November 7, 2023

Is the Project of Democracy Fundamentally About Power Sharing?

Harvard Political scientist Danielle Allen discusses the role of power, agency, and religious identities in reinvigorating American democracy.

In This Episode...

Danielle Allen is a political scientist, professor, and director of the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Allen explains the Declaration of Independence’s error about democracy, how she navigates a cluttered world of power, and the opportunities she sees to marry religious ideologies with civic identities.

About Danielle Allen

Danielle Allen is James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and Director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. She is a professor of political philosophy, ethics, and public policy. She is also a seasoned nonprofit leader, democracy advocate, tech ethicist, distinguished author, and mom.

Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.

Is the Project of Democracy Fundamentally About Power Sharing?


Eboo Patel: This is the Interfaith America Podcast, and I’m Eboo Patel. 


This season on the Interfaith America Podcast, we’re going deep into what it means to bridge the stark divides that exist in American democracy today. Before we bridge, we have to understand what our end game is. What are we building a bridge to? Is it too late to fix things? I think a great way to set the foundation for this conversation about renovating democracy is with Harvard University Professor Danielle Allen. 

Professor Allen is a political theorist, the first Black female to be named university professor at Harvard. She writes a column for the Washington Post. She’s an acclaimed author of many books. She has chaired many commissions and she ran for Governor of Massachusetts in 2022. I genuinely do not think that there is a more wide-ranging intellectual in American public life than Danielle Allen. Martin Marty, who is a mentor of mine, one of the jokes about Martin Marty is when you call him, his assistant says, wait five minutes, Professor Marty’s writing another book. 

With you, it’s wait five minutes, Professor Allen is writing a book, chairing a commission, considering a run for political office, and making million-dollar foundation decisions. That is the range of things that you are doing. I actually say that not only as a compliment, but as a setup to the first question, which is what is the Danielle Allen project? 

[00:01:40] Danielle Allen: Well, Eboo, let me just first of all say thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor to have a chance to talk with you. I have loved watching your work. I love your commitment to Interfaith bridging and to building out a community of purpose. Thank you for your leadership. The Danielle Allen project is democracy. You were listing all those things and you are reminding me, it has to do with my mother telling me, Danielle, you need to focus. You need to focus. I keep saying to people, well, I do focus. My focus is democracy. 

The challenge is that democracy is a holistic field of endeavor. I think recognizing that is actually really important to securing the health of democracy. It’s a long, long story, family tradition, the democracy work. It became life for me as I watched my own generation come up in the world. I grew up in a super civically engaged family. Folks were engaged on both sides of the aisle. My aunt was on the ballot for the Peace and Freedom party for Congress in the Bay Area. 

The very same year my dad was running for Senate from Southern California as a Reagan Republican. I used to have the most intense debates and intense battles, and I just learned so much from that. It was clear they had a shared sense of purpose, empowerment, and these huge debates about how to achieve that. I really took the value of the Democratic project for granted, in all honesty, watching them living with them. Then my generation has lived through quite different times, I’d say. My parents’ generation, my aunt, everybody moved up in the world. My granddad was a fisherman. 

His kids were small business owners and professors, other side from factory workers to accountants and the like. My generation, our generation, has lived through what I call the great pulling apart. I am so fortunate to be able to talk with you today from Harvard University sitting in my office here. It’s incredible position of privilege, I feel that every day. I’ve got a brother who’s a corporate executive. At the same time, I have cousins who aren’t with us anymore, and for the worst of life in America, homicide and a substance use disorder. 

It was really losing my youngest cousin Michael in 2009 was a real turning point moment for me where I was like, hang on, democracy’s not just supposed to be abstractly valuable. It is actually supposed to be a way of living together that makes it possible for every generation to come up together, to rise up together. What’s going on here? Then I realized what was happening in my family had happened in the whole country. 

The whole country over my lifetime has experienced that pulling apart with the huge rise of income inequality and wealth and equality and polarization, incarceration. I started asking the question, how can we change the dynamic? How can we have a democracy that helps us pull together so that every cohort can come forward? That’s what I’ve been doing since 2009, is really just democracy work. I can say a lot more about that. I’m sure you’re going to want to talk about the specifics of it, but that’s the single project is democracy. 

