Danielle Allen: What Do COVID-19 and Extreme Inequality Mean for American Democracy?

The case for reinventing American democracy through an enlarged House of Representatives, ranked-choice voting, and more

Danielle Allen headshot over an orange background.
Danielle Allen
Photograph by Laura Rose




America's response to the COVID-19 crisis, says political philosopher Danielle Allen, represents "the biggest possible announcement one could have of the broken state of affairs" in our nation's democracy. Allen has helped lead one of the most authoritative national reports on the combination of testing and contact tracing needed to contain the pandemic, as well as an ambitious proposal for reinventing American democracy through an enlarged House of Representatives, ranked-choice voting, and more. In this episode, the political philosopher explains why the COVID crisis, extreme inequality, and undemocratic government are all connected—and how democracy in America can still be reinvigorated. "Failure with regard to democracy is, for me, simply not an option," she says. "I'm not an optimist, and I'm certainly not a pessimist. What I am is a not-an-optionist."


A transcript from the interview (the following was prepared by a machine algorithm, and may not perfectly reflect the audio file of the interview): 


Marina Bolotnikova: American democracy is in crisis. Congress's approval ratings are abysmally low, and extreme income inequality makes it harder and harder for ordinary Americans to participate in politics and to shape policies that affect their lives. And the COVID-19 pandemic has been the most unexpected stress test of our nation's institutions and our ability to make democratic decisions.

Welcome to, “Ask a Harvard Professor,” the show where we talk to some of Harvard's most interesting minds about the problems that confront the United States and the larger world. I'm Marina Bolotnikova and today I'm joined by Danielle Allen, who is a political philosopher, a university professor, and the director of Harvard Safra Center for Ethics. She's the author of the popular books, Talking to Strangers, Our Declaration, and Cuz, and we've written about her work a ton at Harvard Magazine. She really is an essential thinker on how we can square America's founding ideals with the needs of today's society.

 Earlier this year, her team at the Safra Center published Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience, an exhaustive report on how we can contain and overcome the coronavirus with our civil liberties intact. She also co-chaired the group that wrote Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century, a big, ambitious report about renewing our political system, published recently by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Welcome Danielle Allen. We're so glad to have you on the podcast.

Danielle Allen: Thanks, Marina. I'm happy to be here.

Marina Bolotnikova: So, very soon after the coronavirus crisis hit the U.S., you and your colleagues at the Safra center really became a national leader in the conversation about how we're going to suppress and overcome the virus, which is not something I think everyone would expect from an ethics center. How did you identify this as an important moment for the Safra Center?

Danielle Allen: Well, the truth is it started with some of the op-eds that Zeke Emanuel was publishing in February, where he started raising questions about a potential need to ration lifesaving resources. Zeke was a fellow in the center in his early days, and in those early days of the center's life we did a lot of work on bioethics and health policy, so we still have a very vibrant community of scholars working in those areas. So I reached out to Zeke and asked him the question, what would be the single most helpful thing an ethics center could do at the moment? And his response was, people are really struggling with how to put together our economic objectives and our health objectives. People are struggling with the sense that there are trade-offs between these things. We really need an ethics center to help think that through. So we activated our faculty committee and pulled in additional scholars through networks or connections that all our faculty members have, and we proceeded to try to answer the question of how we could integrate and not trade-off our objectives of protecting life, protecting liberty and protecting livelihoods.

Marina Bolotnikova: Could you define the concept of pandemic resilience that you outline in the Safra Center's report, Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience?

Danielle Allen: Sure. I think understanding what pandemic resilience means is easier if we can use an analogy to the 2008 financial crisis. So when that crisis hit, we recognized immediately that the globe's interconnected financial systems left us all vulnerable. And we recognized that we had to re-engineer some features of our financial markets and financial systems in order to ensure that the global economy had a certain kind of adaptive resilience over time despite interconnection. The same thing is true now. With infectious disease, we can expect that further novel infectious pathogens will emerge with a higher frequency perhaps than in the past. When this one hit in December of 2019, we weren't ready and so our economy took a huge exogenous shock. The goal is to have the infrastructure in place already built up, our public health infrastructure built up, such that if further novel infectious pathogens hit, we would actually be able to pivot and respond quickly, as we needed, to have an adaptive, resilient society and economy.

