Fifteen Questions: Danielle Allen on the Future of Democracy, Optimism, and Minecraft

The political theorist sat down with Fifteen Minutes to talk about practical problem-solving in a divided country. “It’s not exactly that I’m an optimist,” she says. “I’m just a person who believes that failure is not an option. So I’m a ‘not-an-optionist!’”


Danielle S. Allen is a professor of political philosophy, ethics, and public policy as well as the director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics. She has chaired a number of commissions on the present and future of democracy and is a former candidate for Governor of Massachusetts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: How did you get into academia?

DSA: My sophomore year at Princeton, I wandered into a class on ancient Athenian democracy in the spring semester. There was something that was bugging me all the way through. I finally figured it out halfway into the semester. I raised my hand and said to my professor, “Did they not have prisons in ancient Athens?” So I ended up writing my senior thesis and then went to graduate school at Cambridge in the UK to write that dissertation that my professor had suggested.

FM: Would you describe yourself generally as an optimist?

DSA: That’s funny. I get asked that question a lot. People say, “Danielle, you’re so optimistic. How can you be so optimistic? It’s such a horrible world.” And you know what I always say back? It’s not exactly that I’m an optimist; I’m just a person who believes that failure is not an option. So I’m a “not-an-optionist!”

FM: Something that struck me when I read about your gubernatorial campaign was that it filled you with a renewed sense of hope. Since so many people leave politics disillusioned, I’m interested in how you seemingly left with another perspective.

DSA: Let’s be honest — when I started my campaign, I had basically zero name recognition. So as I would visit with people, they were incredibly frank and ready to share really personal experiences, challenges, worries, and concerns. So you develop this very deep sense of responsibility for the stories and hopes people would trust to you.

The other lesson that was just so profound was that we talked so much about how much cynicism there is in our politics, and yet they wanted to share, they wanted to tell somebody who might be governor! That’s how much faith we continue to have that our institutions can actually do right for us.

FM: For many undergraduates, Harvard is a very insulated environment. What is your recommendation for how can integrate a broader social perspective into our lives?

DSA: The University is so intellectually rich, and it's a really wonderful place to be. We put all these amazing opportunities in front of people, and that can mean that you get sort of pulled inside. I do think one has to be intentionally proactive about taking all that richness and connecting it to real-world contexts. I think that the Mindich Program for engaged teaching and learning is really terrific, but it's a sort of set of courses that do really link up the classroom context to work in a variety of different kinds of civil society organizations and the like. So it really connects good, old-fashioned book learning with project-based learning and starts to fuse those things together.

FM: One of the things that I thought was interesting about the Undergraduate Council referendum last year was that there was a lot of vitriol and a lot of anger despite the absences of any political parties. I am curious, do you have any perspective on why that might be?

DSA: Well, I think you’re naming an experience a lot of people have. Vitriol is a part of all of our lives, I think, at a rate we all would prefer not to have. So I do think the problem is not just about partisanship but that there’s a kind of broader set of challenges that also do affect how our parties operate. They’re part of the same environment. I was a part of something called the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics for an eight- or nine-year stretch, just after Facebook was invented, and I do think that social media, if you are in an algorithmically driven universe that rewards outrage, has had a broad effect on our culture, our practices, and habits of interaction. So I think we are in a place where we need to proactively learn how to have decent fights.

FM: What are the biggest roadblocks to those kinds of civil discussions?

DSA: There are some basic things that people can learn. There was one student who said, “I learned how to really dissect a question and how to fully process something before speaking on the subject.” That sounds like a small thing, but if you are doing that really intentionally with others, it really can change the dynamic of a conversation.

This is where I would pull together the issue of practical public problem solving with relational challenges. When you have an actual problem that doesn’t have an ideological frame that you have to solve together, then you can build a relationship to solve that problem. But in the course of doing that, you actually learn ways of talking through and about ideological differences.

FM: That’s very interesting. I think Gretchen Whitmer said at the beginning of her campaign for Governor of Michigan, “fix the damn roads,” which I guess is a very common cause place to start. On the topic of common cause, what is your perspective on what we as citizens owe each other at this moment?

DSA: I would just quote Martin Luther King, Jr. and say we owe each other the full sharing of power and responsibility. Then the question is, what does it actually take to deliver that to each other? It takes respectfulness. It takes participation, not just letting males do all the work, not being a free rider; it takes chipping in. But it all flows from the fact that we owe each other full sharing of power and responsibility.

