1. The Need for Mutual Forbearance
  2. Liberalism Starts with the Individual
  3. Restoring Liberalism
  4. Be a Fox, Not a Hedgehog
  5. Too Much of a Good Thing
  6. A Matter of Trust
  7. What We Share
  8. Liberalism and Markets
  9. Social and Political Trust
  10. Shaking Hands and Building Relationships
  11. Confident Pluralism
  12. Defending the Constitution of Knowledge
  13. Reaching Our Potential as a Liberal Society
  14. Remixed Religion in America
  15. Speaking Freely in American Universities
  16. Human Beings, Together and Alone
  17. Humility, Empathy and Asking the Big Questions
  18. Myths of American Identity
  19. The Democratic Dilemma
  20. Empathy, Dialogue and Building Bridges
  21. Conspiracy Theories in Contemporary Political Discourse
  22. The Psychology of Progress
  23. Classical Liberalism and Racial Justice
  24. Racial Classification in America
  25. Religion, Liberalism and Equality
  26. Toward Racelessness
  27. Having the Tough Conversations
  28. Cultivating an Ethos of Tempered Liberalism
  29. From High Conflict to Good Conflict
  30. Democracy and Liberalism
  31. Communication That Unites Us
  32. Affective Polarization and the Boundaries of Speech
  33. Our Brands, Our Selves
  34. Understanding Community Through Moral Science


In this sixth installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of academic outreach at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, sits down with Danielle Allen to discuss building trust in democratic institutions, creating habits of friendship and learning how to converse with people of differing opinions. Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and the director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. She specializes in democratic theory, political sociology and the history of political thought. Her many books include Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education, Why Plato Wrote, and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.

This series also includes interviews with Alan Charles Kors, Emily Chamlee-Wright, Ilana Redstone, Richard Ebeling, Robert Talisse, Roger BerkowitzVirgil StorrKevin Vallier, Juliana Schroeder, John Inazu, Jonathan Rauch and Peter Boettke.

BEN KLUTSEY: We’re talking about liberalism, a set of ideas that blossomed in the Enlightenment period, which informed the founding or reconstruction of many states, including the United States. It is foundational to our liberal democracy. It includes values like freedom of speech and expression, individual liberty, equality, toleration, mutual forbearance and the like. But we see the emergence of populism and polarization, which sometimes seem to challenge this liberal tradition. We started this series to investigate what this liberal tradition is, its current challenges and how we can strengthen it.

Today we’re incredibly fortunate to have Professor Danielle Allen. She’s a James Bryant Conant University Professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Professor Allen is a classicist and political theorist. She has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology and the history of political thought. She is widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America.

We’ll include a list of her books on the podcast page so that our audience can take a look. But today we’ll cover themes from her books The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens from 2000; Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education, 2004; and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality from 2014.

Trust and Freedom

KLUTSEY: So we’ll just delve right in, and the first set of questions we’re trying to focus on liberalism, trust and political friendship. Now, in your book Talking to Strangers, you highlight distrust as among our core political problems, including racial distrust. However, liberalism emerged during the Enlightenment period to solve the problem of distrust in political life. Are we doing any better than we were 16 years ago when you wrote the book?

DANIELLE ALLEN: Let me start with some thoughts, perhaps, about the concept of liberalism and say, as I’m sure you’ve already covered on your series, there’s such an incredible variety of liberalisms, right? So then the question is always, well, what do they share exactly? And the answer to that question I have always taken to be grounded in the word itself, which comes from the Latin word for freedom, for liberty. Therefore, what’s shared is really a concept about the value of liberty and rights in human life and the value of free self-government.

I take liberalism to be a fundamentally political concept in the first instance. Of course, one can also talk about economic liberalism. I think it’s important to maintain that distinction.

