Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S4. EPISODE 18
Renovating Our House
Featuring Danielle Allen
Is change possible? Can democracy be renovated to serve the constituency better? And what does this mean for the 2024 election? Political theorist at Harvard University and founder and president of Partners in Democracy, Danielle Allen, joins us to talk about how democracy is (or not) addressing our most urgent concerns. Plus, LGBTQ support skyrockets worldwide and a Supreme Court ruling on gerrymandering.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always on this podcast by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And What Could Go Right? is our weekly podcast where we talk to people, some of whom are members of The Progress Network, some of whom are not, but all of whom are animated by a sensibility that the future is ours to create and is not an inevitable pathway into the abyss. And that there’s way too much collective pessimism, negativity, assumption of foreknowledge of bad events, and not enough measured consideration about what is it that we can do to rectify our problems, address our issues, regenerate our democracy, our science, our collective civic good in a way that creates a future that’s vibrant, and a democracy that is flourishing, and a society that is open to new ideas and able to solve old problems.
So we’re gonna talk to somebody today who has spent decades immersed in the juncture between ideas and action, between creating idea frameworks that can translate into constructive change. All of the ideas that we talk about are only so good as the actions they engender. And often there is not a good pathway between wonderful, beautiful sparkling ideas and really compelling change in the world around us. So people who understand both sides of that necessary equation, ideas on the one hand and action on the other, are priceless and to be cherished. So who are we going to talk to today?
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): Today, we’re gonna talk to Danielle Allen. She’s a political theorist at Harvard University. She’s the founder and president of an organization called Partners in Democracy. And she’s also the co-chair of a democracy renovation project called Our Common Purpose, which we’re gonna talk to her about today. She’s also the author of numerous books, most recently, Justice by Means of Democracy. And you can also find her writing at The Washington Post where she does a column on renovating democracy. Also, fun fact, she also ran for governor of Massachusetts.
ZK: I’m looking forward to talking to Danielle. Danielle Allen, it’s such a pleasure having this conversation with you, or at least I’m assuming that it will be such a pleasure having this conversation with you.
Danielle Allen (DA): I sure hope so.
ZK: So you’ve been doing a lot with The Washington Post over the past while about reinventing democracy or re-engaging democracy. And for those who haven’t been following it, give us the 10,000 foot view of why we need democratic reinvention and what that could even look like.
DA: Sure. Well thank you, Zachary, for having me, and thank you, Emma, and I look forward to talking. I hope it will be a pleasure. I’m sure it will be on my end. I hope it will be for you as well. And I am writing a series on democracy renovation for The Washington Post. I should explain what I mean by that renovation concept specifically and where it comes from. The short of it is the democracy we live in is like a house that we have built and generations before us have built over time. And the truth of the matter is it doesn’t really fit us as we are as a people in the 21st century.
There are two dimensions of the challenge. There is the fact that the House was never built for everybody in the first place. So we’ve been renovating pretty constantly since the Constitution was first passed, amendments, et cetera, all kinds of other renovations, but still have work to do. It was originally built in such a way that some had rooms with a view, others got stuck in dark and dangerous basements, and it’s really time for there to be good rooms for all. So there’s that challenge. And then there’s the further set of challenges. The 21st century is just throwing a whole host of new kinds of problems at us, problems of scale and complexity, just the sort of sheer population size of the country, demographic heterogeneity, the complexity that’s possible thanks to technology, and then also all the other problems that flow from technology. So we are trying to operate a democracy, constitutional democracy in altogether new socioeconomic, sociotechnical conditions. And for that reason too, there’s a need for renovation.
EV: So let’s talk about some of the specific ideas when it comes to the renovation, right? Putting marble in the bathroom, busting out a wall. We wrote a recent column about expanding the size of the House of Representatives, and that was such a refreshing idea to me because I didn’t realize that we even should or could do that. So I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit and maybe any other favorite ideas that you have.
DA: Sure. So expanding the House of Representatives is definitely one of my favorites, and I should say that it is one of the 31 recommendations in a report called Our Common Purpose that was put out by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in June of 2020. I co-chaired the commission that led to this report, and it was really a powerful process. The academy has existed since before the Constitution. It was set up so that this kind of crazy experiment and this new thing of continental scale free self-government would always have access to knowledge resources to help solve problems as they emerged. And so it has had a history of doing work, for example, on nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation and a lot of other kind of really hard problems. And it has also had a history of often working with expert panels, commissioning papers and so forth.
But for our commission, we did a listening tour around the country. We had listening sessions all over the country, really checking in with people from all kinds of backgrounds, very involved activist people, voters, people who never vote at all, really trying to stay away from politics, recent immigrants and refugees, long-standing immigrant communities, people whose families have been here for many, many generations. So a real diversity. And we were also a kind of cross ideological commission. So we generated these 31 recommendations, the purpose of which is to achieve a kind of inclusive, responsive, effective democracy for the 21st century. And of this 31, one, and one of my favorites is that we should increase the size of the House of Representatives.