 If you look at a place like Taiwan, their learning from the SARS epidemic in 2003 is a good example of what pandemic resilience looks like. They built public health systems. They built systems for rapid response in the context of an emerging pathogen. That meant that their economy actually didn't shrink in the first quarter of this year. When the rest of the globe was shrinking, they weren't because they had rapid response capacity.

Marina Bolotnikova: We're now five months out from when Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience was published. We're speaking, just so listeners have a sense, in mid-September. And at the time you wrote we'll need 20 million tests per day to fully remobilize the economy, as well as a robust system of contact tracing with investment in about 100,000 contact tracing staff. How would you judge how our pandemic response has gone since you made those recommendations?

Danielle Allen: So just to clarify, our recommendation was that we needed five million tests a day, combined with effective contact tracing. And the argument was that if you didn't have effective contact tracing, if you didn't have smart, targeted testing, then you would need 20 million tests a day. So in other words, if you were doing more random, routine screening, it would get up to 20 million a day. But our recommendation was for the combination of testing, contact tracing and supported isolation, so you targeted smart work to take the virus out of circulation. I think events have borne out that recommendation. No, we haven't suppressed the disease. We have significant amount of COVID in circulation in this country. Our testing numbers are up to much higher levels than they were in the spring, but we continue to see the need for yet higher levels. And the need is currently expressed through the demand of all of our school systems, all of our colleges and universities for routine testing, and the numbers do get into the tens of millions a day when you add up all of that demand.

Danielle Allen: Had we been able to really ramp up our public health infrastructure in the spring and achieve that contact tracing-based testing at the levels we recommended then, we still believe we would have suppressed the disease in ways that would mean that routine testing now would not be necessary.

Marina Bolotnikova: Has it surprised you that that hasn't happened, or what do you think went wrong?

Danielle Allen: Well, what's the short answer to that question. It has disappointed me that it hasn't happened. It was clear that it was going to be something hard to pull off from the get-go. It would have been hard to pull off if we'd had all the necessaries in place. So what are the necessaries? Good governance, effective leadership at the top levels of the government, sturdy and robust public education that can develop a shared sense in the country as a whole of what the disease is and what the public good response to the disease is. Even with all of those things, really accelerating investment in our public health infrastructure would have been hard. The reason is because we have disinvested in public health over the last couple of decades.

 And so, the analogy I draw is that when COVID hit, our public health infrastructure was something like a network of country roads, and what we needed was to convert that network of country roads into an interstate highway system overnight. And that's just hard work even in the best of circumstances. That means you have organizational processes that have to be redesigned at every level of society. People having to manage contact tracing programs at scales that they're not used to. The complicated problem that we still haven't solved of how to pay for testing.

 So, for example, we have a medical system that uses insurance to pay for those who are being treated because they're symptomatic, but we've needed a much bigger public health response to test the asymptomatic and we honestly still don't know how to pay for that. We can't figure it out, so we're caught in between the cracks of preexisting policy frameworks. That kind of organizational redesign, policy redesign, is just hard, period. So there was no easy path to success here. And then the path was made more challenging by failures of governance at the national level.

Marina Bolotnikova: What do you think we can still do to contain the virus now? If you were in charge of the virus response, what would be top priority?

