groceries, look after your kids.” And Democrats are just saying, “We’re going to wear a mask, listen to scientists.” And that’s good advice, but it doesn’t do anything for people who can’t package chickens over Zoom.
Danielle Allen: Well, it’s interesting because, absolutely. The case we were trying to make, our research group as you know in April and May, was that the fastest path to a stable and continuously improving recovery was actually suppressing COVID. That is the investment in the public health measures was the best path to recovery. And it is true that that economic argument, although it’s sound, it’s valid did not come to play a prominent role in the conversations about the economics of the situation. And that for me was probably a big question, why that didn’t break through. And it has started to break through now, but the notion that it’s breaking through this far into the conversation is, I had a hard time getting my head around that feature of the conversation.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. The longer I thought about it… And my last piece in The Times is basically about this. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that it actually was a trap that is inescapable, that the GOP really put Democrats in a squeeze position. And it was always going to work out relatively well for them. If you’re actually willing to sacrifice a hundred thousand lives say, to make it look like your party’s the one who’s in favor of an active, healthy economy, if you’re willing to pay that price and the other side can’t make it stick that that is in fact the price, it’s… And I don’t think Democrats could have done much, but I think they could have messaged better and mitigated some of the issues. But I do think that that explains why places that had higher infection rates actually did more for Republicans, it’s like those were the places where people really bought into the idea that we need to get the economy going and that the cost was just worth bearing.
Danielle Allen: Yeah. That’s been my reading of it as well. And then of course, once you’ve borne the cost, you’ve got sunk costs that you don’t want to say that was a mistake. So there’s that issue as well. Although yeah, the data is that the places that opened up early have had less and have had less robust recoveries than the places that opened up at a point when they had gotten control of the disease. So it’s a very, very sad situation without any question. And so, yeah, it does lead us to kind of, where do we go from here moment, I think. And for me, there is a real question. Early on when we were working on the testing, one of my science colleagues said to me, “We don’t have to break any laws of physics to build this testing regime.” And I just nodded along when he said that and thought, “Okay, that sounds good.” But I came to understand that we had to break laws of politics, that that was the basic problem.
And so that is a place where I think our polarization is, we have to really reckon with how significant it’s been here, our polarization. The fact that the fight over the election was going to be so bitter and so pitched is the reason we couldn’t respond effectively to COVID. So for me, there’s a real project for, how do we moderate our politics? How do we restore a foundation for problem solving, for walking away from demonizing the adversary, and also walk away from total victory. And we have a kind of politics at the moment where each side, if it has power, wants to use that power for total victory over the opposition. And that’s not sustainable, you can’t run a democracy that way.
Will Wilkinson: I really do think we’ve paid the price for polarization in this election. Part of the problem is, I think sometimes people treat polarization as this inexorable force and at some levels I think it kind of is. A lot of my work is about how polarization is based in patterns of migration and the sorting of the population. And there are somewhat deterministic aspects of the way the electorate is sorted such that they’ve become more and more polarized on issues and attitudes over time. But the extent of it isn’t inevitable. You have to have politicians who are trying to activate the negativity of negative partisanship. They’re trying to gin up all the negative affect and affective partisanship. And Trump just played that card as hard as he could. He really weaponized polarization.
Danielle Allen: Yeah, that was his card.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And so he made everything into a partisan issue. That’s why we had the problem with mask wearing. He reframed wearing masks, took it out of a public health frame into a freedom versus domination by officious bureaucrat [crosstalk 00:22:08] and doing that, just straightforwardly kills people. But it’s politically effective because when people are driven to those extremes and people take cues from party leaders, from elites in their parties, and if they’re all giving you the same message, you’re going to believe it.
I don’t think ordinary people are that culpable in a sense, because I don’t expect people to be as tuned in as a lot of us would like them to be. Don’t expect them to know as much as I’d like them to know. They’re going to believe what the leaders of the party that they identify with say. And if they’re saying that the other side is a bunch of communists who want to destroy the country with anti-fascist anarchists like riots and looting, you’re going to believe it. But then you’re so detached from reality that our democratic system can’t be responsive. The way elections are supposed to work is there’s supposed to be a referendum on the incumbent and their performance, but you can’t have a referendum on the performance of the incumbent if basically half the population has a completely fictionalized conception of what is actually happening.