The House is the part of our democracy that is supposed to be most proximate to the people, but it’s supposed to communicate popular sovereignty, it is supposed to flex and bend with the changing demographics of the people. That’s why it’s got every two year turnover. That’s why it’s proportional to population and the like. And it was always supposed to grow because it was really supposed to reflect the kind of dynamic changes of the population. And it got frozen in place about a hundred years ago at 435. And as a result of that, it’s become sort of rigid and creaky.
Representatives now represent on average about 750,000 people compared to 30,000 people originally. So we no longer have that proximity to representatives. It’s ever more expensive to run in a congressional district. That means money matters more and more. There’s a kind of information vacuum as there’s no more local news coverage in lots of places. And so the polarizing national frames come in and affect how those elections play out. So there are lots of problems with our large congressional districts that would be remedied if we could get it back down to appropriate kind of ratio between representative and constituent.
ZK: You know, when I read the report and I think about this work, I think, wow, this is utterly vital. We need to really remember that these systems ought to be organic and fluid, and therefore, they should grow and morph and change as we grow and morph and change. And clearly, for those who’ve been listening to this podcast and follow the work of The Progress Network, part of the point is engaging ideas that are going to construct a more constructive future.
The flip side is that my cynical citizen hat goes, yeah, there are all these great ideas that we could do, but there seems to be so little actual constituency and/or place or locus where that change could come from. There’s not a clear grassroots. There’s not a clear cohort within any political system that has seemingly much beyond the self-interest of maintaining their place within that already static system, hence the difficulty of third parties to emerge because both of the [inaudible] parties have no interest in a third party emerging, no matter how healthy that is for democracy. So my my cynical pushback question is, what’s the bridge between really good ideas and action, particularly in this case where there’s no clear single issue constituency of people who are passionately advocating for change?
DA: Well, let me back up at this point and tell you a little bit more about myself and what brings me into this work because I think that story actually also answers that question. And you can hear already, democracy is what I work on. I always tell people I work on democracy, past, present, and future thereof, and no question mark at the end of that for me. And I come by that focus and that commitment super honestly. It’s a matter of family inheritance.
So my granddad helped found one of the first NAACP chapters in northern Florida in the ’40s. That was super dangerous work. I mean, northern Florida was basically the same thing as southern Georgia, lynchings were on the rise. So tough, tough circumstances. On the other side, my great-grandparents on my mom’s side helped fight for women’s right to vote in the early 20th century. And my great-grandmother ended up as president of the League of Women Voters in Michigan in the ’30s. And I like to introduce them because they were people who were just told routinely that the thing they were working on was impossible, like social equality for African Americans in the south was impossible, or the right to vote for women was impossible. And their response was always not only are these things possible, but they’re necessary. So the only question is how.
That’s really how I feel about the urgency of the state of our democracy in the present, that there’s a necessity. And so then the question is how. I believe the constituency is out there. And then, so just to make that a kind of more pronounced point in my own case, I was lucky with that kind of background, coming from people who loved and fought for democracy for generations. I was lucky to just grow up in a context of great civic engagement. I kind of took it for granted. I kind of took the value of democracy for granted. And so I was watching my own generation come up in the world and my parents’ generation, everybody kind of moved up. Granddad was a fisherman. His kids were small business owners and professors. On the other side, factory workers and then accountants and the like.
But my generation has lived true what I call the great pulling apart. And so here I sit talking to you on this fancy, wonderful, smart podcast as a tenured faculty member at Harvard. That’s just a huge amount of privilege. It just has to be said and I totally recognize that and own it. And I’ve got a brother who is a corporate executive. But at the same time, I have cousins who are not with us any longer, and not for reasons I can feel at peace about, so substance use disorder, homicide. And [inaudible] losing my youngest cousin, Michael, in 2009, it was a real turning point moment for me where I was like, here we are in this— democracy is supposed to be a thing. It’s not just sort of abstractly good. It’s not just sort of abstractly beneficial cause we get freedom and equality. It’s meant to empower people so that generational cohorts can all sort of move up together.
So I started to ask, how can we change these dynamics? And it wasn’t just my family, it was the whole country, right? My lifetime has coincided with the rise of income equality and the rise of wealth inequality and the rise of mass incarceration and rise of polarization. So I was like, how can we change the dynamics so that this democracy is doing what it’s supposed to do, namely providing those conditions of empowerment that permit whole cohorts, whole communities to make progress together.
And so that led me into the justice reform space. Okay, this is the long-winded way of coming around to the answer to your question. And as I worked on justice reform, I soon found that even where there were bipartisan solutions, we just plain couldn’t get them done. And so that’s what brought me into democracy renovation. And I actually believe that’s true across the board. So for people who are passionately working on climate, they’ve been stuck for a really long time. They’re stuck for democracy reasons. Gun violence. The majority of Americans would like to see meaningful policy change with regard to how we handle guns in this country and we cannot get it through.