So then the question is, okay, what do freedom, free self-government and rights have to do with trust? What’s the role of trust in relationship to these things? After all, isn’t it the case that the point of liberal institutions is to design and order power in such a way that rights are secured precisely so that we are all protected from one another in some sense. Isn’t it the case that institutions are supposed to replace any kind of social bond of trust? And there, what I argue is, in fact, the healthy functioning of the institutions of liberalism depends on both a willingness of participants to prove their trustworthiness to others and the capacity of a society to build and sustain trust among its members.

So, are we in the U.S. doing better in 2020 than we were in 2004 when I published Talking to Strangers? I think the answer is no. I would love to figure out a way to say yes, but I don’t really see how I can. All the metrics that we use for tracking trust are tending and trending in negative directions.

For me, the most salient metrics are the ones that are about how much Americans trust one another. We’re all very familiar with the fact that distrust of the federal government has just been on an increase in a steady way over the last few decades. It’s also a sad fact that distrust of one another, Americans’ distrust of one another, has been on the increase. For me, that’s the part that really, really matters and is concerning. But one counterpoint to all of that actually is that Americans’ trust of local government is still remarkably high. So about 70% of Americans will say that they trust their local government.

KLUTSEY: Yeah. I had a conversation with Professor Robert Talisse of Vanderbilt University a few weeks ago, and his book Overdoing Democracy, which talks about polarization—in that, he talks about how attitudes towards interparty marriages have gotten worse, far worse, than interfaith, interracial, and that seems to me to be very alarming. It’s a little bit different from trust in particular, but just in the context of how we engage one another more broadly, I think it’s very, very alarming.

ALLEN: It is alarming. No, I agree. I think this is where we come back to the issue of the paradox that building institutions of free self-government that protect rights also require trust comes out best. At the end of the day, those institutions of liberalism can function only if people are committed to their ongoing maintenance. The whole point of constitutional democracy is that you make decisions where there are winners and losers. You almost never have something that’s got unanimous support.

Consequently, people have to be willing to stay in the game. They have to be committed to just the process itself of actually making decisions together, even though you win some and you lose some. If you lose that kind of mutual commitment, you can’t really sustain constitutional democracy. So that’s why the trust element is so important.

One Nation vs. Wholeness

KLUTSEY: So in that book, Talking to Strangers, you talk about how we idealize the one nation concept and that undermines the ability to generate trust. You talk about wholeness as a better way to orient ourselves towards having more trust in a diverse society. Can you unpack that for us a little bit, explain what wholeness is versus the one nation concept?

ALLEN: Sure. Lots of people rely on the phrase “e pluribus unum” to think about what the project is of pursuing constitutional democracy or liberalism in the context of pluralism and diversity. And my concern with the notion that the goal is to achieve oneness is that, again, you can never homogenize opinion, nor would you ever want to. So indeed, what you’ll always have is a society of heterogeneity. Freedom is a generator of heterogeneity, and that’s a good and beautiful thing.

So then the question is, what’s the kind of link we can have with one another, given heterogeneity that nonetheless supports good governance? And that link I call wholeness, which is that we’re committed to doing things together, operating together. We’re committed to tending to the quality of our relationships, to redressing harms when people raise grievances, to engaging in debate based on sound principles of argumentation and reason and lack of ad hominem and things like that. We’re committed to all of those practices. The ideal of wholeness conveys that we’re committed to a set of practices that sustain our commitments to each other and our commitments to the institutions of constitutional democracy.

I have one way I would now modify the argument I made in Talking to Strangers. I do think that the “e pluribus unum” phrase, or the concept of oneness, is valuable in one way specifically, and that is in naming the fact that there’s a single set of institutions from which decisions issue, and we all share that same one set of institutions, legitimate and authoritative institutions. Then the concept of wholeness really captures who we are as a society and what our relationships to each other as a society should be, even as we are sharing a single set of decision-making institutions.