Danielle Allen: We still need all the same things we've been needing all along. So I've worked with a set of bi-partisan senators to help develop a Suppress COVID Act, which calls for investment level of $50 billion in testing and contact tracing, as well as in support for, build out a public health infrastructure to achieve data interoperability. And that's one of our key, sort of our Achilles heel in all of this. So we still need that. Even with a vaccine coming online, we'll need testing in a continued way. The efficacy of the vaccine is likely to be somewhere between 50% and 80%, and there will be an extended period of time, six to nine months, really to roll out sufficient distribution to suppress the virus.

 So, it continues to be the case that our best strategy is an all of the above strategy. We need masking, we need physical distancing, we need testing and contact tracing. We need the vaccine and we need to improve therapies. And the reason we need all of the above is because the more we can accelerate control of the disease, full suppression, the faster our economy fully recovers and the faster children have the opportunities they need for robust education, the faster we all recover our ability to have ordinary kinds of social interactions that make human life meaningful.

Marina Bolotnikova: And I think it's worth pointing out the $50 billion investment you mentioned might sound like a lot, but the cost of not doing it is much, much higher, right?

Danielle Allen: Significantly, yes. The cost of investing in actual suppression is vastly outstripped by the negative impact on the economy of having the virus still in robust circulation and widespread.

Marina Bolotnikova: I think the report's discussion of contract tracing is important for listeners to hear, and particularly the ideas you've developed around privacy and around making sure that the data from contact tracing aren't used in a punitive way. Could you talk about those?

Danielle Allen: Sure. Contact tracing is an old-fashioned public health methodology, and one needs to think of it as exposure notification, a warning to others that they've been exposed to a highly contagious and potentially quite dangerous disease.  So, in that regard, the ethics of contact tracing have, already, there's sturdy frameworks for those. The HIV epidemic required doing a lot of work to make sure that approaches to contact tracing aligned with civil liberties protections. So for example, in the 1980s, it was really quite a challenge to get contact tracing going initially within the gay community because there was a real and reasonable worry about government surveillance and exposure that might flow from contact tracing processes.

 So, one of the important lessons learned at that time was that contact tracing works best when it is conducted by organizations that are part of the communities in which the work is being done. And so it matters for example, that contact tracing in fact be carried out at lower levels of government and not at the level of the federal government. And then of course it matters that the data from contact tracing be protected in ways that are consistent with the principles of the HIPAA protections that we're all used to in a healthcare setting.

Marina Bolotnikova: I want to pivot to the report that you co-chaired from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences called, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century. What sparked the beginning of that project? Why does American democracy need to be reinvented?

Danielle Allen: So that project, its beginnings go back several years. And I think there is a significant portion of our society that have seen for some time that there were red alarm bells going off about the quality of our public life. For me, one of my personal red alarms was the point in 2013 when Congress had a 9% approval rating. And I always say Congress is the first branch. It's the people's voice. If the people doesn't approve of itself, of its own voice, then something has gone really badly wrong. And there are other flashing alerts as well. The levels of distrust that Americans have for the federal government, as well as levels of distrust they have for each other, trust has been on a steady decline for the last few decades. Voter participation has been on a decline. Young people's affiliation to democracy is far less robust than pertained in prior generations.

So, all kinds of flashing red alerts led some folks who play leadership roles at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to put the question on the table of what it would mean for us to address these problems of democratic civic practice and democratic citizenship. And then I was very fortunate to be one of the early folks called to discuss setting up a commission. And lo and behold, as we reached out to find members, we found broadly shared sentiment that it was time to take a really fundamental look at our democratic institutions, civil society and civic culture.

Marina Bolotnikova: Do you see a through-line between the coronavirus work and the work on re-imagining democracy?