So I think there’s a huge constituency of people who are eager for responsive, effective democracy that’s addressing our urgent problems. And so for me, it’s necessary to activate that constituency. It’s only a question of how. They’re there. It’s the how question that we need to answer together, I believe.
EV: I have a noncynical follow up to [laughs] the House of Representatives question. I like it because I feel like it doesn’t play into partisan will you get this and I won’t get that kind of thing. It just has to do with population. But of course, there are all these specific questions of if you’re going to increase the size of the House of Representatives, your how question, how many. And I was talking to a friend about this when I read your Washington Post column and his knee-jerk response was like, well, where are you gonna put all of them? [Laughs] and then I saw you had a follow up to that too. So I would love for you to talk a little bit about both those questions. How many and where do they go if we could accomplish this?
DA: [Inaudible] Yeah, I know, everybody, literally [inaudible] person, everybody’s first knee-jerk question is where would we put more representatives? And so that is why— I had a lot of fun. I collaborated with the architect Michael Murphy. Michael designed Bryan Stevenson’s Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, the lynching memorial. And he’s just a visionary architect. So I thought, okay, let’s figure out like a visionary picture of the Capitol would look like if we had to have a bigger Capitol. So let me ask Michael to dream this up. And so Michael took a look at it, and he had his team do studies. He’s like, Danielle, I have something to tell you. We don’t need a bigger Capitol. The one we have could actually have the space inside redesigned to go up to 1,700 members.
So that was real news. The size growth I had been advocating for is like 585. So it turns out not only do we not need a new Capitol, but we could go to 585, which would be a meaningful difference, and it would still feel roomy inside the Capitol. So there’s a kind of principle of growth actually that was already designed into the architecture even in the 19th century. So 585 is the number I usually point to. It’s the number in a bill by Representative Blumenauer from Oregon. And it is the number that we would have if we hadn’t capped the House a hundred years ago. And if we had kept growing according to the principles of growth that had been used up until that point. So I just call it the sort of deferred maintenance rules. Like we forgot to do maintenance on the house for a hundred years, and if we just did the catch up of the deferred maintenance, that would bring us to 585.
I will tell you though, there’s another thing you could try to do. There’s a different thing you might consider pursuing, which is much more ambitious, and that would be to go up to 1,305, which is the number that you would have if you simply tripled the representation in every existing district. So imagine every district has three members instead of one ’cause if you did that, then you could also use ranked-choice voting in your election. And if you did that, the result will be proportional representation, and it would kill gerrymandering. You can’t gerrymander a multi-member system with ranked-choice voting.
Audio Clip: Ranked-choice voting. You’ve probably been hearing about it, but how does it work, and why are places like New York City using it? It can be confusing, so let’s use ice cream to demonstrate. Say five candidates are running in the ice cream primary to be mayor of Dessert Town. Now Dessert Town is staunchly strawberry. So four of the candidates are running on a pro-strawberry platform. But one candidate wants to install a government built entirely on rum raisin ice cream.
In a traditional election, the four strawberry candidates could very easily split the vote, and the rum raisin candidate could win despite the majority of voters hating him. Does this sound like representative democracy to you?
With ranked choice, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If a candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, they’re the winner, done deal. If not, an automatic recount is triggered, in which the last place candidate is eliminated and all of their votes are reallocated to whichever candidate those voters ranked next. The votes are counted again, and the process continues until one candidate has 50%. This ensures the strawberry-loving public can elect a representative that reflects their taste in ice cream.
ZK: Over the past three years or so, when you have spoken with people in Congress about this, what’s the public response and what’s the private response?
DA: That’s a great question. It’s really variable, what’s interesting, and in fact, honestly, I think on this one there’s a little less discrepancy between public and private responses in some things. I mean, it does matter. There’s no straightforward kind of partisan benefit to this change, so that helps. The fact that there are two bills that have now been introduced to increase the size of the House is huge. I mean, that’s really a new thing. House leadership is not in favor of it. And I think House leadership has developed methods and practices for party discipline and things like that, that would be destabilized by any growth. I think there would be a lot of learning involved in achieving effective operations at a different scale, but I don’t think that’s impossible.
So people are definitely thinking about it. They’re definitely talking about it. I think there’s a lot of question marks. And I sort of like to say the joke would be how many members of Congress do you need to change a light bulb in Congress? And the answer is like, well, 585. Well, we only have 435.
DA: Yeah it’s gonna be dark for a long time, I think, where you end up. So that does bring us to other things that you also need to think about and work on. And I do think changing the primary system at the state level is then the key to unlocking a different sort of group of representatives in Congress who might be willing to introduce these changes.
EV: Danielle, something you mentioned before, you said it’s one representative per 750,000 people.
EV: Right, as an average.