Danielle Allen: So it’s really fascinating because I keep coming back to the fact that if you look at the election another way, we’re not as polarized as our presidential election would suggest. So I have been paying attention to ballot propositions where it’s actually not uncommon for states to achieve supermajorities in a given question. So Massachusetts has supermajority on its right to repair for auto shops so that they can have access to the data that cars have. New Jersey had a supermajority on decriminalizing marijuana. Mississippi had a supermajority on a new flag for the state. And again even things that are controversial like felon re-enfranchisements in Florida that got a supermajority vote in 2018. And in California, it also just passed with a very robust majority.
So that tells me actually that as people, as a society, we’re not in fact as polarized as the narrative coming out of our presidential elections would make it seem. So for me then, that’s a question, why this discrepancy between what happens in our presidential politics and what happens in our ballot propositions? And that, for me, I do end up coming back to electoral mechanisms and incentive structures there. So it matters, I think that Trump got through the 2016 Republican primary on a in effect plurality system. If there had been a ranked choice voting in the Republican primary, I don’t think he would have come out as the victor. And instead you would have gotten somebody who was able to build a broader coalition that was more moderate, presumably. So the plurality approach, especially in primaries, rewards people who can drive wedges and create division.
And so I think the result then is that we get agendas coming out of our primary system that are more extreme than the center of gravity for the population. And so then people have a worst of two worlds kind of choice when they come to making their presidential selection.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, absolutely. Our system is pretty clearly screwed up and people are going to blame the Constitution for like the Electoral College. But a lot of it isn’t baked into the Constitution at all. There’s no reason we can’t have at large representation or ranked choice voting, it’s up to states to decide how they want to do their elections for the House. And there are a bunch of different ways that they could do it, but we could’ve converged on a certain equilibrium for-
Danielle Allen: Or disequilibrium at the moment.
Will Wilkinson: Or disequilibrium. So you have a ton of recommendations for how to fix our democracy, you and your co-authors in a big paper published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that came out this summer, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century. And you have six different strategies for reforming American democracy. Is that in your first set, the improving just the electoral mechanisms?
Danielle Allen: Yeah, absolutely. Exactly. The core concept in the report is that a healthy, constitutional democracy depends on a virtuous circle linking healthy political institutions, a civil society that can help people form bridging relationships across difference and a political culture that nurses commitment of the members of the society to each other and to constitutional democracy. So we have strategies under each of those buckets that are meant to achieve that in under of the institutions, yes. Responsive institutions that empower voters and achieve equal representation. And the electoral mechanisms really fall under the equal representation category.
So to speak to the Electoral College for a second, it’s actually important to recognize that the challenges we have with that are not actually, they do not really flow from the Constitution. They flow from the fact that… And I think it’s 1929 with the Reapportionment Act. We locked in the size of the House. We actually broke the Electoral College right then and there a hundred or so years, it’s been nearly a hundred years ago. Because up until that point in time, the size of the House was continuously growing, which meant that as you had more populous parts of the country increasing this or population density, that was reflected in the weighting in the Electoral College between the less populous states and the more densely populated states.
Will Wilkinson: The number of electoral votes you get is the number of representatives plus your 2 senators.
Danielle Allen: Both senators, exactly. Yeah. So you’re right that states could use at large electors. There’s lots of ways states could also make adjustments. But a thing that we need to do is to get rid of that piece of legislation, that caps the House so that we can let the House continue to grow. At this point, the Parliaments of the UK, the legislature in Germany are bigger than ours. We’re a much bigger country than both of those places, they both have bigger legislatures than we do.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. We also don’t have to do the Electoral College winner take all. That’s completely a choice to-
Danielle Allen: Right, exactly.
Will Wilkinson: People might have noticed during this election that Biden won one electoral vote in Nebraska because Nebraska is one of the… One other state is it Maine, that hands out electoral votes by district. And so, Biden won the greater Omaha area, and so picked up a vote. It’s totally at the discretion of the states to decide whether they’re going to give all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state, or they can just do a proportional thing or they can do it by district. It’s just up to them. We heard a little bit about this kind of thing, especially during Pennsylvania, when people were worried that the state legislature would try to step in to appoint its own slate of electors. They can’t do that after the fact.
Danielle Allen: Right. But they can design upfront.