The Habits of Friendship

KLUTSEY: I see. You also talk about how ordinary habits are the stuff of citizenship. And I really love that phrase because then it goes beyond voting and paying taxes and volunteering and things like that. Friendship is one of the habits that we ought to cultivate in order to generate trust and improve our democracy. So how do we do this? How do we develop political friendships, especially at a time when we’re so polarized?

ALLEN: I think to some extent you have to fake it till you make it. That’s one of the ways I think about it. We’ve all been friends; we know what friendship requires. This is a really important point from Aristotle, that you can separate, in a sense, the practices of friendship from the emotional element of friendship. What that means is that you can take those habits—the habits of mutual exchange, reciprocity, turn-taking and so forth—and you can actually use those with anybody, and they are facilitative of productive relationships.

From my point of view, each of us, wherever we’re situated, has a kind of obligation to find people with whom we disagree and pull them into our work and into forms of collaboration and to use those principles, the practices of friendship, with them in the expectation that that will help our work. And then one discovers a second benefit, that over time the feelings of friendship can emerge as well and reduce the impact of experiences of polarization.

KLUTSEY: One thing you talk about as well is that generally we tend to tell kids, you don’t talk to strangers, which is an important part of our culture. But you’re saying that we should get out of our comfort zones, which is sort of the title of your book. We ought to talk to strangers. We ought to talk to one another.

ALLEN: Talk to strangers and listen to strangers. After I published Talking to Strangers, I got a lot of pushback from people who said, actually, the more important thing is listening to strangers. And I have to say, I think there’s truth to that. There is a version of the book that would really focus on that listening concept, hearing other people’s stories, probably because that’s part of the work of building relationships and developing empathy and so forth, but also actually because each human being is this incredible processor of the world around us. And so every story a person tells provides knowledge, gives us perspective, on how our world is put together.

I think what we’re all experiencing in our very polarized world is a limited span of perception. We can only really see things from where we sit and where our friends sit, and there’s so much of the world therefore that’s not within our grasp. We can’t understand the perspective. And so hence the listening to strangers becomes so important so that you can see things as they see them in the first instance, before you even begin to engage.

KLUTSEY: In my conversation with Robert Talisse, he’s saying that we are overdoing democracy or overdoing politics. It’s saturated every sphere, every area of our lives, and we ought to do more in society that has nothing to do with politics. He says that if you have a hard time thinking about anything that you do that has nothing to do with politics, then that is the problem. So I don’t know how we do that. I guess that we can talk to strangers in ways that it’s just about learning about who they are, what they do and so on without bringing up politics at all. I think that would be helpful.

ALLEN: Absolutely. I think of talking to strangers in the first instance as a practice of mutual gift giving and where in some sense one’s job is to share something first, something about oneself that strangers wouldn’t know, and that opens up knowledge, understanding, about one’s own perspective on the world. Then one hopes that the stranger reciprocates with a story of their own. I think those stories that really share where we’ve been, what we’ve seen, what we’ve analyzed as significant typically actually aren’t about politics because they’re removed from politics. They’re more about what matters in life, what are the challenges in life. I think being able to reconnect along those dimensions is really valuable.

The Declaration of Independence

KLUTSEY: Now, switching gears a little bit to your other book, Our Declaration, where you focus on the concept of equality. But first of all, it is very clear in reading that book that you are passionate about the Declaration of Independence. And I’d love for you to take a minute to reflect on this passion, where this passion comes from.

ALLEN: I am passionate about the Declaration of Independence, and it’s kind of crazy. I now realize I have been on a journey with the Declaration for 20 years already, which I never would have predicted for myself as a young person. There’s scarcely a day that goes by that I don’t actually think about it, which is sort of insane. And so, where did that love come from? Honestly, it was just this really extraordinary teaching experience, as I write about in my book.

I was teaching a night program, night school, for low-income adults in Chicago. It was a humanities-based program. The principle was that too often people in poverty are treated to vocational programs that are very instrumentalizing as opposed to developing of their whole human self, and the latter program, humanities-based ones, being therefore more empowering of them.