DA: 580 up to a million basically, yeah.
EV: One thing I learned recently from Voice of the People, which is a great organization I’m sure you know of, throwing them out there for our listeners as well, is that they literally don’t know what their constituents want. And of course we know the problem of who they hear from are lobbyists or firms that are trying to tell them what their constituents want. And then the people that really care enough to call or email, I suppose. And I had a really basic question for them, which I’m gonna pose you too, is like, why is there no simple online poll for constituents [laughs] to do? Or you’ve talked about Google Docs, that citizens can participate in. Is that a lack of interest? Is that a lack of ability? I mean, my kind of thinking was like, this seems so simple, and why not?
DA: Yeah, no, I appreciate that. I think you’re putting your finger on a pain point and a place where there are a lot of opportunities to do a lot better. And people are working on it, actually. So there’s a professor at Ohio State named Mike Neblo who has made this one of his life missions, equipping members of Congress with the tools they would need for electronic or digital town halls and so forth. I think we had a real sea change in the years between 2009 and 2013. You’ll remember that sort of very, very hot tea party moment where town halls around the country for members of Congress were just like going crazy and exploding and becoming dangerous places. I think that moment kind of broke something. It broke what had been the traditional practice of in-person town halls and Congress have not as of yet managed to fully replace what that functionality was. But Mike Neblo, again, is doing terrific work, and I do think has a working model going at this point that does permit people to engage with their constituents digitally. So in Our Common Purpose report, to go back to those 31 recommendations again, some of what he’s built, we did recommend for adoption by Congress.
ZK: It’s an interesting question about the civic engagement. You mentioned the town halls, and I know you’ve also talked a lot about your own personal legacy of growing up with the notion of, or just a given of civic engagement. And one of the things about the town halls, which you also get, I think, to some degree, more proliferating throughout American society is sort of the shouters win or the shouter-downers win. That’s gonna be a new phrase, the shouter-downers. We’re just gonna use that.
ZK: And it’s a problem on universities. It certainly is a problem in these meetings, where just a very small group of incredibly adamant people bring either the proceedings to a halt or dominate them to the point where nothing else can be discussed. And in many ways that feels inimical to constructive democratic debate. And one of the things, obviously, that Congress has had to do over the years is create rules of order such that people can actually speak.
ZK: Otherwise, human beings don’t always do that. But I do think in American history, we all grew up with a notion, I think, of a kind of Robert’s Rules of Order, Marquess of Queensbury Rules of Democracy that I do think we over romanticized in the past. There has often been a really ugly messiness or the inability of anyone to get their voice heard, period, either ’cause they’re excluded from the political process or excluded from the rules within Congress. You could be a socialist who’s elected briefly, Bernie Sanders is unique in that, but that doesn’t mean until he was a senator, he could really get his voice heard, right? ‘Cause the system conspires against that. So how do you balance that, the desire to create a society where there is a degree of, I hear you, I respect you, I see you, with the recognition that only in our rose-tinted view of our collective past has that ever actually existed, right? We’ve been at least as ugly and contested as we have been mature and listening to each other. So I wonder how one even does that going forward.
DA: Yeah, no, I think it’s a great question and it is so easy, as you say, to have these very romanticized ideas of what democracy is and how it functions. In truth, as you’ve put it, I mean, it’s always been rough and tumble and highly contestatory and often oppressive and then people are having to break through oppression in loud and noisy ways, right? So sometimes I think it’s important to say or remember that our public sphere is so noisy now because everybody’s in it. It’s like [inaudible] like everybody’s in it. We should celebrate the noisiness of the public sphere. Some of the quiet, it’s just artificial, various points in time.
So then I think you’re asking a kind of hard question about habits and practices of democratic life and how you both know what they are and then sustain them over time. So I think it’s always a kind of work in progress, always a muscle that people have to kind of build and learn. I mean, rules of order do matter. How do you run good committee processes and practices? And I mentioned my great-grandmother was president of League of Women Voters and we’re all sort of historians in my family. So I have her kind of pocket sized rules of order that she used for running meetings. It was called, Mrs. Emma Fox’s don’ts for presiding officers,-
DA: -everything you should not do basically as a presiding officer. And there’s real knowledge in that, real expertise actually. And I think we underestimate how much of that needs to be learned in every generation. So I do do a lot of work in civic education and we actually, in those courses, we literally include stuff about running meetings in the middle school civic education curriculum. It’s not trivial at the end of the day. It really isn’t. And it’s not enough. It’s not everything that we need. And there will always be noise and there will always be reason for protest, good justifiable reason for protest. And I think we have to sort of start with some real clarity about the norms that make a difference and why we adhere to them as much as we can, what are the appropriate grounds for exception to adherence, that kind of thing.