Will Wilkinson: They could pass any law that they want really about how to allocate their electors. So the Electoral College is… The problems that we have aren’t completely baked in. It’s still unrepresentative because it bakes in Senate representation, but that’s not that big of a deal especially if you expand the House.
Danielle Allen: Exactly, that’s the thing. Any healthy democracy depends on a combination of majoritarian mechanisms and minority protecting mechanisms. And that’s what the Electoral College and the Senate are. In each case, they’re giving some element of protection to less populated states. So the question is really, what’s the weighting of the balance between the majoritarian mechanisms and the minority protecting mechanisms. And the Electoral College is clearly out of balance. And particularly at this point, when you look at the Senate and the Electoral College relationship to each other, the minority protecting mechanisms have become too powerful. So we do need to rebalance. But at the end of the day, my view is again, to have a durably, stable, constitutional democracy, you’re always going to have to have a combination of majoritarian mechanisms and minority protecting mechanisms.
Will Wilkinson: It’s hard to know how you devise a federal Republican system that doesn’t have some counter majoritarian elements. You don’t want them to get to the point that the Senate has gotten at where like 70% of the population is represented by 20% of the Senate or something like that. It’s nuts.
Danielle Allen: Right.
Will Wilkinson: And that really does allow for, especially when partisanship breaks down along the lines of the degree to which a state is urbanized. So the high population, high urbanized states are going to like, “That’s where most of the population is,” but all the rest of the states are going to have the lion’s share of senators because every state gets two and when all those small states align with one party, then you can really get domination of the majority by the minority party. And part of the issue here is that our constitution isn’t designed to accommodate parties. So it’s not thinking about how the system breaks when factions line up a certain way. So it’s not robust to those dynamics.
Danielle Allen: I think that’s a really important point though, because I know there are lots of people who had sometimes want to redesign things around the party structure. But there’s a good reason not to design around the party structure, which is that, at the end of the day, there’s fluidity to that. And there’ve been major realignments every 30 to 40 years or so in the country’s history. And so in that regard, this is also an occasion that begs for the parties to be creative and experimental, neither party is in a healthy place if it lives just at a cuspy margin, 49, 50% each ought to be aspiring to being able to claim the allegiance of 55% of the population say.
And if you have that kind of motivation, then you’d have to find a way to achieve a realignment in relationship to the existing population. And so that dynamic is bound to drive further change. Yes, so we definitely need to adjust our mechanisms in relationship to the underlying demographic facts about population density and the rural, urban split. And then the question of how that element ends up lining up with party politics is a separate thing from my point of view.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, I agree. So what do you think is the most important of just these electoral mechanisms in the first part of the Our Common Purpose? If you had to pick one to do, and you couldn’t do any of the others, which one would you pick?
Danielle Allen: So I find that absolutely the hardest question, I have to say so. I think I’m just going to go ahead and say two of them at the moment, which is the increasing the size of a house, and then also the use of Ranked Choice Voting as a voting mechanism throughout elections throughout our system. So I would put both of those on the table as high priorities.
Will Wilkinson: Introducing Ranked Choice Voting is something that the states can do. Maine does it now, right?
Danielle Allen: And Alaska just passed it as well.
Will Wilkinson: Oh, Alaska just passed it?
Danielle Allen: They did, yeah.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah.
Danielle Allen: And New York City, the New York City mayoral election will be a Ranked Choice Voting election.
Will Wilkinson: It’s fun. It’s got such a different dynamic. I think people will find it odd-
Danielle Allen: At first.
Will Wilkinson: At first, yeah. You rank your choices and if no candidate gets 50% of the votes, then you tally up second choices and see if that gets you over the line. And if it doesn’t, you go to third choices and see if they-
Danielle Allen: And this is how it used to work in some sense in primaries, think about the primary that ended up with the nomination of Lincoln, he did not win on a first ballot. That was a sort of cycling set of balance as they tried to get to someone who would get over a 50% threshold. And actually the expectation for our election system in the late 18th, early 19th century was that the 50% line would be what you had to… That would be the post you had to get past, the post was not supposed to move. So we talked about first-past-the-post for our plurality system. I think that’s a kind of accident of language from a point where there was an expectation that the post would be firmly fixed at 50%.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. A lot of states, we’re having this runoff in Georgia because their state law requires that the winning senator gets at least half the vote. So they have a runoff system, but we could have avoided the runoff altogether by having Ranked Choice Voting, we’d know who won already. And it really does change the dynamic, especially in an election like that, you know it’s going to be close, the whole problem there is that nobody got a majority. That’s why we have a runoff, so you can win by being enough people’s second choice. If you do better with second choices than the other candidate, you can win. So you don’t want to alienate everybody. So it’s a strategy that doesn’t push you toward polarization.
