From Voice to Influence: An Interview with Political Philosopher Danielle Allen (Part Three)

In your introduction, you signaled the ways that a tension between advocacy and deliberation shadowed the development of this book. Can you explain how this tension surfaced within the disciplinary partnerships you describe and in what ways you or others involved in the book resolved this friction?

The disagreement between those who thought that advocacy should be at the core of civic agency and those who thought that deliberation should have that role ran all the way through our several years of working on this project. I don’t think the initial views on this subject were disciplinary so much as connected to whether each scholar’s body of work was more oriented toward study of those in the mainstream or to study of those on the margins.

Over the course of the project, both views came to shift. Most impoartantly, I think, we came to see that the ethical framework that governs civic agency and life in the public sphere is not singular but plural. There is not one, unitary regulative ideal that can help us know how to participate politically; there are several and they are relevant to different situational contexts.

Consequently, our conversation led us, I think, to a place where the successful exercise of civic agency must be understood as also being closely connected to a capacity for judgment about when disinterested deliberation, interested advocacy, or passionate prophesy is the right tool to deploy in the pursuit of a just democracy.

Another disagreement you flag amongst the contributors to this book hinges on the potentials and limits of commercially owned platforms for civic purposes. I know you have been digging deeply into the design of platforms for civic speech. What new insights have you gained through that project?

Working with colleagues, I set off to try to develop design principles for those who wish to build platforms to support civic agency. As we worked, we became convinced by arguments, like Ethan Zuckerman’s in this book, that a lot of good civic and political engagement can and should occur through already existing, often commercial platforms. These are harder for governments to shut down without cost.

So we modified our approach to develop guidelines that might cross contexts and be applicable regardless of whether someone is building a stand-alone platform or trying to use a battery of existing tools, whether those are commercially supplied or the creation of groups like MIT’s Civic Media Lab.

We focus a lot on trying to unify three kinds of thinking: first, about securing one’s identity offline and online (and we mean this in the broadly psychological sense, not in the sense of password security); second, about understanding how to pull the different kinds of levers that are available; and third, about understanding how to develop and deploy ethical orientations that are compatible with the pursuit of healthy egalitarian participatory democracies.

We managed to boil down our core ideas on these three subjects to ten basic principles for civic agency in the digital media landscape. We will be running the guidelines as a post following the completion of this interview.

This book is very much focused on what is changing in the media and political landscape, yet I know you are someone who often goes back to classical texts to understand some of the core principles of democracy. What do you see as the persistent value of such documents, whether the writings of ancient Athens or the Declaration of Independence, for informing how we respond to the challenges of the current moment?

The ancients feel a million miles away from us. For many I think the Declaration of Independence from our own political tradition also feels a million miles away. And yet there are resources in both.

The ancient Athenians were among the first to become self-conscious about the concept of a public sphere. For them, the public sphere was just their city or, in Greek, their polis, and we of course get the word “politics” from this. Although they cared a lot about their formal public spaces–the assembly, the courtroom, the public markets, they did trace the channels of discourse in all their diversity and studied rhetoric intensely.

That study drew out the value of rational dispassionate deiberation but paid as much attention to what I have been calling adversarial and prophetic rhetoric. The ancients had a far more capacious sense of the range of legitimate and necessary political discourse than most of us have today. I think we can learn a lot from that.

As to the Declaration of Independence, I think its most important contribution is its celebration of civic agency, which it both exhibits and provides a profound defense of. Civic agents are as likely to make mistakes as not; the civic action exemplified by the Declaration includes its share of mistakes, most notably in relation to women, slaves, and native Americans. But the Declaration also expresses its own fallibility.

The end of its most important sentence, the second sentence, expresses a theory of revolution and enjoins civic agents, who judge their governments wanting, to try again. They write: “Whenever a government becomes destructive of these ends [of securing our rights], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and to etablish new government, laying its foundation on such principle and organizing its power in such form, as to them shall seem *most likely* to effect their safety and happiness.”

From generation to generation, we the people have the job of evaluating our government and, where necessary, altering it in the directions that seem *most likely* to us to effect collective well-being. In other words, the best we can do is to make probablistic judgments about what will be best for all of us. We will fail, and those who come after us will have to try again.

Danielle Allen is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In July 2015 she will move to Harvard to take up the Directorship of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professorships in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: the Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright Books, June 2014). She is the co-editor of the award- winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society.