EV: I think that one of the reasons why people are tired of democracy right now is especially that noisiness, it’s— totally agree, it’s wonderful that everyone’s voice is out there now, but it also creates a cacophony, right? Especially online. And online is where I see these norms that make a difference, like you said, being very much [inaudible] figure it out. Do you have any pointers for that? Because it seems to be the most brawling, sprawling field, and in my view, the most important when it comes to teaching kids about media literacy, which I think goes hand-in-hand with a civics education.
DA: Yeah, no, you’re so right And I think we all do often feel just exhausted and stressed by exposure to our nation’s politics. In our civic education work, we talk about three central dispositions or shared civic values: civic self-care, civic self-confidence and civic reciprocity. So actually, I’ll go backwards through those. So civic reciprocity is kind of obvious. It’s about mutual respect, being able to hear others, being able to process their perspective and understand that it’s probably coming from someplace where there’s something meaningful and we gotta understand what it is. Civic self-confidence is really having confidence in your own ability as an agent that you know what you care about and you know how to pull the levers or where you can pitch in in ways that work for you. And then there’s civic self-care. Civic self-care is that kind of blend of knowing what you care about, that deep authenticity, but also knowing how to protect yourself from all the rigors of participation and involvement in the public sphere.
And our view is that that part about self-protection has been underarticulated by and large when we think about civic education and civic practice. And I think that’s actually probably one of the things we most need in our democratic life right now is that kind of focus on civic self-care. And that also means for me— so we talk a lot about, for instance, work-life balance. I talk a lot about work-life civic balance, that we all need time for all three things that makes us fully human, but none of us can do any of the things we do, whether in work or civic life, without the life part of it. And so it really is okay, if you are an advocate for an issue that you care passionately about, to take a break. It really is okay to team up with others and have people take turns being out there on the frontlines or doing the hardest work and the like. But I do think giving oneself that space to think about self-protection in civic life is really important.
ZK: So when I write pieces, I still read all the comments. I don’t read all the comments because I’m looking for support for what I’ve written, because that would be absurd given that 99% of what gets written is often excoriatingly, reductively, caricaturedly negative. But I do it because I feel like one of the responsibilities of putting one’s voice out there in whatever form is to do so with some level of expectation that it, A, will be heard, and, B, will be engaged. And while a tiny subset of people, at least if you’re gonna write for The Washington Post or larger platforms, a tiny subset will actually comment. It’s always felt to me like that’s part of the— if you wanna be a part of a public debate, engage the public debate.
And I find increasingly that most people don’t do that either ’cause it’s so negative, like most people don’t know how to communicate other than loudly and angrily, maybe because they feel like if they don’t communicate loudly and angrily, no one’s gonna listen. Often when you communicate back with people they’re like, oh, sorry I didn’t think anyone was gonna respond to that. Didn’t mean to say that. I don’t know. I mean, what do you feel about that? Because I think a lot of people feel like I’m not gonna respond to something that seems to be purely out of anger or venom or vile, and a lot of it is out of anger and venom or vile, and yet there’s this kind of crying hunger to be engaged publicly, to have one’s voice heard, even if not everyone knows exactly how to do that constructively.
DA: Yeah, no, I think you’re right, and hats off to you for keeping up with that practice of engagement. I mean, I share your principles and spirit. For me, there’s a challenge of volume as well, just sheer quantity. So what I’ve ended up doing is I tend not to read my comments on columns, but I do read everything that comes in over the [inaudible] to me via email, or in some case, direct tags in Twitter and so forth, sometimes the volume there also gets too high. And I do read those regardless of whether they’re negative or positive, and I do respond regardless of whether they’re negative or positive. And that’s actually been a really interesting and kind of encouraging practice. I have been very surprised at how frequently if somebody sends me a really nasty comment and if I just respond in a nice way they literally back up and back off and change their-
DA: -[inaudible] and re-engage in a different way. So how we’ve gotten to a point where people think that they should come out of the gate in this horrible way, it’s a real mystery to me actually, ’cause you scratch just a little bit on it and most people, 9 out of 10, don’t actually wanna be there, so.
ZK: That’s exactly— I mean, that’s been such a profound experience for me as well. And that’s where I come back to, like there’s such a hunger for so many people to be heard ’cause you’ve created these mediums where, as you said, more people than ever before can add their voice to the public sphere. But that doesn’t mean that more people than ever before can get listened to, either because of the-
DA: That’s right.
ZK: -volume problem you’ve just talked about. If a million people are sending you comments, it’s literally impossible, right? So we’ve got this mix match between everyone suddenly been liberated or provided the tools for at least a simulacrum of engagement, but the mismatch between volume and tone and how do I even do that? So it’s interesting that you’ve had some of the same experience.
DA: No, I absolutely have. I will throw one more thing in the mix on this one related to the work we do with middle schoolers. So I mentioned the three dispositions, civic self-care, civic self-confidence, and civic reciprocity. And on the last one about mutual respect, I mean, the kids are very blunt. They’ll say, we get it, we’re trying to do that, but you guys, you grownups, you’re not doing it. So how on earth are you asking us to do this when you’re not doing it at all yourselves? They’re saying it over and over again. Lots of different formulations, but this number one theme coming out of middle school is like, well, walk the walk, people, ’cause you guys are not right now.
