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At Home with Harvard: American Democracy


At Home with Harvard: American Democracy text cover

At Home with Harvard: American Democracy text cover

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This round-up is part of Harvard Magazine’s series “At Home with Harvard,” a guide to what to read, watch, listen to, and do while social distancing. Read the previous selections, featuring articles about climate change, racial justice, immigration, and more, here.

From money in politics to the structure of the Electoral College and Senate to the extinction of local news, Harvard Magazine has covered the condition of American democracy extensively. Pair the roundup below with “At Home with Harvard: Inequality in America,” a selection of our stories on wealth inequality and its threat to democracy. 


Danielle Allen

Photograph by Jim Harrison

“I routinely hear from students that the ideals of freedom and equality contradict each other,” says political philosopher Danielle Allen in “The Egalitarian.” But, she says, “Equality is the bedrock of freedom.” In this brilliant profile, Spencer Lee Lenfield ’12 sketches Allen’s life and career as one of America’s most admired political philosophers. A year later, I got to write about Allen’s 2017 book Cuz, a wrenching story about how her cousin became embroiled in the criminal-justice system for a property crime he committed as a teenager. As director of Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, Allen has also been deeply engaged in developing proposals for COVID-19 suppression that grapple with the ethical implications of national lockdowns and contact tracing. She is a humane, deeply empathetic voice who seeks ways of building consensus and mutual understanding in our polarized political culture. 

Protestors demonstrate against president-elect Donald Trump on November 13, 2016, in Philadelphia. 

Photograph by Mark Makela/Getty Images

Did you know that in the 1960s, Congress almost abolished the Electoral College in favor of a national popular vote? A few weeks ago, I did a Q&A with historian Alexander Keyssar—“Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?”—about his new book of the same name. This was one of my favorite Q&As. Keyssar took me through the tangled history of this unusual institution, the many failed attempts at reform, and why he’s personally in favor of a national popular vote that would count every American’s vote for president equally. If you don’t have time to read the whole book, this piece will quickly give you a better understanding of why we elect presidents the way we do. 

Caroline Tervo ’18 researched North Carolina politics—at the local craft brewery, at Olive Garden, and at IHOP.

Photograph by Jon Chase/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Upending U.S. Politics,” a new book edited by political scientist Theda Skocpol and her former student Caroline Tervo ’18, explores how grass-roots citizen organizing has in recent years transformed the political landscape on both the left and right. The volume combines work by Harvard undergraduate and graduate students, including an adaptation of Tervo’s senior thesis. When she was a high-school student in North Carolina, she remembers watching the passage of a series of highly contentious policies, like an extensive 2013 voter-ID law. “I remember a general sense of bewilderment among a lot of people about how these policies were happening, what was driving them, why now?” Tervo’s research shows how conservative political activism in her home state has had the seemingly paradoxical effect of energizing participation in democracy while producing policies that are unpopular with most residents. “It’s very easy to assume that whatever’s most popular is going to happen or be protected or be passed into law, but that’s not actually how American politics works and American democracy works,” she told me. “If you are an organized, active minority, you’re going to be able to have sway in ways that maybe a disorganized general majority will not.”

~Marina Bolotnikova, Associate Editor 


Nancy Rosenblum in her Greenwich Village apartment building

Portrait by Robert Adam Mayer

“Neighbors hold our lives in their hands.” That’s one quote that sticks with me from political philosopher Nancy Rosenblum’s Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America. In early 2016, when the book was published, I spent a few months with Rosenblum and her work, researching a long profile, “The Democracy of Everyday Life.” Good Neighbors explores “neighborliness” as a supplement (and corrective) to the formal structures of democracy, and her theory draws on political philosophy, moral psychology, journalism, history, literature, and Rosenblum’s own life experiences. She spends time in the suburbs, and in dense urban neighborhoods; she recounts the intimate violence of lynchings among neighbors and rescues amid mutual disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. “Neighbors are not just people living nearby,” she writes. “Neighbors are our environment. They are the background to our private lives at home.” The 2016 election spurred Rosenblum to co-write a book aimed squarely at the politics of the moment (A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, published in 2019), but in an age of anger and polarization among neighbors, the norms and frameworks that Rosenblum describes in Good Neighbors—and the warnings the book offers—also feel all the more relevant. 

~Lydialyle Gibson, Associate Editor


lllustration by Pete Ryan

The illustration by Pete Ryan that accompanies “America the Politically Unequal” says it all: There are social, political, and economic inequalities in this country that stem from higher voter participation in the Republican Party (along with other issues with our Electoral College and voter suppression that benefit Republicans, but that’s another story). In The Unheavenly Chorus, Kay Lehman Schlozman (Moakley endowed professor of political science at Boston College), Sidney Verba ’53, LL.D. ’09 (Harvard’s Pforzheimer University Professor emeritus), and Henry E. Brady (dean and professor of public policy at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy) present a timely and wide-ranging analysis that catalogs and describes the nature and magnitude of political inequality in the United States. This book was published in 2012, but it’s now more relevant than ever. The authors say that increased voter turnout can be a potential path toward achieving equality.  

~Kristina DeMichele, Digital Content Strategist


Lawrence Lessig

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Wondering what ails American democracy? Lawrence Lessig knows. The Furman professor of law points first to money, and its ability to capture political interests, as the core corrupting influence on the nation’s political system. In “A Radical Fix for the Republic,” Lessig analyzes the facets of the problem, and sketches solutions, outlined at greater length in Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It. In a later book,“They Don’t Represent Us,” Lessig prescribes a complementary set of election reforms, summarized in “Medicine for an Ailing Democracy.” As he puts it in the introduction: 

That an oligarchy or a monarchy would reward an elite is understandable. It’s built into the DNA. For a democracy to favor the elite over the people is to add insult to suffering. It is to betray the very promise at the core of the institution. It is to reveal, in a word, that the institution has been corrupted.

~Jonathan Shaw, Managing Editor


Can American journalism survive the transition to digital and social media? That business question prompts deeper queries into the underlying strength of the U.S. constitutional system and the press’s role in reporting political discourse, and keeping it honest. In “The Extinction of the Press?” former Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow, troubled that “Professional journalism, messages from your cousin, or messages from a Macedonian adolescent paid to design arresting ads can seem equal,” proposes a healthier news ecosystem, built upon appropriate use of antitrust law, regulation, and tax policy. For a related inquiry into new models for journalism, like ProPublica and Report for America, led by Harvard alumni, read Mark Travis’s penetrating feature, “Renewing the News.”     

Illustration by Greg Spalenka

"A Nation Arguing with Its Conscience." Intellectual historian James Kloppenberg, Warren professor of American history, peered into Barack Obama’s ideas, campaign, and early governance to examine the historical roots of the new president’s approach to governance, its grounding in pragmatism, and its approach to deliberative democracy. That may all seem quaint a decade later, yet the American polity’s centuries-long discourse with itself may again turn to the “ideas of anti-foundationalism, historicism, and philosophical pragmatism” that it seems to rediscover, cyclically, just in time to remain true to the founders’ principles.

~John S. Rosenberg, Editor 


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