Danielle Allen: To the contrary, it’s a strategy that pushes you toward pulling voting blocks together. Building out a bigger coalition of potential voters for you. So it’s the opposite of the incentive structure that teaches people to drive wedges and draw on division.
Will Wilkinson: Well, I encourage people to check out Our Common Purpose, there’s a ton of really good recommendations in here. I think I agree with almost all of them. There are just a couple, at a couple places where I don’t know how I feel about them.
Danielle Allen: Which ones are those, I’m curious.
Will Wilkinson: National service, I’m never sure how I feel about. I like both get the point of it, but my vestigial libertarianism revolts a little bit at the idea of having to allocate a year of my life to service to the state.
Danielle Allen: So that one is [inaudible 00:36:25] by a universal expectation of service,.
Will Wilkinson: A universal expectation of… That’s a nice hedge. I don’t know how to do some of the campaign finance stuff so that it works. There’s a pushing the lump under the rug aspect to a lot of campaign finance. So the devil’s in the details. You have mandatory voting in here. I actually like that. I think that’s a good idea, that just takes the strategy of selective disenfranchisement-
Danielle Allen: Exactly. Bingo. Yeah. We’re overdue for taking that strategy off the table in this country.
Will Wilkinson: And unlike national service, if you actually did mandate it, I don’t think it’s a very big burden.
Danielle Allen: Right.
Will Wilkinson: It doesn’t really burden people’s freedom to have to fill out a ball… You could get the mail ballot and just leave it blank and sign it and send it in.
Danielle Allen: Yeah, no, voter duty on par with jury duty is the concept. We accept jury duty, we recognize that that’s a building block for a healthy democracy, and voter duty should be the same. And indeed in that regard, voter duty is less onerous actually than jury duty.
Will Wilkinson: I also didn’t really understand what you meant by promoting experimentation with citizens’ assemblies to interact with Congress. The citizens’ assemblies are a popular idea with a certain deliberative Democrat. And I like the idea in a way, but I don’t know how practical or effective that would be. What’s the idea there?
Danielle Allen: So the idea for the citizen assemblies piece is to help our entire society do a better job of participating in the conversations about our strategic directions than we currently do. So we can increase the size of the House, even as we increase the size of the House, we’re not going to get to the relative ratio that we had at the founding, that was 30,000:1 was the anticipated max. We’re now at 700,000 constituents to one representative. So in that regard, it is important to actually be inventive and creative about additional ways for representatives to connect with their constituents and really learn with them and think together with them. That’s the point of the citizens’ assemblies idea. So it’s not to replace representatives at all, it’s not to set the agenda for Congress even, it really is as agenda issues arise, let’s pull together citizens’ assemblies so that we’re doing more thinking together, learning together about public problems.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. One of the appeals to that kind of thing is that it can be a depolarizing mechanism. As you note, when it’s issue by issue, things aren’t that polarized. It’s when issues get pulled inside the frame of partisanship that people polarize on them. So Floridians were able to agree to an increase in the minimum wage. Clearly, Trump won that state. So clearly, a lot of people who voted for Trump also voted for an increase in the minimum wage. And if you get people together in these deliberative groups to talk about issues, especially if they’re not going to be legislatively binding in any way, or if they’re just advisory, just talking to people with different views has a depolarizing effect.
Part of the way polarization works is, I’ve heard it called Sunstein’s law of group polarization, the more homogenous a group is the more quickly it moves to the extreme because everybody’s updating in the same direction. And it always moves in the general direction of the group. The more diverse the group, you end up updating your views randomly. So you don’t tend to go toward the polls, the whole group tends to converge a little bit more in the middle. And that’s what we need to take the temperature down.
