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Harvard Prof. Danielle Allen Shares Roadmap to ‘Protecting and Renovating’ Democracy at Institute for Learning in Retirement Event

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Harvard University professor Danielle S. Allen shared her vision for American democracy on Friday at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement’s first convocation in four years.

Allen — who also serves as the Director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation — proposed solutions to fix problems in American democracy. She pointed to increased wealth inequality, polarization, and incarceration over the past 50 years as evidence of a broken system.

Allen said older generations have failed to pass democratic values on to younger generations. Less than 30 percent of millennials consider it “very essential” to live in a democracy, down from 72 percent of people born before World War II, per Allen.

“The simple fact is you can’t have a democracy if people don’t want a democracy,” Allen said.

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“Above all, our job is that we have to reverse that dynamic and we have to get back to a new supermajority in support of constitutional democracy,” she added.

Building that supermajority requires “a mixture of protecting and renovating democracy,” Allen said.

Allen called for “protecting the democratic system as it exists in the current moment” through restored leadership norms, civic education, and access to information.

Elected officials, in particular, play an important role in restoring democracy, she said.

“Leaders really do drive the culture,” Allen said. “We really do need to bring elected leaders back to public commitment to those core democratic norms.”

Allen pointed to election integrity and secure election administration as another segment of her vision for democratic protection.

“People have had enough exposure to real problems with election administration that there is a problem of trust,” she said.

Allen said the overarching goal of democracy renovation — the second component of her vision — is to “achieve responsive representation and full power sharing” across constituencies.

Allen likened our country’s political institutions to “a house that we have built, that we live in, and we use to make decisions for our collective fate.”

“The house we have that we built together wasn’t originally built for everyone,” she said. “There’s a need to renovate our house so there really is room for everyone.”

Allen proposed ending party primaries, adopting ranked-choice voting, ensuring full voter access, implementing deliberative citizen assemblies, and addressing campaign finance issues.

Due to low primary turnout, “people are elected by very small percentages of the electorate,” Allen said. “Marjorie Taylor Greene was elected by 8 percent of her voters. [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] was elected by 5 percent of the electorate in her district.”

This phenomenon enables “capture by a small minority” not representative of the majority, Allen said.

As a cause for hope, Allen pointed to progress in areas like civic education.

“We have a roadmap for excellence in civics learning that was built by a cross-ideological group,” Allen said. “People said it couldn’t be done — it hadn’t been done for decades— and we did it. And its use is growing slowly but surely around the country.”

Correction: November 7, 2023

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that this event was the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement’s first meeting in four years. In fact, it was the institute’s first convocation in four years.

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