Danielle Allen, a prominent scholar of democracy and a political theorist at Harvard, has watched the American political system break down over time. For almost three decades, she has studied growing social and economic inequalities and declining trust among citizens in our political institutions. Yet when the pandemic hit, she was shocked anew by the realities it brought into sharp relief.
By March 2020, Allen and her colleagues had retreated to the safety of their homes, relying on service workers who delivered groceries to their doorsteps. Some of her students, many of whom were on spring break, attended massive parties against the advice of health authorities. As Allen observed the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on already disadvantaged communities, she found herself troubled by people’s willingness to forsake one another. “There was loose talk about [abandoning] older people…and we pushed essential workers back so fast without access to testing and PPE,” Allen recalled. “We couldn’t muster the will and resources to protect all of us together. Our institutions failed because, as a society, we don’t believe we are in it together.”
Now Allen, age 50, is making a bid to become the first woman elected as governor of Massachusetts. Her campaign is already groundbreaking: In addition to being the first Black woman to run for governor in the state’s history, she is attempting an unconventional transition from philosophy to elected office. Allen has spent nearly 30 years as a political theorist, has served as the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, and is a University Professor, the highest accolade a Harvard professor can receive. But at her campaign launch in June, Allen declared, “Democracy isn’t something to be studied. Democracy is something to do. Democracy is a collective call to action.”
Allen brings to Massachusetts a “moral vision” that extends beyond any policy or issue. She wants to repair our broken social contract—a philosophical term for the implicit agreement among members of a society to carry out duties, surrender certain freedoms, and work together for the common good. “When people ask me what my first priority is, they expect me to say, ‘It’s this adjustment to Regulation 342,’” Allen told me. “No, my first priority is a moral priority, which is to see ourselves as a whole commonwealth and commit to work on behalf of all of us.”
While Allen has been rallying Massachusetts residents around this vision, political commentators say she faces an uphill battle to become the next governor. State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, who has attracted many young progressive activists, has been campaigning for months. Following Republican incumbent Charlie Baker’s decision not to seek reelection, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey also jumped into the race earlier this week. Pundits soon identified Healey as the frontrunner, given her statewide name recognition and the $3.7 million campaign war chest.
Indeed, the incumbent’s exit makes Allen’s path to victory “much more difficult,” said Tatishe Nteta, a professor at UMass Amherst. Still, Steve Koczela, who leads a polling firm in Massachusetts, pointed out that candidates with low voter recognition and no experience as an elected official, such as former governors Deval Patrick and Mitt Romney, have won statewide campaigns in the past. “We have a storied history of electing the person we’re not supposed to elect,” he said.
Allen is hoping to establish a new social contract—a renewed compact based on the principle that our society abandons no one and provides everyone with a stable footing for flourishing. As the gubernatorial primary ramps up in Massachusetts, she must convince voters that, despite having no experience in public office, she can make this ambitious vision a reality.
Like the abolitionists, the suffragists at the Seneca Falls Convention, and the anti-war activists of the 1960s and ’70s, Allen announced her vision for a new society by appealing to the nation’s founding document: the Declaration of Independence.
In a video declaring her candidacy, Allen expands on the rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” in the original document, proclaiming that all people are entitled to “an empowered life, liberty to participate in their democracy, and the right to flourish.” According to Allen, educational inequalities, a massive racial wealth gap, and a lack of action on climate change demonstrate that the Massachusetts state government has failed to deliver. “It is the right and responsibility of the people to reimagine it and build a better government up to the existential challenge of creating the foundation of a fair and just society,” she argues.