It was a program where I taught sometimes in the history section, sometimes in philosophy, sometimes in the writing section. We wanted to always use really extraordinary, powerful texts but really ultimately also had to pick shorter texts. So my just kind of really rudimentary problem-solving approach led me to focus on the Declaration of Independence as a short, great text I could use across these categories. I was not expecting my students to react as powerfully to the text as they did. So it was really my students who took me by surprise.

We would read the text. We always started by reading it out loud, and it was always incredibly moving because it would immediately lead to a conversation about our contemporary world and what people’s aspirations are for it, what challenges they saw in it. The language of the declaration around the grievances against the king—it’s very easy to start thinking about grievances against the mayor, for instance.

And so one went just so fast into these really profound conversations about individual life trajectories and the changes people were trying to make personally, and social life trajectories and how we can drive change there. So it was really my students and the power of their reactions to the text that led me to take another look and turn around and start digging into the declaration.

Equality and Freedom

KLUTSEY: That’s great. One of the ideas you discussed in the book Our Declaration is that as a society we highlight freedom over equality, which as you described has different facets. You note that equality precedes freedom. Is there a tension between these two concepts or do we simply misunderstand that they are mutually reinforcing concepts?

ALLEN: I think we mainly misunderstand that they’re mutually reinforcing concepts, though there’s another dimension to that. In the 18th century, when the Declaration was written, the concept of equality that was at the forefront of the minds of the folks who wrote that was a political equality concept, supported by a concept of social equality and equal access to political institutions and so forth. There wasn’t really a conceptualization attached to economic questions at the time. Political equality and freedom are 100% mutually compatible with each other.

Then of course in the 19th century, we go through this extraordinary transformation of the global economy with the Industrial Revolution. Then the economic questions come to the fore in political life in a different kind of way as Marxism, communism emerge and start counterposing the emancipation of the proletariat to the bourgeois rights of property that have to be invaded in order to secure the emancipation of the proletariat. So we do, in the late 19th and early 20th century, start getting an argument that freedom and economic equality are in opposition to each other. And that is basically correct; that is, a statist, authoritarian, total equalization of property does undermine freedom.

So for me, the important question is, how do you recover the original recognition that you can’t have freedom without equality? Because if freedom is really about each and every one of us not being dominated by others and not being dominated by collective forces or external adversaries, then the only way that we can have it actually is if we are on equal footing, politically speaking, in relationship to each other. So freedom and equality go hand in glove with one another. They’re both grounded in the equality of human dignity.

So then there’s a question of where does economic life fit into that picture? For me, the way one addresses that is one has to ask the question, what forms of economic life, what ways of organizing our economy, are empowering of people and supportive of political equality? In general, I think if you ask that question, it does point in a direction of more egalitarian approaches to a market economy, for instance, but it doesn’t point to a top-down, statist, total equalization of property or anything of that kind.

So I do think that egalitarian economic solutions are compatible with a commitment to freedom, including market freedom, but I think that’s the work that we have to do, to really articulate how those pieces fit together.

KLUTSEY: Do you think we’re going through another sort of reconstruction and rethinking of these concepts? I hear the term equity a lot. Has that always been the case, or it’s just a new wave of rethinking about equality?

ALLEN: Funnily enough, as it happens, I have an undergraduate last year who wrote a senior thesis on the concept of equity because just as you said, he said, “Yeah, I’m hearing it all the time now. Is it because it’s a brand new concept, or where does it come from?” The term actually has quite an interesting history as it turns out. It’s not actually a term with a deep genealogy in philosophy per se. It’s a legal term originally, right?

Aristotle introduces equity as a concept that you use to correct the law when the strict application of the law somehow goes wrong and produces an injustice. So in other words, the law is right 98% of the time, but in 2% of the cases that rule doesn’t work for that case, and you want a judge to be able to equitably make an adjustment. That kind of concept of equity moved throughout time.