Danielle Allen: Absolutely. I said we'd all seen these flashing red alert signs in some sense, the failures of governance that have characterized this country's COVID response are the biggest possible announcement one could have of the broken state of affairs. So as we did the work in the final stages, we were very close to publication at the point that the pandemic hit. And we did gather again as a commission to ask the question of whether or not any of our arguments about the need to restore responsiveness to our political institutions, to rebuild civil society's capacity to bridge differences, and to invest in our civic culture in ways that support the mutual commitment of America's one another, we asked ourselves whether any of these points that we were arguing for looks different in the face of the pandemic, and we collectively agreed, they didn't. That, in fact, our strategies were exactly the ones that we would have needed to do better with the pandemic, institutions that were more responsive, bonds of solidarity and trust within the citizenry that permit us all to see in a crisis that we have the job of pulling together, and civil society organizations that can bridge political difference in ways that make it possible for us to pursue a shared conception of the public good in a time of crisis. All of those are exactly what we needed to do better in the coronavirus crisis.

Marina Bolotnikova: As part of the research for this project, you went on a listening tour of different communities across the U.S., talking about what democracy means to them, how they think American democracy is doing. What were some of the takeaways from that tour?

Danielle Allen: We were very fortunate. We were able to hold listening sessions in about 50 different communities around the country, and we commissioners really fanned out. So it was really a team effort to get to different places and hear from different people. And we asked the same questions everywhere we went, and there were interesting things. We were very curious to know what our participants thought that they shared with other Americans. And there was sort of this paradox where it turned out that everybody thought that they didn't share much at all with other Americans. So we turned out to share the fact that we're not sure we share much, so that was an interesting initial finding. But at the same time there was this sense of disconnection, of not sharing. In fact, people used very similar kinds of vocabulary to talk about their understanding of their own role in their communities, a sense of duty to community, a sense of what they hope for from fellow members of their community. Many people raised issues of the ways in which they try to make their community a better place. I heard a heck of a lot more invocation of paying taxes as a part of citizenship than and I had expected. It was really broadly consistent, which was interesting.

And then there was a sort of interesting analysis of the disaffection. We had some groups that don't vote at all, other groups that were voters and frustrated with their friends and neighbors for not voting. And there are two, we sort of heard a shared story of the sense that especially the national clinical institutions are really distant, but there's not a sense of responsiveness, that people feel that their voice doesn't matter. So although they started by saying they shared nothing, they actually shared a kind of positive conception of aspiration for playing a role in their communities, and they also shared a sense of disconnection and distance and disempowerment in relationship to our national political institutions.

Marina Bolotnikova: What do you see as the relationship between wealth inequality in our broken democracy? Is it a cause of it, a consequence of it? I'm curious to hear how you think about the interaction between the two.

Danielle Allen: Well, I think it's a bit of a vicious circle. I think that the two phenomena are mutually reinforcing. The pandemic is a really good example where we really have a kind of split-screen experience of the pandemic. So, those who are among the essential workforce, for instance, or in lower wage service jobs have had a kind of economically devastating experience, as well as far worse exposure to the disease, whereas the well-to-do have not seen anywhere like the mortality impacts. And of course, as we all know, the stock markets have rallied and, so, wealth is in many ways at this point, still quite untouched.

 So that gap, that disparity, is fundamentally disabling of a society's ability to make decisions, because it means that very often those in positions of decision making don't have enough lived connections to those who are experiencing the worst of what our society has to offer, and we lose the kind of connective tissue that is at the core of solidarity that permits us to build toward the public good. So it certainly, at this point, the wealth gap is a cause of ongoing democratic dysfunction, cause of distrust, cause of mutual alienation. I think it also reflects failures of democratic governance, that as it reflects the fact that our political institutions have not empowered the voices of workers sufficiently to build a political conversation that drives the economy in more egalitarian directions.

Marina Bolotnikova: You make a bunch of recommendations for reforming our political system in this report. We won't have time to talk about all of them here, but just so listeners have an idea, they include things like: significantly increasing the size of the House of Representatives to make it and the electoral college more representative, ranked choice voting, 18-year terms for Supreme Court judges, automatic voter registration, mandatory voting, and many others. Those are just a few of them. What among the recommendations stands out to you as the most urgent?