Danielle Allen: Exactly. Yeah, no, we do. And we need that as well in terms of how we rebuild media spaces, particularly at the local level. And at this point too the country is full of news deserts like an analogy to food deserts. And we need to rebuild a media ecosystem that gives people the investigative journalism, explanatory journalism, and so forth that is pertinent to their understanding local politics too. And I think that provides a real opportunity for also pulling people into conversational spaces where there’s intentionality around the design of the conversational space to achieve exactly the dynamic that you just described.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. If you’re going to be a democracy, deliberative infrastructure is a public good. We need to have it if we are going to expect democratic institutions to work well. And if those institutions go away like local newspapers or become captured by either narrow partisan or corporate interests, we’re not going to have the mechanisms we need to be able to talk to each other to work things out.
Danielle Allen: Exactly. And I think the important point though, is that it’s not… Earlier we were talking about people sometimes think of polarization as just a force of nature that just is out there. And I think sometimes too, we think of the media ecosystem as a force of nature that’s just out there. That’s not it at all. And it’s within our power to invent different structures for our delivery of infrastructure as you called it. Some of that’s public goods work, it might be supported by the public sector, it might be supported by philanthropy. I also think there’s room for market creation here too. Everywhere I go, I hear people expressing a hunger for something that’s not contempt driven media or sex driven media. Those are the two business models at work; contempt and sex, but people are expressing a very powerful desire for something else. And one has to think of some of it speaks to the head, it speaks to the enlightened spirit. So there’s a market out there for somebody to tap into. I think that’s another thing-
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. There’s lots of things that people want that markets don’t provide, like the internet wants clicks. So it’s just going to give you what gives you clicks. People don’t want unhealthy food, but the market’s going to give you food that is slightly more addictive that you want to come back to and that’s food that’s not healthy for you. And so on and so forth. I would like the market to provide technologies for self-control, but the market is-
Danielle Allen: You’re a libertarian.
Will Wilkinson: Well, that’s it. I want the market to provide me… One thing that I’ve been wanting forever that’s impossible to find is just a word processor circa 1996, that’s just a typewriter with a screen that doesn’t have the carnival of the internet anywhere near it.
Danielle Allen: Right.
Will Wilkinson: But the market doesn’t provide that.
Danielle Allen: That’s a question though. Take the food example, we changed our tastes in food, we have been changing our taste in food as a society. And obviously that change happened faster in affluent elite contexts, but it’s happened more broadly. So lots of effort on healthy meals in schools and things like that. And the recognition about the problems around diabetes and obesity and so forth that come with soft drinks and fast food. So we actually are wanting to change our tastes. And as we change our tastes, we change the market. So that’s a place where I do feel like we ought to stop carping about our media diet and change our tastes. And then we’ll get the markets that our tastes are asking for.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. It’s hard to do because I think the market’s changed our tastes as well. They’re invested in changing our tastes. If we have too many niche tastes, the market prefers having a larger market. So if it can herd you into preferring the same thing that everybody else prefers, it’ll try to do that.
Danielle Allen: Well, then we absolutely need to figure out the ways of breaking up some of the power of that. And also I think a place where you get into kind of monopoly problems actually, where there’s too much consolidation of taste formation, frankly. And that is a form of monopoly as well. And we should recognize that and be ready to counteract it.
Will Wilkinson: Absolutely. But people should have my taste, that’s my position, not very democratic. One last thing before our time runs up, I wanted to talk just for a minute at least about the piece that you recently had in the Atlantic which online is titled The Flawed Genius of the Constitution. And the hook of the piece is really, really interesting, which you talk about how your great, great grandfather was classified by the Constitution as three-fifths of a person. So that seems like a problem-
Danielle Allen: Three-fifths of a free person. You’ve got to be careful actually.
Will Wilkinson: Three-fifths of a free person.
Danielle Allen: Literally though, because there were… So the free African-Americans who existed at the time of the Constitution were classified as full people. That’s an important distinction.
Will Wilkinson: Absolutely. And so, for people of African-American ancestry, there’s a lot not to love that’s baked into the structure of the Constitution. We have the three-fifths compromise and a lot of our institutions reflect that, the Electoral College reflects it, the way the Senate works reflects it. So a lot of the structure of our government reflects the fact that Southern States weren’t going to sign on to the Constitution if it didn’t protect what Southern enslavers felt was their entitlement, to enslave people. And that redounds to us today, those consequences of that structure are still with us. But despite all that, you love the Constitution.