And then in the ’60s and ’70s, actually in the space of administrative theory, theory of administrative policy and so forth, equity came in as a concept that had that same kind of rectificatory element. When you have policies that on paper look fair or procedurally fair but nonetheless keep repeating these results that look substantively unjust, then you bring an equity lens in to figure out how to rectify. That really is what the core of the concept is.

I think that what the conversation about equity gives us now, actually, though, is a lens for seeing the places where the arrangements as we’ve had them for the last 30 years—economic arrangements for the last 30 years—have failed us, haven’t delivered what they should by way of foundational flourishing for all, and an opportunity structure that’s really well distributed throughout the population. So I think it’s a useful diagnostic tool, but then I think there’s a bigger conversation to be had about how market economies can function in ways that are more supportive of egalitarian opportunity.

The Criminal Justice System

KLUTSEY: Now, incarceration is one major way that a person’s freedom can be substantially limited. In The World of Prometheus, you show that in America we use incarceration for 70% of criminal justice sanctions, which is quite astounding. Is this primarily due to the war on drugs? I mean, is criminal justice reform moving in the right direction in your perspective?

ALLEN: So justice reform is moving in the right direction. Absolutely. And ending the war on drugs is part of the right direction. At the end of the day, drug penalties and getting rid of them probably only remove somewhere between 14% and 18% of incarceration from the system. So they’re really only part of the story. The story also involves things like mandatory minimums and extremely long sentences. The U.S. penal system has much longer sentences than our peers in Europe.

For example, in Germany where 6% of sanctions are incarceration, I believe the average length of a sentence is also a matter of months, and a long sentence counts as three years now, whereas for us, 10, 20, 40 years is quite routine to hear and read about. Any healthy society needs a sound system of justice for securing public safety, responding to violence and also fairly supporting offenders in reconnecting to society. And I think our current system falls down really badly on the last dimension.

There’s a lot more that can be said about that, but I think those systems of justice—again, I think Germany and the Netherlands have good examples—that focus on sanctioning systems that reconnect offenders to healthy social relationships are much better for public safety and the individual well-being of both victims and offenders than the highly retributive system that we currently operate.

Education and Technocracy

KLUTSEY: Interesting. Switching gears a little bit to education, has the emphasis on STEM—and I think this relates to how we engage each other in society—the emphasis on STEM over the years led to a decline in the focus on the humanities, which plays a role in inspiring students towards civic engagement. Does that have any implications for liberalism generally?

ALLEN: Absolutely. I think there’s a lot to be said there. There are two different issues, both of which though I think ultimately connect to the theme of and challenge of technocracy. Take technocracy as the idea that decisions are best made by experts. One of the things that technocracy has delivered for us in the last few years is the argument that the problem of increasing income and wealth inequality are best addressed by disseminating STEM skills as widely as possible. Yet STEM skills, at least the way we teach STEM in this country at this point in time, are correlated to lower levels of civic participation and civic engagement.

So, if on the other hand, you have a different view about human flourishing, a view that decisions should be made collectively through processes of constitutional democracy, technocrats should be advisers to self-governing people represented by their elected officials, then what you see is you’ve got a situation where the technocrats are actually making recommendations that are mutually reinforcing of their own power and undermining of democracy.

And then, if your view is also that the kind of democratic empowerment that involves participating, again, in the decision-making constitutional democracy tends to deliver egalitarian economic outcomes, then you’re actually losing one of the most important tools you have for securing an approach to economic policy that might, for example, give us a new competition policy to really tackle questions of monopoly and things like that. We’re leaving the tool of change along those dimensions on the table by virtue of not empowering people’s participation. I do think from an education point of view it’s really critical that we rebuild the supports for civic participation, civic resilience.

KLUTSEY: It reminds me of your foreword to Hannah Arendt’s book The Human Condition. And I think there you note that there has been such an overemphasis on science to solve a lot of problems. It seems as though you’re saying that we should have a way to ask better questions about our society, where science may not, or technocracy may not, necessarily play a role.