FM: I think there’s a lot of policy implications that stem from that in a very immediate sense that are fairly profound. One of the policies you suggested was expanding the House of Representatives. That’s something that sounds initially very small. But when you think about what the practical implications are, they’re actually fairly large.

DSA: It wouldn’t have been large if they had not bothered to cap the House 100 years ago. They produced a problem that we didn’t need to have. That’s what’s frustrating about it, because it should have been a slow evolution, one decade to the next. That’s what it was built to do. Basically, this is a beautiful, very significant example of deferred maintenance. We have deferred maintenance on our House, on Congress, and therefore it is much harder to do than if we have been, every 10 years, expanding the House.

FM: I suppose, in many senses, deferred maintenance is kind of the broader perspective we’ve taken on American democracy for maybe the last 50 years: democracy is something that’s innate to America. It’s something we know how to do, so it’s not something we need to practice.

DSA: I think that’s right. I think the deferred maintenance metaphor is a very helpful one for understanding where we are. And it’s hard because it’s not the whole story — because the House as originally built was never built for everyone, and some people were stuck in the dark basements while other people had light-filled rooms. So it’s a kind of combination of deferred maintenance and a meaningful renovation.

FM: I think that many people have a firmly rooted conception of what the House, or the Senate, look like. How feasible do you think it is for Americans to get out of that mindset? Are these going to be things we’re going to be able to change, perhaps, in our lifetimes?

DSA: It’s true, we look at the world and it’s so big and so complex it just feels really set in place, and we feel so very powerless in relation to it. I think the most important thing, honestly, is to connect people to their power again. And the truth is, if you can connect people to their power, then things begin to feel possible. So yes, I think these changes are possible in our lifetime.

FM: When you think of democratic leaders and representatives, what are the most important traits — ethically, morally, intellectually — that those leaders possess?

DSA: It’s really important that people in leadership roles be able to be synthetic, to synthesize across a whole lot of kinds of expertise and viewpoints. So it’s not the case that any single kind of expertise ever has the answers to a problem, because multiple kinds of expertise and conflicting frames will always be relevant. We want a broad community engaged in that process of diagnosis and solution, identification and decision, and so forth.

FM: One thing we’ve touched on a little bit earlier: Facebook has had a profound impact on democracy, both good and bad. In your mind, is there a version of social media that can have a net positive impact on democracy?

DSA: The great thing about the challenges we face with social media is how many people are thinking about them now. That’s the beautiful thing about human beings — once we all get clear that something is a problem, we solve it eventually. Lots of folks are just focused on how we regulate the social media platforms. But that’s honestly just a portion of it. There’s a question of how we redesign other elements of our institutions to mitigate against the negative externalities that flow from social media. But then there’s this sort of third bucket of positive experimentation. There’s a tool called Polis, a technological-based way of polling opinion but looking for synergies and common points of view, instead of trying to bring out the things that create outrage.

FM: Recently, with the anniversary of January 6, there was so much media attention on the Civil War in America. My question for you as someone who is very solution-oriented: the discussion of a potential civil war, the death of democracy — are those productive conversations to be having?

DSA: I really appreciate that there’s a lot of anxiety in our environment. People are stressed out about the events on January 6. They were scary and anger-inducing. So the question is really, given the significance of the episode and the kind of emotions it stirred up, how do we walk from that to something productive? That’s where I am a big supporter of trying to take things out of the national politics framework, look more locally, build partnerships. I don’t really think we can actually solve any of our problems without just literally building partnerships between people.

FM: That makes a lot of sense. I have a short final question: What media are you consuming?

DSA: I have to admit, in the media department, I’m really driven by my children. I took my daughter to a Cavetown concert, who was playing in the House of Blues. My son is totally dedicated to Minecraft, so I spent a lot of time consuming stuff about Minecraft or with him in relation to Minecraft.

FM: That’s very interesting. I guess Minecraft is really one of those places of communal problem solving.

DSA: But it’s also the toxicity that you were mentioning. My poor son, he just had all of his resources wiped out by some Minecraft bully, who convinced him they were doing a trade, and then, like, got his code and destroyed everything he built for months. So it’s bad out there!

— Associate Magazine Editor Harrison R. T. Ward can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @HarrisonRTWard.