Danielle Allen: The report has two halves. One half is conceptual, and the other half is the concrete recommendations. The conceptual half is the argument that a healthy democracy depends on a virtuous circle, linking responsive political institutions that empower people and deliver equal representation, to civil society organizations. So that means, all your businesses and churches and clubs and associations, so non-governmental organizations. You need a civil society that helps people bridge difference. And then the third thing you need is a civic or political culture that inspires a commitment of members of the society to one another. So you need a virtuous circle, again, linking healthy institutions, healthy civil society, and a healthy civic culture. So it's important to say that out loud because one of our recommendations is in fact that we approach our problem expecting that we always have to work along all three dimensions simultaneously.

 Now, the reason that matters is because I can't tell you, here's the single recommendation that is most important. I could only ever deliver to you sets of three, all right? So we should never be thinking about our political institutions without also thinking about civil society and civic culture.

So for example, I do think ranked choice voting is super-important and has the benefit of delivering equality of voice and improved representation, in so far as what you do in ranked choice voting is, you list your first choice, your second choice, your third choice. If your first choice doesn't gather enough votes, your vote rolls down to your second choice. It's sort of like an instant runoff. The result is that nobody ever takes office without having won 50% at least of the votes. So you don't have somebody in office where the majority of people have actually voted against that person. So it sort of solves that kind of problem of representation that's an institutional element.

But at the same time that it's working in the institutional space, ranked choice voting encourages candidates to campaign in a more moderate fashion, a fashion that's more about building connections as opposed to dividing. The reason is that as a candidate, your goal is to campaign, not just to be a first choice for somebody, but also to be a second choice for other voters, and a third choice for still other voters. So you can't demonize your opponents because you actually want to pick up your opponent's voters and be their second choice. And that really makes a big difference for the capacity of civil society organizations to bridge, because there's more reason for groups to work together on shared sets of issues, and it also supports a refurbishment of a culture of proactive problem solving as opposed to demonizing division. So I do like ranked choice voting, but I'm articulating its power across the spaces of institutions, civil society, and our culture, because it really matters to always pull those three features or elements together in considering what we're trying to change.

Marina Bolotnikova: Sure. Yeah. A lot of your recommendations, like making Congress more representative of the American people and limiting money in politics, I think are ideas that are discussed a lot in American politics. One that maybe isn't familiar to our listeners is mandatory voting. I'd love it if you could talk about the philosophical rationale behind mandatory voting. Why is it a good idea?

Danielle Allen: Sure. The report does, as you say, really build on the good work of others. Most of the ideas in the report are things that have been identified by other people as really important reforms. Mandatory voting is a policy in which there's a requirement to show up at the polls or otherwise submit your ballot. It's not a requirement to actually mark your ballot, so that's an important distinction. It's still possible to withhold one's vote if that's the expressive choice in fact one wants to make. Australia has had mandatory voting for roughly a century, and there are other models elsewhere. And the importance of mandatory voting, a few things. It means it puts an end to the question of, are we protecting the right to vote? Are we achieving universal suffrage? Yes. And again, it transforms campaigning, because now the job is no longer to make sure all of your partisans get to the polls, and to make sure that none of your opponent's partisans go to the polls, everybody's going to the polls. So there's no point any longer in investing huge amounts of money in get out the vote efforts. So it changes the dynamics of money in politics, as well as restoring a kind of ethic of what's our commitment that we all have to the society that we're a part of.

So again, to show you the example of how the institutional and the cultural get linked together, we do recommend mandatory voting. We also recommend making the federal election day a national holiday. And we recommend in particular choosing Veteran's Day as that holiday. And so the point is to say, look, there are a number of kinds of service that are actually foundationally necessary to the health of a democracy, and it's important for us symbolically to convey the importance of every citizen doing their duty by our society, by our constitutional democracy. So mandatory voting has direct effects on the culture of campaigning, but it also has effects on our broader culture of what the ethic of our civic practice is.