For Allen, the Declaration is more than lofty rhetoric; it exemplifies how members of a polity can come together and initiate change in times of crisis. In her best-selling 2014 book Our Declaration, she traces how its authors laid out principles of governance, presented evidence of the British crown’s failures, and invited spectators around the world to judge the righteousness of their rebellion. Just as the founders used this string of words to summon a new reality—a birth of a nation—Allen is looking to bring forth a fundamental shift in Massachusetts politics. “The Declaration is a license to practice self-government,” she explained in an interview. “And there is no better way to do that than to set [the Declaration] as an example and say, ‘Look, this is the kind of thinking it takes to name our challenges, to name our aspirations, and to build a shared commitment to transformation.”
When launching her campaign and crafting her own version of the Declaration, Allen sought to emulate the founders’ collaborative process. The members of the Continental Congress published ads in newspapers and invited people to share their opinions of King George III. According to Allen, this democratic procedure embodied their belief in the fundamental feature of human equality: that each person is the best judge of their own happiness. To develop her vision for Massachusetts, Allen embarked on what she called “Commonwealth Conversations,” a tour in which she spoke with residents across the state about their hopes and concerns. Her declaration is a product of accumulated social knowledge, she argues, rooted in ordinary people’s assessments of how their state government influences their happiness. “Our campaign is building a grassroots movement, and there’s obviously a political purpose: to win votes,” she said. “But there’s also a more substantive purpose, which is that this is where the health of democracy comes from.”
At the end of her declaration, Allen proclaims that “we must knit ourselves into One Commonwealth.” When John Adams drafted the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, the oldest functioning written constitution in history, he deliberately called the state a “commonwealth.” An organized political community founded on law, a commonwealth is built on the premise that its members work together for the commonweal, or the shared good. “The whole point of democracy is that, as it says at the end of the Declaration, you pool your lives, your fortunes, and your sacred honor,” Allen said. “That’s what the commonwealth is. You pool your life’s energies together, you draw on your resources together, and you put your honor at stake…[to deliver] solutions that are for the good of all.”
Restoring this vision is Allen’s foremost priority. She pointed out that the erosion of local news media has made the commonwealth’s residents invisible to one another. Statewide conversations rarely occur, and those who are wired into national political news often do not know what’s going on in their own neighborhoods. Consequently, towns facing similar crises, such as soaring housing prices, overlook opportunities to collaborate toward joint solutions. In addition, Allen notes that economic disparities across Massachusetts have further corroded solidarity and the sense of a shared future. “We first want to make ourselves visible to ourselves. Can we actually see the whole commonwealth?” she said. “Then the next question is: How do we take responsibility for all of us? How can we get a sense of mutual commitment to one another and work on behalf of all of us?”
For Allen, the project of knitting Massachusetts into a well-connected whole is a personal as well as a political enterprise. While she identifies as a progressive, Allen was raised in a conservative family; her dad, William, a professor of political science, served as chairman of the US Commission on Civil Rights during the Reagan administration. Growing up, she witnessed fiery debates at family gatherings between her father and her aunt, who ran for office in California on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. Later, even as Allen navigated elite institutions, she watched members of her extended family struggle with addiction, homelessness, and incarceration. On the campaign trail, she often shares the tragic story of her cousin Michael, who spent 12 years in prison for attempting to steal a car at age 15. While serving as the youngest-ever humanities dean at the University of Chicago, Allen traveled frequently to Los Angeles to help her cousin start a new life.
“Because I’m from a big family, we’ve experienced the full range of challenges and opportunities in our society,” Allen recalled while speaking at a Revere Democratic Town Committee meeting in July. “Issues of addiction, homelessness, incarceration—I’ve wrestled through all of those things directly with my family members. We believe in linking arms and moving everybody forward together, connecting in order to empower.”
For the past seven years, the corner office in Beacon Hill has been occupied by someone with a vision that is vastly different from Allen’s: Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican in a deep blue state, who is considered one of the nation’s most popular governors. Baker has repeatedly said his goal is to deliver “a customer service oriented state government”—an efficient administration that swiftly serves residents’ needs. “State government must speak with one voice in its commitment to providing exceptional customer service for citizens, municipalities, businesses, nonprofit groups, health care providers, and educational institutions,” he said after assuming office in 2015. Baker’s website notes that he drastically cut down the average service time at the Registry of Motor Vehicles and streamlined the Department of Children and Families.