ALLEN: I think science and technocracy answer “how” questions but not “what” questions, and answering the “what” questions—What are we trying to do here as a society? What do we want to be as a people?—that’s hard work, and it is work carried out in collaboration between people who run for office, people who hold office and ordinary citizens, the general population. That work, I believe, we have to take seriously. And we the people through our education should equip ourselves for participating in that work.

Then as we work together to set our objectives, we can ask the technocrats how best to accomplish those objectives. For example, if we think that one of our objectives is that there should be really well-spread egalitarian distribution of opportunity in the country, and if we can see that we’re not actually achieving that, then we should ask the technocrats, okay, how can we do a better job of that? Would a better competition policy support that, for example? What are the different ways in which we might go about getting that?

But we the people have to set the objectives. In order to do that, we have to have a level of comfort engaging with questions about our values actually, even despite differences and disagreements. We have to be able to talk about, how do you rate liberty? How do you rate equality? How do you put these things together? What are the different alternatives? And what do we know about history? What do we know about society that helps us see what’s good and valuable for human beings?

That kind of education you get from the humanities, from the social sciences. You get some of it from the natural sciences. I’m not saying it’s impossible. But at the end of the day, especially when you get in spaces like engineering or economic policy-making and so forth, very often what people are providing answers to are “how” questions. And if they haven’t revisited the original “what” questions, then you just get a rinse-and-repeat mechanism. I always think of it slightly as driving blind. At a certain point, you don’t even know where you’re going anymore. It’s like, no wonder you ran into a ditch, as we did with 2008.

KLUTSEY: So does your problem with technocracy relate to F. A. Hayek’s ideas on scientism, for instance, that the real solution is distributed knowledge? Hayek talks a lot about the knowledge problem.

ALLEN: That is a place where I agree with Hayek. I do think distributed knowledge is key. Absolutely. The danger of technocracy is a too limited view of what’s happening in the world, period, what the full range of human experience is. Yeah, so that is a place where I do agree with Hayek.

KLUTSEY: Now, a lot of folks in our audience are college professors. I’m wondering whether you have any advice for them, especially for stimulating an atmosphere of open inquiry on their campuses and in their classrooms.

ALLEN: At the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, which I run, we have started a set of programs under the heading of civil disagreement program. They come in a couple different flavors. We try to have big events where we bring people with very different viewpoints on a hard issue. So we did one on immigration before the pandemic set in.

Then we also have a program at this point—it’s a collaborative program with several other campuses, different kinds of campuses, community colleges as well as private universities—where students come together across ideological lines for the sake of both talking about specific issue areas but also actually learning negotiation skills and learning facilitation skills. Our view is that we’re at a point in our collective life where we actually have to be intentional and proactive about rebuilding skills of conversation across ideological lines. So that’s what we’re doing.

KLUTSEY: Do you find that because of social media and some of these platforms, it’s become a lot more difficult to learn how to have these conversations?

ALLEN: But do you think social media hasn’t helped? I think of social media as something like middle school. We’re all trapped in middle school at the moment. And so it really is a question of how can we either build alternative media platforms or reset the norms on these media platforms to get us all out of middle school into some more adult space for interaction.

If somebody snarks back at me on Twitter, as a matter of principle, I always try to respond politely and to engage the person in whatever point of substance they’ve put out there. And 9 times out of 10, the person actually comes back in a perfectly nice and friendly way. It takes me completely by surprise because it’s so different from how they sounded in the first go. There’s just so much bravado, and underneath it I think a lot of people are hungering for real intellectual connection, and we just don’t know how to do it anymore.

How to Have the Tough Conversations

KLUTSEY: Yeah. I had a conversation with a professor who said that people think that students can’t have these conversations anymore. Everyone has sort of dug in. But actually on their campus they see a hunger for different ideas and different viewpoints and a way to have these types of conversations. So it’s really encouraging to hear you say that. Do you think that there is a particular skill that one needs to develop to be able to have these types of conversations? Is it listening?