Marina Bolotnikova: How do you think we can start to break through the deep polarization in this country and start to make your ideas into consensus politics, particularly when politicians benefit from, and in many ways, depend on the way things are now, on democratic, on representative structures?

Danielle Allen: Our commission was very diverse, and it was diverse along all dimensions. So ethnically and geographically, and also ideologically. So our report does in fact, represent across ideological or bipartisan or transpartisan or whatever term you want to use, consensus. And we worked really hard to achieve that. So, I think, for those who want to go into the weeds on policy and democracy reform, it's worth comparing our report to H.R. 1, the bill that the Democrats pass in the House at the start of the 2018 session. And there are things that aren't in our report that are in H.R. 1, and that gap reflects the difference between a kind of partisan picture of democracy reform, and what we achieved as a cross-ideological transpartisan picture.

Marina Bolotnikova: Yeah, I'm glad you mentioned the ideological diversity of your team, because that ties into another question I had, which is, the report mentions that in writing it, some of the co-authors disagreed with one another about some of its recommendations in the final product. And if you can, I'd love it if you can share what some of those disagreements were, and what are the interesting debates that are being had about renewing democracy.

Danielle Allen: Ah, you will not get that from me. Because, as we put in the report, it was a consensus. We all did agree unanimously to endorse the whole report and to bury our reservations. So, no, I won't actually share that. Though I think all you have to do is look at the broad picture of the debate that you'll find around any of these reforms and you can be sure that those same themes of debate emerged in our discussions.

Marina Bolotnikova: Sure. Well, if I might ask something a little more personal. You've always struck me in your speaking and writing as such a positive person, someone who doesn't easily succumb to despair about the problems that America faces, and who really believes that we can still accomplish difficult things together as a nation, despite such deep polarization and recover a sense of national purpose. Do I have that right about you? And if I do, can I ask where you get your hope from?

Danielle Allen: Well, I think, yes, you have that right about me and I think that's fair to say. The way I tend to describe it is as follows: I have a deep belief that democracy is the political form that provides the best hope for human beings to realize their full potential for a meaningful human life. And I can speak for hours on that subject. It's at the core of my work as a political philosopher, and in so far as I believe that democracy is the best hope for human wellbeing. Failure with regard to democracy is for me simply not an option. So what I always say to people is, it's not that I'm an optimist and I'm certainly not a pessimist. What I basically am is I'm not an optionist. Failure is not an option, so we will find our way. And it's hard work, but day-after-day we'll do that work because failure is not an option.

Marina Bolotnikova: Is there anything else that you'd like to add? What else should I have asked you about today?

Danielle Allen: No, your questions were all fantastic. You certainly covered a broad swath. So thank you very much for your time and engagement. These are important subjects that can be hard to talk about. Sometimes they seem extremely abstract, and the important thing is to connect the abstract ideas back to our concrete-lived experience.

 And so maybe I'll just conclude by saying again, that the pandemic has been a period of intense suffering for this country. And also of course, the issues of racial injustice and police brutality are another dimension of intense suffering. And the important thing is to recognize that this suffering is not, it doesn't come from nowhere in either case, it really does reflect whether or not our institutions secure for us the governance that we deserve. So the suffering that we have is something that we can redress, and the way that we redress it is by achieving for ourselves institutions that can deliver safety and happiness for all of us.

Marina Bolotnikova: Thank you so much for joining us, Danielle Allen. It's been such a pleasure.

Danielle Allen: Thank you. Take care.

This episode of Ask a Harvard Professor was hosted by Marina Bolotnikova and the season is  produced by Jacob Sweet and Niko Yaitanes. Our theme music was created by Louis Weeks. This third season is sponsored by the Harvard University Employees Credit Union and supported by voluntary donations from listeners like you. To support the podcast, visit harvardmagazine.com/supportpodcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts. Contact us with questions at harvard_magazine@harvard.edu

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