EV: I mean, I know, speaking personally, I was talking my little tuchus off about mutual respect without actually interacting with people that didn’t share my views. And then I found when I actually did form relationships with people that didn’t share my views, I was absolutely coming at them with the worst case formulation of them and where they were coming from, so [laughs]. But I’m heartened to hear that the middle schoolers are actually calling us out on this. Maybe they can do better.
DA: They’re definitely calling us out. They think we’re a piece of work [laughs].
EV: [Laughs] we are.
DA: That’s true. Yeah.
EV: Danielle, I have a question about your new book, which I think ties into something that Zachary just said about the hunger to be heard. You talk in the book about these big blind spots of the early 21st century, like not seeing the 2016 election coming, not seeing the Brexit vote coming, someone like Orbán. And you talk about how that has to do with that overfocus on economic inequality. I wonder if you could take us the rest of the way on that question, what your thesis is around that.
DA: Thanks. So I guess there’s two parts to it. So Keynes at some point said any given economic idea is just the hangover of a set of ideas from a long dead philosopher. And there’s truth to that, that is philosophical ideas matter more than most people realize that they do. And so we do live in a kind of universe of policymaking and economic policy shaped by some sort of very long-lived philosophical ideas. And I won’t sort of get into the nitty gritty detail of them, but what they amount to is the idea that as long as you have some sort of expert folks running things and by and large respecting people’s what we call negative liberties, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and the like, then that’s fine. Then you should have some good results.
And what that leaves out is the idea that human thriving is also about, it’s exactly just we’re saying, that desire to be heard and to contribute to the shaping of the public agenda. Human well-being comes from that sense of being able to steer your world, and at the public level, that’s something we have to do together. We can’t do it one by one, but we do have to do it together. And so the disregard for that feature of human well-being means that a lot of policy for the last 40 years has been set without really supporting that participatory element, that democratic element of expression and engagement and true democratic steering.
As it happens, the technocratic view has also tended to really focus on material questions. Redistribution should be enough people, like as long as we’re moving the benefits of productivity around, that should be enough. And everybody’s trying to say, but wait, I’m getting squashed over here as a human being. I want to have my sense of empowerment, I want to have a sense of dignity of steering my community and the like, so don’t just throw me some scraps. That’s not actually good enough. So I think that’s really the frustrations out of which a lot of our recent politics have come.
ZK: So as you think about the next years, obviously, we’re gonna be heading into another presidential and congressional election year, which, at least I think we all assume, is gonna be ugly and contentious and kind of a race to get more people to vote against the other person [laughs]. That seems to be the way things are shaping up at a presidential level to be a uniquely negative year. And yet, so we’re having this conversation a couple weeks after Congress agreed on a debt ceiling deal, and in a way, that, given all of the assumption leading up to it, was sort of oddly almost deflatingly okay [laughs], right? Maybe like we had two months of just this is gonna be really bad, apocalyptically bad, mind numbingly, earth shatteringly, credit destroyingly bad. And then within like five days, it was all just kind of benignly fine [laughs]. Bipartisan, not a lot of words exchanged that were mean. Can you see a 2024 that is benignly okay? I think a lot of us felt that the election of 2022 more or less, at least as a process, ended up being also kind of benignly okay, even if many of us didn’t like the outcome.
DA: Well, let me share one data point, I’m not gonna get it exactly right, that relates to what we watched and what we’re watching. And I do think it was an important moment, it was a moment of real governance, governance, honestly I’d say, the way it should be, in the sense that there is a set of urgent problems and there are different perspectives on both sides and everybody’s gotta move a bit and then we can come up with a solution that we can support across party lines. I mean, so I think it was an important moment that the country should see that that was possible and to see that good governance does just feel simple and not fancy, not exhausting, right? Those five days were just kind of calm, to your point. Now we all would love to feel more of that, have more time of that kind.
And interestingly, if you look at the vote allocation, I’ll just take the Republican side for the moment, there was a real differential Republicans who are in states that don’t have party primaries supported this bill at something like 90%, whereas Republicans in states with party primaries supported it at the level of 60 some percent.
DA: Okay? So we only have five states right now that don’t have party primaries, California, Louisiana, Washington, Alaska, Nevada. But something different is happening where that is the case where politicians have been freed up from being totally focused on the activist portion of the party base. So I don’t think we have liberated enough politicians yet from that [inaudible] by the activist base to have a sort of easy, straightforward election. But I think if we can liberate more politicians in that way, we will get to a better place.