ALLEN: I do think it’s listening. We run a civic education initiative K-12, and we have a Grade 8 curriculum here in Massachusetts. We had to provide a lot of support last week to educators looking to support their eighth graders thinking about the election. Among other things, they wanted advice for how to help classrooms engage despite the fact that you’d have quite different viewpoints represented in the class.

So yeah, the first rule is listen. When a person speaks, repeat back to them what they said and see if you actually heard it right. Let them correct what you said until they can affirm, yes, that’s pretty much what I meant. And then you can share your view and ask them to repeat back to you. You’ve got to do that work first, just plain being able to understand what each of us is saying from the speaker’s perspective. That’s step No. 1.

Step No. 2—this was not so much for our eighth grade classrooms—I think that the really hard part of these conversations is issues that people experience as connected to an existential threat. And here, I think there’s work that’s needed on the side of both the party who has a view as perceived by others as an existential threat and on the part of those who perceive that view as an existential threat. So affirmative action is an example of this. Abortion, immigration—these can all be such issues.

And I do believe it’s incumbent on the speaker who holds a view that others perceive as an existential threat to recognize that experience of threat and to be responsible in relationship to it and do what they can to establish a context in a space of safety for the person who is going to have this experience as a perceived threat. And then for the person who is experiencing an existential threat through the expression of a policy viewpoint, I think there they need to be able to say both, say out loud, “Here’s what’s existentially threatening about that. And then let me separate that, and the emotion that goes with that, from the substantive point that I also want to engage on.”

It’s very hard to be able to separate those two things, the emotional reaction from the analytical reaction. But I think if we could make space in our conversations for acknowledging the emotional reaction and then in asking for it and saying, “Okay, we hear that. And now let’s look at the analytical reaction and see what that looks like.” If we could try to make both of those moves, I think we open up space for conversation.

KLUTSEY: That’s really helpful. I find that there is a way in which we talk about politics that sounds like a zero-sum game: Group A wins; Group B completely loses. And if Group B wins, Group A is completely at a loss. Is there a way that we can address that?

ALLEN: I think we have a lot of work to do to address that. I don’t think that experience characterizes our local politics or our state-level politics. I think it’s really a characterization of our federal politics. This is one of the reasons I’ve become a real advocate for reforms to our mechanisms of voting, why I’m in favor of ranked choice voting—precisely because it changes the incentives for candidates who are campaigning. They have to build broad coalitions and always want to be building broad coalitions.

In our current plurality approach, you can win by driving wedges and by really just committing to one portion of the electorate and carrying through for that portion of the electorate. I think we have a set of incentive problems that are plaguing our national politics and resulting in that bright-line, winners-and-losers picture.

KLUTSEY: Right. Final question, a question that I like to ask our guests, and it’s about optimism. Are you optimistic about the future of liberalism in terms of how we engage with one another in civil discourse to foster trust, equality, viewpoint diversity and so on? I’m guessing that you’re an optimist, but I’m not sure.

ALLEN: That’s pretty funny. Is it true that you really ask everybody this question? Is that for real?

KLUTSEY: I do. I do.

ALLEN: That’s great. I’m only asking because everybody always asks me this question. I definitely have a reputation as an optimist. So people say, are you really an optimist? And in truth, my answer is slightly different. It’s the following: I believe that the best path to human flourishing comes from, is laid on a foundation of liberalism, of constitutional democracy, of being able to be part of a free and equal self-governing people.

Consequently, for me, failure is not an option. It’s what I always say. I’m not an optimist; I’m a not-an-optionist. And that’s how I think about myself. So it’s how will we succeed at achieving these things, not whether we will or not.

KLUTSEY: All right. Thank you so much, Professor Allen. This has been very insightful. Thank you for joining us. Really appreciate it.

ALLEN: Thank you. Thank you. Glad to be here.

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