For Allen, Baker’s philosophy reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between citizens and government. “We probably do want customer-service-oriented government for the Registry of Motor Vehicles, but we are citizens, not customers,” Allen said. She contended that Baker’s philosophy on governance led to his failure to handle the pandemic effectively and reopen schools safely. “Schools aren’t customers, and in the absence of customers to be imagined, the Baker administration doesn’t actually have a way of knowing how to engage…. They just do not see public goods and the tools that you use to deliver them.”
Despite being outside government, Allen was deeply involved in developing model policies in response to Covid-19. In the early months of the pandemic, she led a multidisciplinary response team that built the nation’s first comprehensive road map for preventing infection, reopening schools, and remobilizing the economy. The team’s work, which advocated for massively ramping up testing, contact tracing, and supported isolation, was endorsed by the US Conference of Mayors, disseminated by the National Governors Association, and eventually incorporated into policy by the Biden administration. Allen also advised the Covid-19 Health and Safety Committee of the Cambridge Public Schools, which her children attend. Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, who has endorsed Allen for governor, said the committee relied heavily on her and her team’s recommendations: “The leadership wasn’t coming from the state…. Danielle, at that moment, was that clearheaded voice.”
One of the team’s most critical findings, Allen said, was that the government must engage stakeholders to operate successfully, rather than merely inform or consult them. She watched several schools fail to reopen safely because they didn’t know how to involve their communities. Since infection control in schools requires building trust among students, parents, and educators, she said, those groups must all be incorporated into the decision-making process—naming the problems, identifying solutions, and figuring out how to implement them together.
Like the response team’s approach to school reopening, Allen’s scholarship emphasizes the importance of protecting people’s positive liberties, or the freedom to participate in governance. She worries about modern societies’ preoccupation with merely guaranteeing negative liberties—basic freedoms from interference in the service of personal autonomy. In Our Declaration, she disputes the characterization of the founding fathers as libertarians who primarily sought to minimize the restraints imposed by government. While there’s a common belief that equality and freedom are necessarily in contradiction, she argues that the founders understood that political equality is the bedrock of freedom. They recognized that, to be truly free, citizens must have equal opportunities to shape their own lives and communities.
This interpretation of freedom has led Allen to critique John Rawls, one of the most influential philosophers of the past century, for failing to fully appreciate the value of political equality. In Difference Without Domination, a book she coedited, she argues that Rawls’s theory of justice ultimately prioritized negative liberties over positive ones: Rawls focused on protecting personal autonomy—or the ability to live according to one’s understanding of the good without interference—rather than equipping citizens with equal means to participate in collective decision-making. In her most recent book, Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus, Allen invokes Cicero’s famous argument—Salus populi suprema lex esto, which translates to “The health of the people is the supreme law”—to point out that salus populi, or the health of the people, depends both on basic material security and on having opportunities for self-creation and self-governance.
“My picture of humanity is that human beings thrive at their highest level when they have the opportunity to be the authors of their own lives,” Allen explained. “And that means that you have rights and control in the private sphere, but it also means that you have meaningful opportunities to contribute in the public sphere [and] shape the decisions that set the constraints for your life.” While Allen laments America’s civic weakness in Democracy in the Time of Coronavirus, she later said in an interview that watching groups like the Barnstable County Health Commission and the Black Boston Covid Coalition deliver vaccines through get-out-the-vote drives has made her more hopeful than ever. “But…that growing capacity [and] appetite for civic engagement haven’t gotten translated into how our institutions of government operate. So that’s our next step, and that’s what we are trying to do.”
