My first conversation with Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen on The Ezra Klein Show in fall 2019 was one of my all-time favorites. I didn’t expect to have Allen on again so soon, but her work is unusually relevant to our current moment.
Allen has written an entire book about the deeper argument of the Declaration of Independence and the way our superficial reading and folk history of the document obscures its radicalism. (It’ll make you look at July Fourth in a whole new way.) Her most recent book, Cuz, is a searing indictment of the American criminal justice system, driven by watching her cousin go through it and motivated by his murder.
Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, which Allen directs, has released the most comprehensive, operational road map for mobilizing and reopening the US economy amid the Covid-19 crisis. And to top it all off, a two-year bipartisan commission of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which Allen co-chaired, recently released a report with more than 30 recommendations on how to reform American democracy — and they’re very, very good.
This is a wide-ranging conversation for a wide-ranging moment. Allen and I discuss what “all men are created equal” really means, why the myth of Thomas Jefferson’s sole authorship of the Declaration of Independence muddies its message, the role of police brutality in the American Revolution, democracy reforms such as ranked-choice voting, DC statehood, mandatory voting, how to deal with a Republican Party that opposes expanding democracy, the case for prison abolition, the various pandemic response paths before us, the failure of political leadership in this moment, and much more.
An edited excerpt from our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show.