ZK: Well, Danielle, you are a fount of ideas and you’re also incredibly astute at trying to turn those ideas into reality and galvanizing other humans to think outside the current status quo, but to really think about, okay, how do we then change the status quo. And I look forward to seeing more how some of these ideas can be knitted together with the actual process, which is really where that nitty gritty becomes so complicated but transformative. And right now, we’re in this, I guess what I hope will be liminal state between idea and action rather than some sort of frozen state where ideas remain ideas and nothing changes, but we will continue to follow your work and support it as much as we can. So thank you today.
DA: Thank you, Zachary. Thank you, Emma. It was terrific. I will have to have a big how convention that we can all come and focus on that action question, so thanks very much.
ZK: That’d be great.
EV: That would be great. Thank you, Danielle.
ZK: So many things, Emma, we could have talked to Danielle about, this being just one of the many things that she’s done over the years.
EV: The possibilities are endless. I mean, Our Common Purpose ended at 31 and we only really got to one or two of those things.
ZK: Yeah, and Danielle too, we didn’t even touch on this in the actual conversation, did run for governor of Massachusetts and had— there is a degree to which she’s walked her own talk. It’s not just been an abstract academic exercise. And so some of that’s been informed by an actual experience with the political process and you know that too. I’ve felt for years that ideas are great, right? We wouldn’t have started The Progress Network unless we didn’t think that ideas were absolutely utterly crucial. But at the same time, it is easier to write an article or a policy paper than it is to turn those things into actionable steps in governance, right? I could write an op-ed tomorrow about what I think the United States should do about Ukraine or how I think education reform should go. And even if that was an incredibly thoughtful piece, which if it were by me would be unlikely, then turning that into action would be far more complicated, far more difficult, right? Easier to write a 900-word piece or a 19,000-word piece than it is to turn that into policies that have effect.
And so I think it’s a really good thing to listen to someone who has attempted to both be in the political sphere and talks about reforming the political sphere because too many people are either deeply involved in the one or deeply involved in the other, but [inaudible]. So you’re either too involved in the weeds of action to be too concerned about ideas or you’re too involved in the world of ideas that you can’t really fathom just how sticky it can be to put those into action.
EV: Yeah. My authentic response to that is true that. My more [laughs] intelligent response is that I do think sometimes that the same way people get stuck in the realm of like, we’re actually trying to do this and these are the bottlenecks, you can also get stuck in the realm of ideas in terms of like, you see this big problem, like democracy, the how is not super clear and that prevents people from jumping in, right? Which I would hate for people to feel because I think with these things, it’s better just to jump in and see what happens. And in fact there are stories of just normal citizens putting ideas out there on Facebook then becoming really popular that actually turning into a citizen movement for something.
ZK: So with that, let us turn to the news of the week.
EV: So news. We are going to start with Pride Month. Pride Month started out with a bit of brouhaha because of the boycotts going on with Bud Light and Target and PetSmart and the list goes on.
Audio Clip: June is Pride Month, and there’s no missing its kickoff. Rainbow flags are everywhere. There are t-shirts and hats, but this year, the landscape has shifted.
You are going to get rainbow vomit on everything across corporate America.
Some corporations stepping into a fierce fight over transgender issues.
The same people who encourage minors to have life-altering hormones and surgery on their genitalia and even begin transitioning without parental consent. They have done and are doing enormous damage to young people.
Target moved its Pride Month merchandise, including a transgender-friendly bathing suit, to the back of some of its stores after customer backlash. There are calls to boycott Kohl’s because of its pride themed baby clothes, and North Face, the outdoor company, as well.
EV: But I wanted to take the opportunity to remind people that support for LGBTQ rights and acceptance in the US is wildly high. We’ve talked about same-sex marriage acceptance in the US a decent amount on the podcast, but even outside of that one particular thing, with a 2022 Gallup poll where 80% of US adults said that their area is a good place for gay or lesbian people to live. So just a way to showcase acceptance. That might not surprise people about the US. The other numbers that are kind of surprising and pretty great is that that share actually doubled in the last 10 years or the decade between 2012 and 2022. So it went from 25% to 50%. And there are some countries that have had just super skyrocketing acceptance rates. Nepal shot up from around 20% to 86% in that 10-year frame. I have no idea what was going on there. India’s another one. Bangladesh and Vietnam were some countries that Axios highlighted in the Gallup poll.
And even when it comes to transgender issues, there’s a lot of heated rhetoric around that right now, but actually, Americans are in majority support when it comes to non-discrimination of transgender people. Where the debate is really boiling right now is when it comes to the transgender youth healthcare and sports participation. But when it comes to the larger picture, Americans are by and large in agreement and pretty supportive when it comes to LGBTQ and Pride.
