If you think the coronavirus pandemic is simply a health crisis, or a crisis of leadership in Washington, it’s time to wake up.
This moment is nothing less than an “existential crisis” that will reshape American society, says Danielle Allen, head of Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics and co-author of the university’s “Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience.” “It is a moment where societies are forced to answer the question of who they are. And I think [the U.S.] didn’t answer that question terribly well.”
The reasons why are plentiful. Yes, Trump plays a role in this—in Allen’s estimation, “he cares about politics and he cares about his own popularity, but he doesn’t care about governance”—but the problem is much deeper, a window into the shortcomings of the kind of democracy America has turned into.
“The democracies led by populists—the U.S., the United Kingdom, Brazil—have done poorly, and the democracies led by institutionalists have done well—[German Chancellor Angela] Merkel being a prime example of an institutionalist,” Allen said.
“Then there’s a separate cut, which is ‘old democracy’ vs. ‘young democracy,’” she continued. “Basically, if you look at Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan — those are all young democracies. Whereas the U.K., the U.S., France, those are older democracies.” The older ones have more “bureaucratic buildup” and have trouble responding in an agile way, she says—and are also less in agreement on social rights, and more built around 18th-century ideas about political and civil rights. In a crisis, they struggle to rally around the public welfare without getting in fights about it.
It might seem like a stretch to invoke 18th-century political principles to discuss a 21st-century pandemic, but Allen’s work goes even deeper than that; she’s a scholar of democratic ideas reaching back to Athenian times, whose modern interests include not just the pandemic response but strengthening participatory democracy. And in a moment this unique and historic, the long view is precisely what can help.
So what does the pandemic tell us about what a revitalized American democracy might look like? What specific reforms are needed? In addition to her coronavirus reports for Harvard, Allen recently co-authored a major report for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on exactly what needs to happen for America’s civic life to be reborn. On Wednesday morning, she spoke to POLITICO about all of this. A transcript of the conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
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