[00:04:31] Eboo: Let’s stick with the hole for a moment here. Let me ask the question. If the project is successful, what are some features of American life and democracy in the year 2050? 

[00:04:44] Danielle: Great. I love it. 30 years. All right. That gives me a good long runway to consider. I said the project was democracy. I could be more specific and say the project is democracy renovation. I believe in democracy as necessary to human flourishing and well-being. This is because I think that empowerment is the key ingredient for the healthy flourishing life of any individual family or community. Democracy is the best political form for securing that empowerment for people. We have been fortunate in this country to have a constitutional democracy of a kind operating for some time. 

There are lots of ways in which it’s not working. For starters in the 21st century, we face all kinds of stresses just from being a real scaled-up, huge society, incredibly complex, heterogeneous, technologically enabled, and the like. Our 18th-century institutions are straining under that. Then there’s the second fact that these institutions we share, I think of it as a shared house we live in. 

They were never built for everybody in the first place. The original design gave some folks beautiful rooms with a view. Others were stuck in dark, dangerous, torturous basements. We have a project of redesign. That’s why I use the vocabulary of renovation and the goal is to find our way to the form of democracy in the 21st century that supports the empowerment of all. 

[00:06:07] Eboo: The other person who famously uses the house metaphor recently is Isabel Wilkerson. She basically in the book Caste, is you cannot renovate a house that is rotten to its foundations. One of the ways I feel like the Danielle Allen project is distinctive, and it is particularly in relief in this era, is there’s a sense that we can renovate and that the Declaration of Independence is not an enslavement document, allah Nikole Hannah-Jones, it is a patrimony, all Danielle Allen. I think that this is, it is a major question in the world of social change now. 

Is the house renovatable? Can you add rooms? Can you strengthen the foundation? Is the declaration a step towards human freedom that we now need to extend to other people? It’s a very Obama-esque understanding of the world. It’s the understanding that no secret I happen to have. There’s this competing view, which is you can’t renovate something that begins with such a– not just a deep contradiction, but a deep violation of human dignity as enslavement, and native genocide. I’m curious how you think about all of that. 

[00:07:30] Danielle: Sure. I appreciate that. Those are the deep and important questions. Martin Luther King Jr., one of his last essays made a point that lots of folks could get distracted. They could think the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act was where all the action was. He said those things are important, but the truth is they’re really only a small portion of the work. The actual job to do is really to rebuild the structure of our society so that we can achieve a full sharing of power and responsibility. 

What I’m looking for by 2050 is that in our political institutions, we are seeing full participation across social segments. Renters and people without property are participating as fully as property owners, for instance, which is not true right now. That we are seeing in our organizations of civil society that we have learned how to remake decision-making procedures in a democratic direction, that we are able to use participatory processes for policymaking on a regular basis, and have learned how to do that. 

It’s a hard thing to learn how to do, and lots of people are having s growing pains with that right now. We’ll have figured all those things out by 2050. That’s my goal. I think in doing that that goal is continuous with one strand of the American tradition. This is in the answer to your question. If we go back to the very beginning, to the Declaration of Independence, the truth of that document is that it had many voices in it, and it had in it the voices of abolitionists. Right from the very beginning, it was a document that was about transformation and ending domination. 

The language of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was the contribution of people like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who already by 1776 were against enslavement. Adams never owned enslaved people, and Franklin had repudiated the practice by that point in time. They drew on the language of the declaration to pass the Massachusetts State Constitution and have enslavement abolished in Massachusetts before the end of the Revolutionary War. Ditto in Pennsylvania too, which was Franklin’s home. 

They moved abolition forward before the end of the Revolutionary War. The point is that the true full complete story of America has abolition in it from the beginning. It is also in the DNA. There has always been a contest. There has always been a fight between the party of domination and the party of non-domination, but that is from the beginning. In that regard, we do have a foundation. We do have a history that we can positively and proactively draw on. It is not simply a story of a tradition that should be rejected wholesale. 

[00:10:15] Eboo: The very simplistic way of putting this is the glass half-full, glass half-empty. We are in a revolutionary social change moment right now where it is considered sophisticated to see the glass half-empty. You there is, if you’ll allow me, a little bit of Edmund Burke in you in the sense of seeking continuity. That there is a positive value and continuity. Am I getting that wrong? 

[00:10:42] Danielle: I would put it a little differently. 

[00:10:44] Eboo: Okay, please do. This is why we’re talking. 

[00:10:46] Danielle: Yes, that’s all right. I’ll just spell out how I think about it, and I’ll be curious to know what you think and what would resonate with you. Basically, as I see it, there are three positions for thinking about our relationship to our history. There’s a position that says, “As you started, it’s rotten all the way through, throw it out.” Then there’s a position that is the conventional progress-oriented position that there were some good things, there were some bad things. This is the glass half-full, half-empty picture. 

Let’s not throw out the good stuff by virtue of trying to throw out the bad stuff. Let’s drain the bad out and enhance the good and increase the good over time. I don’t actually subscribe to quite that position either. The reason I don’t is because that gets us off the hook for some work we have to do because it permits people to say, “Well, X and Y and Z were all great, spanking clean and beautiful and so forth. Let’s just grab those pieces and we’ll move on.” 

The problem is harder than that. We have to actually look at the founding period and ask ourselves the question, “Why did they make the mistakes they made?” Given the things that they saw, why did they also make those mistakes that they made? Then our work has to actually focus on those mistakes. Our work is actually less about grabbing the good. A certain amount of grabbing the good, but it’s actually more precisely about clarifying the mistake and then seeking to address it. Now maybe what I could do is just be very specific about the kind of mistake that I see in the Declaration of Independence, which I consider it our project to correct. 

It’s this sentence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute new government laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such form as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness.” 

Now, a super long sentence. It’s the very end of it that I’m interested in here where they’re talking about what’s the project of building a society. It’s got two parts. It’s like, lay the foundation on principle and organize the powers of government. This is where the mistake came in. At the time of the writing of the Declaration, a number of people wrote to Adams and said, “What about the place of women in this?” Or “What about the place of working people without property?” Or “What about the place of, in the vocabulary of the tide, Negroes?” 

Adams’ answer back was, “The principles, these rights, these idea that we should be protected, those are for everybody.” With regard to how we organize the powers of government, we will retain, as he put it, our masculine system, by which he meant white men of property would control power. It was the notion that you could reserve power to a few and protect the rights of all that was simply wrong. It’s a philosophical error. It’s a practical error. People at the time pointed that error out. 

For me, the project is to say, “Okay, look, that’s just wrong. If you, in fact, desire to protect the rights of all, the rights to participate, the rights of freedom to choose in our own world and the like, you have to give power to all.” The project of democracy fundamentally is about power sharing. Again, drawing on the words of Martin Luther King Jr. That’s what I see the work as is revisiting the question of how you organize a constitutional democracy, starting with the premise that securing rights for all, supporting the growth of democratic principles for all, requires that all share in power. 

[00:14:50] Eboo: One of the things I note about you, and I admire and I wonder how deliberate it is, is in the whole 1619 versus 1776 thing, there’s Danielle Allen writing in The Washington Post. There’s Danielle Allen running for governor of Massachusetts. Danielle Allen is not a part of that food fight. [laughs] I just have such admiration. There are so few people who are bending the arc of the universe towards justice, who can stay out of the week-to-week food fight. I’m curious how intentional you are about this. 

[00:15:26] Danielle: Yes, I don’t love food fights. I try to stay true to principles. I’m an educator. For me, education is about the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I don’t think that that particular argument is about the truth at the end of the day. Each side has a partial version, partial piece of the picture. There are elements of truth in what each side is advocating for. What I try to do is lay out the whole truth to the best of my ability as I see it. 

That requires showing the ways in which the 1776 moment, 1788 to ’89 moment, those were moments that found in our political institutions. Those moments included, as you just said, many kinds of voices, abolitionist voices right from the start, as well as voices that defended enslavement and even beyond the abolitionists and enslavement voices and the power holders, then also the voices all those people who didn’t hold power. Those are all part of the story. For me, it’s important to lay that out. 

It’s equally important to acknowledge that 1619 established various important and durable features of our social constitution. No analysts in society can do the job completely if they consider only the political constitution. You’ve got to consider the social constitution too and figure out how those threads intertwine. That’s what I do as an educator. I try to put all the whole picture on the table, put the pieces together, and I just try to keep my focus on true North. 

[00:16:53] Eboo: I quote you all the time. The thing that I quote all the time is own your political majority, talk to strangers. You cannot have a democracy if people aren’t willing to talk to strangers. The definition of democratic life is engaging with people you don’t know and who are not like you. I love this line from your book, own your political majority. 

I’m speaking on a college campus, and a student that I’m speaking, who’s in the audience, gives a very exaggerated, large, impressive eyeroll and says, “Must have been a white man who wrote that,” and didn’t know what to do when I said, “Actually, it’s probably, to my light, the most important political theorist in the country who is a Black woman,” right? It is very interesting that a line like, talk to strangers, own your political majority codes for not just this college student, can I say, as the line of somebody who must be in the cultural majority. 

I am curious about what you think of that. Let me tell you, let me reveal a little bit of myself here. I’m a minority, right? Indian-American, immigrant, Ismailism. I was raised by people who were like, “You are a minority and you’re at the center of the world.” In other words, minority is not synonymous with marginalized. You can be both the only one of you in the room and at the center of the world. That’s a religious thing. It strikes me when I read you, that’s the ethos that I gather. 

I’m curious what you make of the current politics, whatever you want to call it, of I am going to own my oppression and make you recognize that and tell you the things I cannot do. I’m like, “No, Danielle Allen is telling you all the things you can do.” [laughs] 

[00:18:52] Danielle: No. Those are not really my terms for how I think about the world, but in terms of the issue of own your people majority. With that, you are right. That finger on target for the core of what I’m trying to communicate. It is a different understanding of power. I am realistic and recognize the facts of power in the world as it operates. Some people have money, some people don’t. Money brings power. Some people sit in decision-making chairs, other people don’t. That brings power. Policemen carry guns. Other people with dark skins on streets are vulnerable to policemen in specific ways. There’s a lot of power around that. 

We have to be honest about all of those things. To see only those aspects of power is always to have an incomplete picture of what power is and how it operates. The first fact about power has to do with whether any individual claims their own internal freedom. If you claim freedom internally, insist on your own power, then even with all the power structures in the world, you will find your ways to be powerful in relationship to those power structures. It has to start from that claiming of internal freedom and internal power. 

Yes, that is the work that I try to do, and so I always insist that, if we’re, for instance, working on curriculum, and we’re going to be making sure that we’re lifting off hidden histories, and we’re lifting up stories of oppression and resistance, that when we’re doing that, we’re always also doing that in a context where we are asking students to own their own power, to claim it, to understand that they own just like everybody else in the room and everybody else in this country, the assets that are embodied in our political institutions, like they are literally owners, and they need to act like owners in order to actually have the power of owners. 

[00:20:42] Eboo: Yes, mic drop. Seeing the Declaration of Independence as a patrimony rather than as oppression is a tool for owning your own freedom. 

[00:20:53] Danielle: Yes, that’s right. Exactly, yes. 

[00:20:56] Eboo: I want to ask the civic question. So much of American democracy in terms of how people engage with one another happens in civic spaces. One of my favorite lines in all of political philosophy is from Talking to Strangers, let me just read this directly to you, “Distrust can be overcome only when citizens manage to find methods of generating mutual benefit, despite differences of position, experience, and perspective. The discovery of such methods is the central project of democracy.” 

Clearly, this happens in our state legislatures and on Capitol Hill. As your colleague, Jeff Stout says, it happens, maybe in its primacy in our soccer fields, and in our libraries, and in our school boards, and in our high school theaters. I’m curious what role you see American civic life, the toke villain project playing in the renovation of American democracy. 

[00:22:00] Danielle: Well, it’s such an important question. As you point to, democracy is very much in the fabric of our relations with one another, not just in our political institutions and halls of power. Democracy depends on a culture of reciprocity and that culture of reciprocity is cultivated on soccer fields, and in churches, and temples, and in the bridges between those from different communities, and so forth. We have a real challenge right now, actually, with regard to our civic life. It’s not that people don’t have access to opportunities to affiliate and engage, they do. 

There are two problems that I think keep that affiliation and engagement from nourishing our democracy in the way that we need it to. The first is the obvious one, I think one that you really focus on, which is this issue of our geographic sorting of ourselves, in by neighborhoods, and so forth, by ideology. In our civic life, people are having fewer chances to actually affiliate in genuine cross-context ways. There’s simply questions where the opportunity for bridging that’s available to people and then the declining access to that opportunity just to hear how people account for themselves in their own words and to practice saying back to people in their own words what it is that they understand and believe. 

There is a second challenge, which I think we’ve paid less attention to actually, which is that nowadays it’s so easy for people to affiliate digitally. I can be a member of the online lovers of Golden Retrievers, for example. My lovers of Golden Retrievers’ community can be from anywhere, it can come from all over the country, all different kinds of communities, so there’s actually a lot of opportunity for bridging in that space. What there isn’t then is a connection back to our political institutions because our political institutions are all geographically organized. What we have acquired is this huge yawning gap between like- 

[00:24:05] Eboo: Yes, that’s so smart, yes. 

[00:24:06] Danielle: -where we congregate and where we decide. 

[00:24:09] Eboo: That’s such an interesting point. 

[00:24:11] Danielle: We need to rebuild bridges between those two things. 

[00:24:14] Eboo: Yes, because the biggest, of course, in the 18th century, everything was– not only did you not have transportation, and certainly not the digital world, but Virginia had a very different view of things in Massachusetts. 

[00:24:28] Danielle: Right, exactly. 

[00:24:29] Eboo: Everything was geographical. 

[00:24:31] Danielle: Right. Let’s just say you loved horsemanship, racing, and things like that, and you were part of a jockey club. You were at a jockey club very specifically in your community in Virginia and then that was connected to the decisions that people in that were connected to the decision-making institutions in your geographic place. These things have come apart and that is one of our great challenges. 

[00:24:54] Eboo: Yes, that is super interesting. After the break- 

[00:24:58] Danielle: That phrase, laws of nature and nature’s God captures my conception of the place of religion in American life. There should be a place for it, we should be respectful of religion, but it’s okay if it doesn’t take up the whole space. 

[00:25:15] Eboo: I want to ask you a couple of questions about religion. With everybody, but particularly people I admire, I am paying special attention to their references to religion. A couple of things I pick up about what you say. In an interview, in talking about your cousin Michael, who dies tragically, you say, “Listen, he’s responsible for his choices, but the society he lives in constraints those choices,” and then you say, “If not for, basically, God, I would have been faced with constrained choices also.” 

There’s this religious sensibility you articulate in this interview. Then you say, at the beginning of our declaration, I mean, I’ve read you very closely, right? You say my family read the Bible through as a family twice. I am curious about the role you think religious identity plays in American democracy, the civic and political project that is the Danielle Allen civic and political project. What’s the role that religion plays there? I don’t get the sense that there’s significant treatment of religion in the American polity, in the same way that you make occasional and yet very powerful references to it in your own personal life. 

[00:26:32] Danielle: Right. That’s a fair point. I think that’s a fair characterization. 

[00:26:35] Eboo: It’s not a criticism, it is simply I’m curious the role that it plays in your civic and political imagination about America. 

[00:26:44] Danielle: Yes. No, I appreciate the question. I am a person of faith. I can share that. I’ve had my own journey of being raised in a family that did go to church regularly, read the Bible, and so forth, falling away from a sense of faith in my college years and early 20s and then coming back to an experience of faith. That is definitely what you’re registering in those specific references in my work. In terms of how I think then religion fits into the project. I’m respectful of religion. I think democracy needs space and should protect communities of faith, should make that possible. 

I’m also respectful of the concept of competence pluralism. I am also respectful of people who are not religious, but who have a moral compass or moral core. You’ll know, when I read about the Declaration of Independence, they say one of the things that’s so admirable about its language is that it provides a moral grounding for the principles of the declaration, and that is a belt and suspenders grounding. 

There’s a phrase where they talk about the law of nature and of nature’s God. That’s a double-handed approach where on the one hand, if you’re not a believer, you have a secular moral grounding in the cost of the laws of nature for the principles of the text, or if you’re a believer, you’ve got the laws of nature’s God as a way of anchoring the justifications for the democracy. 

That phrase, laws of nature and nature’s God captures my conception of the place of religion in American life. There should be a place for it, we should be respectful of religion, but it’s okay if it doesn’t take up the whole space and we should not be requiring anybody to adopt a specific view that is a matter of personal choice. As long as we’re able to make space for that moral grounding that supports conception of commitment to human dignity, then there’s room for secular folks and atheists and so forth alongside those who are believers, that is, nobody’s in a different position in a relationship, or nobody needs to be in a different position in a relationship to the moral grounding and the moral foundations of the country. 

[00:28:52] Eboo: Let’s have some fun with this. Let’s push some of the intellectual edges of this. In the recent set of Supreme Court decisions, one of the decisions was that a web designer does in fact have a First Amendment right to refuse to create websites for same-sex weddings. Part of what strikes me about this decision is it cements a theory that I’ve had about religion and American law, which is that religion is probably the single most important identity when it comes to American law. 

Yet, it is easily the least paid attention to dimension of identity in our social institutions, particularly in higher education, our cultural institutions, and media. For example, freshman orientation, Harvard, half of it is about diversity issues. Virtually none of it is about religious diversity. Yet, the Supreme Court is saying, you cannot pay attention to race in college admissions in A, B and C-type ways, but you better pay attention to the religious identities of your employees. 

I’m curious what you make of, first of all, what’s your take on my general reading of the most important dimension of identity in American law, which by the way, I’m simply being descriptive, right? I’m not making a judgment. It’s not a value judgment, it’s not a normative statement. It is a read on the facts of the matter and the least important dimension of identity in virtually every social institution’s approach to diversity. What do you make of that? 

[00:30:22] Danielle: That’s a super interesting question. I take it by most important you’re really communicating that religious identities receive more protection from the law than any other category of identity? 

[00:30:33] Eboo: That’s right. A wider birth. Exactly. 

[00:30:35] Danielle: Yes. Which does indeed seem accurate. I think there’s a legal answer to your question in the sense that the specific policies and practices of diversity efforts grew up in the specific context of trying to rectify racial discrimination, right? In that regard, they set out on a trajectory where that was the focal point. I will say that I co-chaired the university-wide task force on inclusion and belonging for Harvard, and we did self-consciously seek religious diversity on our task force. 

We self-consciously included religious identity and religious diversity in our recommendations for the task force. I do think there are some counterpoints to the general point you make, though I’m sure there are exceptions that prove the rule. I have a graduate student right now who’s just finishing a dissertation about why is it that evangelical students are increasingly choosing sectarian institutions of higher education for their college years. 

He makes exactly this point and also makes the point that even where you can see, for example, in our task force institutions naming the need to attend to religious identity and religious diversity, one doesn’t see the same follow through in programming as you do for other dimensions of diversity. 

I agree with you. This is where I do think a broader frame of confident pluralism would be helpful, that there are many dimensions of pluralism that we should take into account and need to make space for and be confident in relationship too. That is, it’s okay that my identity is different from yours. It is okay that there’s a real multiplicity of identities and it’s okay that there are some things that various of us will not be comfortable with in relationship to each other. It doesn’t actually prevent us from having healthy and productive relationships with each other. 

It’s stepping into, I think, the zone of greater discomfort with ranges of difference and finding a way I get to be confident in relationship to that broader range. 

[00:32:51] Eboo: To continue pressing on this, that it seems to me that there’s two general approaches to diversity. One is cooperation across difference, right? That’s confident pluralism. People have different identities. There are dimensions of those identities that are mutually exclusive. Some say there is a God, some say there isn’t a God. There’s clearly a gap between those. The question is how do people of diverse identities and diversion ideologies live in a nation together? 

How do they not just coexist but cooperate? That’s one frame for diversity. That’s the principle frame that we come out of. It is very consonant with the understanding of the American project as a response to the European wars of religion. I’m being very geeky here, right? I’m speaking with you so I can be geeky, but you write about this in the beginning of Talking to Strangers. 

That is my principle understanding of the American project. How do people with diverse identities and divergent ideologies work together in a nation? Quite remarkable, right? Then there’s a second diversity frame, which is equity, and it is how do we rectify the deep and gross inequalities in American life, principally around race, gender, income and sexuality? There are very few people who straddle both projects, and you’re one of them. I’m curious if you think of it similarly and how that all works into the Danielle Allen project. 

