Harvard political scientist outlines vision for power-sharing liberalism

Harvard Professor of Political Philosophy and resident researcher for democracy renovation, Danielle Allen, delivered a lecture on campus about her newly published book, Justice by Means of Democracy, on Wednesday, September 6.

The Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government (CCCG) hosted the lecture to a crowded venue of professors, students, and South Bend locals. Allen provided an emphatic defense of democracy while highlighting the need for empowerment to protect the rights of citizens and non-citizens alike. She related this theme of empowerment back to her own family history, recalling how they always held sacred the dignity of another human being even in times of disagreement.

Allen argues that Americans must recognize that, despite political partisanship, they often share identical aims. In her lecture, she called for a return to common good politics in America, a goal shared by the CCCG in its about page.

She invoked the philosophy of John Rawls, a political philosopher most famous for his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice. Allen took issue with some of Rawls’ assertions about the relative unimportance of positive rights, which provide the right holder with a claim to some good or service against either the state or another person. 

“I’m not sure Rawls’ theory of justice is really accounting for what I see around me in terms of how fundamental people consider empowerment to their lives,” Allen reflected. She continued, “Our private effort to act on our purposiveness actually depends on our having access to the shaping of the rules and constraints that come out of our public world.” If the private sphere, the realm of negative rights, depends on access to shaping the government, then empowerment is necessarily the key to securing rights in a liberal democracy. 

This led Allen into her explication of “power-sharing liberalism” and the central question of her lecture: “What would it mean to take empowerment seriously?”

During the question and answer period, one South Bend local posed a question: How could he, as a public-school teacher, implement democratic empowerment for his students in an effort to prevent drug and gang violence? Allen answered that safety and security are prerequisites to empowerment, suggesting measures like community policing to intercept and mediate threats before they occur.

Another attendee asked how the Supreme Court might regain legitimacy in America. Allen suggested limiting the Supreme Court justices to 18-year terms, giving every president two appointments on a consistent, fixed schedule. The proposal has been supported by academics such as Alicia Bannon and Michael Milov-Cordoba of the Brennan Center for Justice, but the view is still far from popular consensus. Suzanna Sherry and Christopher Sundby of the Vanderbilt School of Law warn that term limits could turn the Supreme Court into an explicitly partisan institution. 

Allen is no stranger to putting forward dramatic solutions to fix what she believes are the current ailments of American institutions. For instance, she recently proposed that the House of Representatives needs to be expanded from its current fixed cap of 435 seats to 1,305 members. Under her model, each existing congressional district would be represented by three members rather than one.

She explained, “We need to elect those three members in a single election using ranked-choice ballots, which allow voters to record their first, second and third choices.” Despite these changes marking a significant departure from a system that has been settled for more than a century, Allen argues that her measures are essential for ending what she calls “the gerrymandering arms race.”

When asked for comment by the Rover, Dr. Don Stelluto, Co-Director of the CCCG replied, “The value of a broad and well-informed academic background to aid in understanding and discussing intelligently is something that we appreciate in Professor Allen, and we will continue to foster in the training and preparation of our students here at Notre Dame.”

Student reactions to the lecture were varied. Sophomore Eric Gordy told the Rover, “While I thought that Professor Allen presented an honest and well-thought-out case for increasing power-sharing in a democracy in order to empower more citizens, I found that her argument was overly secularized and prioritized personal autonomy over societal virtue and morality.” 

He continued, “She made no mention of the role of the American government in promoting Christian ethics and the common good—both elements emphasized by the founders—instead advocating for mass democracy that would likely lead to greater division and discontent in our already polarized country.”

Others received Allen’s talk more positively, disagreeing with Allen on particulars while still finding intrigue and even partial agreement with her assessment of democratic processes. Senior Mark Ballesteros told the Rover, “I enjoyed how Danielle Allen approached the Hegelian dialectical framework of democracy. She underscores the need for a uniquely strong system of liberal democracy to combat the issues facing Americans.”

The strong attendance at the lecture and interest in Allen’s work reflects her rise to popularity in recent years. Outside of her academic work as a Harvard professor and an author, she ran for Governor of Massachusetts in the 2022 election cycle. With Maura Healey, the eventual winner of the race, having outraised her 8:1, Allen decided to suspend her campaign before the Democratic primary.

The CCCG has several upcoming events including a lecture from Kate Hardiman Rhodes titled “Unshackled: Freeing America’s K-12 Education System” on September 15, and a Constitution Day Panel titled “Religious Liberty and the American Founding: Natural Rights and the Original Meanings of the First Amendment Religion Clauses” hosted by Professor Phillip Muñoz on September 22.

PJ Butler is a senior from St. Louis, Missouri studying political science and theology. He feels somewhat apprehensive about residing in the same polity as Nathan. He can be reached at pbutler3@nd.edu.

Nathan Desautels is a junior studying political science and philosophy-theology. He enjoys being a member of the polity. Contact him at ndesaute@nd.edu.

Photo Description: Danielle Allen delivers a lecture on “Educating for American Democracy” in November 2021

Photo Credit: Shawn Miller, Wikimedia Commons

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