On the campaign trail, Allen frequently emphasizes how civic engagement can help the state navigate crises like the pandemic, and she brainstorms with voters on how to inspire more people to get involved. As governor, she would expand voter registration options and establish a universal expectation of service for all young people. She also hopes to limit the influence of corporate money by encouraging the state to adopt the 28th Amendment and thereby countermand Citizens United v. FEC.
At a Needham Democratic Town Committee meeting in September, Rachel Crimlisk, a former customer service representative, told Allen that long work hours and financial difficulties have prevented her from taking part in her community. Crimlisk developed an interest in politics when she lost her job two years ago, but ongoing financial strains have limited her involvement. “If everyone had the time and space and wasn’t so on the rat wheel of life, we all would be able to be more engaged and [carry out] the things that Danielle wants to put into place,” Crimlisk later said in an interview.
Allen argues that people must have access to certain resources, such as good jobs, housing, education, and transportation, to become true authors of their own lives and communities. She has also written that when social and economic differences lead to some people’s domination over others, those dominated individuals may no longer have meaningful opportunities to participate in civic and political matters. In Difference Without Domination, Allen explains how basic liberties, such as the right to property and free association, naturally generate wealth disparities and social inequalities. While certain differences are inevitable and sometimes beneficial, she notes that misdirected protections of these basic liberties can also lead to drastic inequality and unjust domination—thereby undermining the very freedoms those protections sought to safeguard.
To address extreme inequalities, Allen has worked with a broad group of economists and political scientists to develop a new economic and social policy paradigm. In an op-ed for The Washington Post in December 2019, Allen wrote that her New Year’s resolution was to help address “fundamental blind spots” in conventional economic theory with scholars who are pioneering a new curriculum, called CORE. Allen’s campaign has also released a good-jobs agenda, in which she states, “For the last thirty years, economic policy has focused on increasing productivity without paying much attention to how our approaches to productivity have affected the health and well-being of workers. But no economy can be healthier than the people who power it…. [That’s why] it’s time to start thinking about economic productivity and labor prosperity as united—rather than competing—goals.” In this agenda, Allen argues that overall GDP fails to measure the availability of good jobs in the state and promises to develop a new metric for evaluating her administration’s performance on this front.
Allen’s platform is broadly in line with those of other Democratic contenders looking to transform the status quo. Both she and Chang-Díaz call for providing affordable early education by passing the Common Start Bill, though the state senator also hopes to establish a universal, single-payer preschool system. Allen and Ben Downing, who has since dropped out of the race, both pledged to accelerate decarbonization and to transition completely to renewable energy by 2040. While Chang-Díaz pledged to immediately remove fares on all MBTA and RTA buses, Allen has yet to release her transportation platform. So far, Allen has the most ambitious housing platform, which promises to overturn the state’s ban on local rent stabilization ordinances. She also plans to strengthen tenant protections by establishing a right to legal counsel in eviction cases and passing legislation that would seal eviction records. While Healey has yet to release specific platforms, she positioned herself as a more moderate candidate focused on economic recovery from the pandemic.
Allen’s campaign “is driven by a moral vision, a loftier goal of civic engagement…but that’s not all that Danielle is about,” said Ed Klein, a Cape Cod resident who discussed his concerns about unreasonable housing costs with Allen at a March campaign event. “She also wants to give people a foundation and create a society for everyone.”
Can a philosopher also be a good politician? While few political theorists engage in actual governance, Allen has long worked with politicians and policy developers in various advisory capacities. She was a regional field organizer for the 2008 Obama campaign and an adviser for the UK Labour Party’s policy review. More recently, she led the Educating for American Democracy project, which designed civics curricula for K-12 students, and chaired the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship—a bipartisan group convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that explored strategies for encouraging people to participate in democracy. Allen also chaired the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation board for four years.
Her cousin Michael’s incarceration and death gave Allen a sense of urgency to tackle real-world injustices. While she tried to help her cousin start anew after his release, Michael was murdered by someone he met in prison in 2009. “For me, it was definitely my life’s turning-point moment,” Allen recalled at a meeting with the Berkshire Democratic Brigades in September. “I had a real sense of personal failure. But it was also a real moment for digging into the question of why it is that, as a society, we’re doing such a bad job of helping young people transition to a healthy adulthood…. I realized that sometimes we have to change the world to move forward together.”
Many philosophers have contrasted the work of a scholar, who unconditionally pursues truth, with that of a politician, who must persuade voters and cater to popular demands for support. Socrates, for example, denounced politicians’ rhetoric as a tool for manipulation. For her part, Allen says she holds herself to the scholarly standard of truthfulness even as she jumps into the political fray and rallies Massachusetts residents behind her vision. Allen Chen, her former campaign manager, told me that Allen at times resists the influence of political consultants in choosing how to communicate. Still, she does not comport herself with the authority of a professor. Allen explains complex philosophical ideas with remarkable ease, using analogies instead of relying on technical terms from her scholarship. At campaign events, she spends most of her time listening to people’s concerns and brainstorming with them about how to mitigate their difficulties. And for some voters, Allen’s unconventional background strengthens her appeal. At least a dozen Democrats, from Cambridge to Bridgewater, Springfield, and Cape Cod, said in interviews that her extensive scholarship on democracy might help her achieve something transformative. Cynthia Swan, who chairs the Women in the NAACP Committee in Springfield, noted that voters are looking for a candidate with the right vision and passion for justice, rather than someone who has had a long political career. “Danielle has not held public office, but she’s obviously worked for a number of different Democratic efforts and is well-versed in what makes democracy run,” said Klein, the Cape Cod resident. “So I think she brings a good, fresh set of ideas…. It really has to be something dramatic to break through our problems.”
Without doubt, there are big obstacles in Allen’s path to the governorship. Some voters who are captivated by her ideas remain concerned about her lack of political experience. “I do find her vision inspiring, but it’s one thing to have a moral vision and another thing to translate your vision to action and get bills passed,” said Linda Levin-Scherz, who leads the Belmont Democratic Town Committee. And while Allen is well-known among academics, she has a low profile among voters. Like other first-time candidates, she “really [has] to go out and introduce [herself] to literally everybody,” said Chen. He reported that the campaign is in the process of recruiting and training hundreds of volunteers ahead of the February and March caucuses. But student activist Jacob Kemp pointed out that building a grassroots movement might be difficult for Allen. While she has received endorsements from national figures like the lawyer Van Jones, Allen lacks long-standing connections with local leaders and groups. In contrast, Kemp noted, Chang-Díaz is looped into a wide network of community organizers from her previous work as an organizer at MassEquality, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group based in Worcester. UMass Boston political science professor Maurice Cunningham added that unions like the AFL-CIO and the Massachusetts Nurses Association are more likely to endorse candidates they’ve previously worked with, such as Chang-Díaz and Healey. Chang-Díaz has already received dozens of endorsements from local public officials, including other state senators, state representatives, and city councilors. For her part, Healey received an endorsement from union Teamsters Local 25 and raised $207,000 on the first day of her campaign, surpassing her rivals’ greatest monthly totals.
Still, Cunningham and Nteta, the UMass Amherst professor, emphasized that support from unions and other local officials can be overcome. Both pointed to former governor Deval Patrick, who entered the race as a relative unknown and built a grassroots campaign by going ward-to-ward across the state. Like Patrick, Chen said, Allen is focusing on areas that have been overlooked by politicians, such as Cape Cod and parts of western Massachusetts. Allen’s vision has also drawn enthusiasm at town committee meetings and caucuses held in Boston suburbs like Cambridge and Needham.
“As a nonprofit leader with 20 years of public service under my belt, a longtime democracy advocate, and an early national leader on pandemic response, I believe I have the right tools and skills to meet the moment,” Allen said. “These are dark, hard times, and nothing could be more important than forging a path out to the green and healthy next-generation democracy we all deserve.”