[00:34:15] Danielle: I take it that each of us has the opportunity and also the responsibility to forge a civic identity. A civic identity is about taking what I value and who I am and where I come from and connecting that up to any of the huge array of civic roles that are available to me. Recognizing that when I practice a civic role, whether that’s voter or juror or candidate for office, or somebody serving on a commission in my town, or writing on an op-ed to my paper, or participating in a protest, there’s a huge array of possible civic roles, but every single one of those civic roles has some norms and values attached to it, okay? 

They’re the norms and values that are necessary to hold up democracy. In my work we boil these down, or I boil them down with colleagues to civic reciprocity, civic self-care, and civic self-confidence. 

Civic reciprocity is the notion that your own good is connected to the good of a bigger community. That includes people different from you. You can’t ever just be committed to yourself because otherwise you’re going to tank the thing that’s actually holding you up. Then civic self-care is recognizing that you are a whole person with all kinds of things you care about, and you get choices about what you bring into the public sphere, what you share, what you don’t share, how much time or energy you’re going to give. 

Then civic self-confidence is having the knowledge and skills that you need in order to feel like an owner in public space, to be an agent and the like. Those norms and values are attached to our civic roles, and our jobs in forging a civic identities to connect our personal identities up to those civic roles, adopt those values of civic reciprocity, civic self-care, civic self-confidence, and then that’s what our civic identity amounts to. 

In other words, it’s an ask that everybody, regardless of where they’re starting from and whatever values and identity they bring to the table also adds into that identity. Something that we all share. You could think of it as all of us have to cross a bridge from lots of different places to a shared island. Okay? That’s the visual metaphor that goes with that. 

Now, it’s important then that in practicing those civic roles for me, the standard I would say, honestly, is slightly higher than cooperation. The standard is non domination. Actually, cooperation should really include non domination, but sometimes we let ourselves off the hook for testing whether or not we’re actually structuring cooperation so that people are really on an equal footing when they participate with each other in a cooperative endeavor. 

For me, genuine cooperation has to be people are on an equal footing. That means non domination. That then brings in the power, privilege, and oppression side of things. You have to actually understand that part of the picture in order to tell whether or not people are cooperating on an equal footing. It’s really that notion that we are trying to cooperate, but we’re trying to do it on an equal footing as we’re the bridge between the two existing models comes together. 

The way I think that we achieve that is by inviting people into this project of forging a civic identity where they’re welcome to bring their own identity into the conversation. Then I also have a responsibility like melding that with some of these values that attach to civic roles. 

[00:37:27] Eboo: How do we marry these religious perspectives with our civic identity in order to build bridges? 

[00:37:33] Danielle: That is the job of forging a civic identity. Our religious identity informs the values we bring to the table. It informs who we are. That is basically the definition of building a civic identity, is to be really clear about your own values and their sources, and then to figure out what does it take for you to merge those values with those democratic values about civic reciprocity, civic self-care, and civic self-confidence. It’s a journey. I think every person has to work through that themselves, but that is the job to do. 

Yes, there are opportunities in religion to bridge with each other. We have a long history in this country of communities of faith helping connect people to this decision-making institutions. We have churches that help people get out to vote. We have all kinds of communities of faith that help build mutual aid societies and practices that is also the fabric of our civil society and necessary for our renovation of democracy. 

My hope would be that communities of faith, though, could also embrace the hard work of asking, answering the question of what’s required if we are genuinely going to share power across all the different communities in our country, where could we do better at sharing power? There’s a lot of room for improvement in every nook and cranny of our society. I’m sure that every community of faith has the potential to help us advance the cause. 


[00:38:58] Eboo: Danielle Allen gives me hope for our future together as Americans. A lot of the work that we need to do when it comes to bridging between fundamental differences in our diverse democracy relies on us being both clear on our values and being able to speak to one another across divides. Pick up my favorite book of Danielle Allen’s, Talking to Strangers, anxieties of citizenship since Brown versus Board of Education. Let us know what you think in the comments or wherever you live on social media. 

Intro/outro music provided by Mysterylab Music and composed by Mott Jordan.

Credit music provided by Die Hard Productions.

Show More

Join us today!

Get inspired, equipped, and connected to unlock the potential of America’s religious diversity.


Podcast Team

Meet the team who made this podcast possible.

Contact Us

Want to share feedback, suggest a future guest or ask a question? Email Us.

Podcast Team