ZK: It’s one of these things that should probably be stated and stated and stated again, that the shift has happened so rapidly that it’s almost unnoticeable because it went from seemingly impossible, particularly acceptance of gay marriage in the United States, to almost unequivocal acceptance in the space of less than a decade. I mean, Obama ran in 2008 was asked the question about what he thought about same-sex unions and said he opposed them because he thought, maybe rightly at the time, that he needed to take that stance in order to win. Clinton had obviously done the same thing in the ’90s. And yet within a few years, it’s as if those numbers you just talked about going to massive majorities in favor in the United States and elsewhere and well, we’ve seen that about the legalization of recreational marijuana. It is amazing how quickly things can change, à la our conversation now with Danielle where it seems like nothing could possibly change. What’s fascinating is how quickly things actually can change. And this is one of these examples of it.
EV: Yeah. And I should say the numbers keep creeping upward. I used the 80% figure from the Gallup poll from 2022, but new numbers from GLAD in 2023 about supports for equal rights for the LGBTQ community, it’s 81% in 20 22, 84% in 2023. So it keeps on going up.
So let’s move on to lung cancer. We’ve talked on the podcast before about—
ZK: Yes, let’s move on-
ZK: -to lung cancer. Shall we?
EV: Delightful. So we talked on the podcast previously about lung cancer death rates dropping because smoking rates have dropped so much. But there are also forms of lung cancer that you can get that actually have nothing to do with smoking at all. And it has to do with a mutation of what’s called the EGFR gene, not that I know what that is, but what researchers have found, they had a study running in the last decade, and there’s a new pill that after people with this mutation get lung cancer and have surgery to take a tumor out, if they take the pill, it cuts the risk of dying in half, and it also halves the risk of the recurrence of the disease. So that’s pretty major when it comes to keep pushing these cancer death rates down.
ZK: And this is affordable or reimbursable at an affordable rate?
EV: So right now it’s available in the UK, the US, and some other countries. So they are doing the work right now to make it more available. And I’m not sure about affordability. That is a good question.
EV: Zachary, you, I’m sure have already felt validated about this. You’ve been a proponent of the murder rate that went up during the pandemic might have a lot to do with the fact that the pandemic was a super weird time, and data is coming out now showing that that may very much so be the case. They are tracking provisional results for 2023, and murder is down about 12% year to date in more than 90 cities. So obviously, we had to finish the year out, and we are still above 2019 levels, but we are going in the right direction.
ZK: Yeah. I mean, I think this is one of these where if we turn around in 2024 and find that we basically made a round trip to 2019, and we will indeed be able to conclude that the one big thing that was going on was the pandemic. I suppose there will be people who claim that anti-police animus after Black Lives Matter was a negative factor, dissuading police from cracking down on crime. So I’m sure there will be a continually heated debate over the causes of crime rising and the causes of crime going down. But if it’s going down in 90 cities, many of which have radically different demographics and governance, you probably should conclude that the pandemic as a super weird time had something to do with people behaving in super weird and often really super bad ways.
EV: Yeah. So let’s avoid future pandemics, something that actually Danielle has also worked on that we didn’t get to talk to her about, but that’s all I have for today.
Audio Clip: Today, the Supreme Court agreed that the lower court got it right and that in fact Alabama had violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. It’s an interesting ruling here, a divided Supreme Court, but the upshot here is that the Voting Rights Act Section 2, as we know it, has been preserved. There had been—
ZK: So we have one more thing, which is as we were recording this or right before we’re recording this, the Supreme Court of the United States came out in a five to four decision about an Alabama redistricting case where the state of Alabama legislature had redrawn the electoral maps such that there was only one Black majority district. And that had been appealed. The court ruled that that indeed was racial gerrymandering. Interestingly enough, in his extremely passionate dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas claimed that by overturning that redistricting, the Supreme Court was the one guilty of extreme racial gerrymandering. So it remains, this is five to four, so hardly a ringing sea change and endorsement. Remember the Voting Rights Act has already been chipped away at by earlier court decisions over the past decade. But in this case at least, it was the opinion of the majority of the court that if a state legislature so blatantly redraws the map in such a way to, if not disenfranchise, but to limit the voting power of a group on the basis of race, that that cannot stand.
So we’ll see whether that has ramifications for other redistricting, which has clearly been done on ideological lines and the court, the Supreme Court at least, has largely punted those issues back to the states, basically said, look, states make up their own districts, and we’re not gonna get involved in the writing of them. So I think that was a piece of good news today, although clearly, if you agree with Clarence Thomas, it was a piece of absolutely terrible news. So just a reminder that almost everything we talk about, maybe not the murder rate, I don’t think there’s a huge pro murder rate going up constituency-
ZK: -that would look at that. There’s probably not a pro lung cancer killing more people constituency. So it’s definitely true that some of the good news we highlight is probably universally treated as good news, I’m hoping. Thank you all for listening. We will be back next week as we wind down this particular season in the next few weeks. And as always, please send us your thoughts, your comments, both critical and positive, à la our discussion with Danielle Allen. We will read them, we will respond to them, we will digest them. And thank you for listening. And thank you, Emma, for co-hosting as always.
EV: Thanks, Zachary.
What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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