Danielle Allen: Yeah. So there were another set of people who signed the Constitution and they had exactly the opposite view of the Southerners that is they wouldn’t have signed on if they thought that it was actually going to make enslavement permanently durable. So you have two groups with two different hypotheses about the Constitution. One that it was in fact setting enslavement on the way to its end. And then the other group who thought it was leaving space for protection of enslavement. The first group won, the first group was right. So I think we have to recognize that that initial hypothesis which existed at the time is one that was born out by history. And I think for me, that is a real source of my respect for the Constitution and for what it did. I think it’s really quite extraordinary that they were able to build a frame that had the potentiality in it for that kind of transformation. And I think when kids go back and forth on the question of, well, but did it slow down the transformation might it have happened faster in a different kind of way along a different kind of course?
Will Wilkinson: The British Empire, Canada abolished slavery well before we did.
Danielle Allen: They did, exactly. But by the same token, I think the dynamics that came out of the American constitutional process accelerated that dynamic in Britain. So I think the whole thing is really quite mutually entangled. And ultimately when you look at enfranchisement in Britain, it doesn’t really progress any faster than in the U.S. when you look at working class men with very limited property and things like that. And the timetable ends up being pretty much the same across the two geographical areas. And I think that’s an important thing to take into account as well. It doesn’t mean it’s not a moral tragedy that societies were wedded to practices of domination, both racial and class based for as long as they have been. And even still today, we struggle with vestigial remnants of those practices of domination. That’s just a human tragedy. But I don’t think that the Constitution slowed down the world transformation of humanity. To the contrary, I think it accelerated it. So hence my respect for it.
Will Wilkinson: I always find that I’m fascinated by that counterfactual. I’m not positive that the American revolution wasn’t a mistake, but how do you know? Half of my family’s Canadian and it doesn’t seem like the British loyalists who went to Canada ended up having a less just society than America turned out to be. Of course, the question of what was the influence of the American example on all of these places? That’s a great question, but all of these ideas were in the air as well. There’s a reason that so many of the founders were converging on this set of ideas. They were out there. So it’s not obvious to me that they wouldn’t have developed in other places at other times.
Danielle Allen: So that’s a place I would push back actually. I think honestly the accomplishment of the conversion of the ideas into a practical reality was extraordinary and did not happen everywhere, but made it possible for it to happen elsewhere. So as a very concrete example, in Britain, in British politics there was a peer member of the House of Lords who, in roughly speaking 1780, proposed on the House of Lords universal manhood suffrage. So that’s an example of the idea being out there, and Britain didn’t then achieve that until around about 1870 or so in the end. So the ideas in Britain were completely squelched. And it’s really extraordinary, anti-revolutionary moment in Britain between 1780 and 1800, real stabilization of the monarchy, real stabilization of structures of aristocracy, some tweaking at the margins to allow a bit more of representation of popular opinion on that kind of thing.
Will Wilkinson: But wasn’t it backlash to the American revolution, if it had never happened, maybe they wouldn’t have cracked down so hard. This is why the counterfactuals are hard, right?
Danielle Allen: No, it’s true. The counterfactuals are basically impossible and certainly yes, it was backlash. But I think the point I’m making is that even just with the ideas afoot, there was already backlash. So to actually get the ideas all the way through to a concrete reality of some kind is really, there’s no way around the fact that that’s an extraordinary achievement. So somebody had to do it, it had to happen somewhere first.
Will Wilkinson: What I love best about the Constitution is what you do too. It is a masterful display of the understanding of power and how to set power against itself, the separation of powers, understanding the logic of that. Not in some glib checks and balances sort of way, but why these jobs are different jobs and why it’s dangerous to assign them to the same people. And there’s so many sound, like game theoretically sound structural devices in the Constitution that really does make it an enduring document of brilliance and genius. And despite it’s many flaws, despite the fact that it doesn’t think about parties, despite the fact that it’s got slavery built into it, it still taught the world how to think about how to set power against power in a way that preserved liberty from domination.
Danielle Allen: Yeah. No, that’s right. Well, it’s been great to talk with you and sorry that I have to sign out.
Will Wilkinson: Oh, well, you’re a very, very busy woman. Thanks so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it, Danielle.
Danielle Allen: No, it was a lot of fun.
Will Wilkinson: Model Citizen is brought to you by the Niskanen Center. To learn more about the Niskanen Center, visit niskanencenter.org, that’s N-I-S-K-A-N-E-N center.org. To support this podcast or any of our programs, go to niskanencenter.org/donate.