American democracy might be imperfect but it’s resilient, says Harvard professor

“We’re ailing, and I think we have to find our cure,” says Harvard Professor Danielle Allen about the American democractic institution. Photo by Pixabay

Over the weekend, a caravan of Trump supporters in pickup trucks surrounded a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris campaign bus on a highway in Central Texas.

The video shows caravan members intimidating members of the Biden-Harris campaign. One campaign staffer’s SUV was sideswiped. The FBI is investigating the incident. President Trump later Tweeted that the caravan members were “patriots” and that they did nothing wrong. 

Leading up the election, the country faces a lot of division between both sides of the electorate, says Danielle Allen, a professor and political theorist at Harvard University. 

“Every election is hard because there are always winners and losers. And the real challenge is that democracy has to be a place where winners can be decent to losers, and losers can recognize that the conversation continues,” she says.

Allen notes that American democracy isn’t perfect. “We're ailing, and I think we have to find our cure. We've gone through incredible socio-political, socio-economic changes in the last couple of decades.”

She says the Framers of the Constitution designed the system of representation as a way to tamp down on extreme opinions and factions, due to the geographic dispersal of residents. They thought that because communities were so spread out, extremists would have difficulty finding each other, and would need democratic representation to make their opinions heard, which would lead to representatives to moderate and filter communities.  

She says that today, social media enables people with extreme views to connect, leading to powerful factions. To combat that, Allen says it’ll be up to society at large to create coalitions that will help center the nation. 

But despite feelings of intense doubt and conflict, Allen says that American democracy is a resilient institution, and it’ll need its constituents to work towards a better future. 

Allen cites the example of some states, such as Maine and California, that use ranked choice voting on the ballot. That’s where a candidate can’t win until they have more than 50% of supportive votes.

“You're ensuring that nobody can take office without having a true majority of support,” she says. “You [then] move away from politics, which is about peeling off a wedge or driving polarization and division. We are seeing lots of resilience in the grassroots, as people are seeing fixes we can make to our institutions.”

She also contends there’s a silver lining during this polarizing time. That’s because American have become more aware and engaged in politics. 

Moving forward, she argues that there must be space for political discussion between two parties that actually work together. 

“If you can't work with the opposition, you will ultimately destroy democracy,” she says. “I think Abraham Lincoln's words from his second inaugural [address] are good guidance. He concludes that speech by saying, ‘With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in … to do all which may achieve, and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves.’ So in other words, we can't act out of malice, we have to have charity for all.”

— Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Credits

Guest:
Danielle Allen - professor and political theorist at Harvard - @dsallentess

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin