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Danielle Allen ends her campaigns… or “How Institutions Insulate Themselves from Change”

This summer I did something radically out of character: I wrote a check – a political donation for the legal limit – to a candidate for elected office.

Like many Americans, I am skeptical of our nation’s electoral system. I tend to believe that American politics is so thoroughly dominated by money, by entrenched interests, by structural problems like gerrymandering and restricted access to the polls, that very little social and political change is possible through the voting booth. I believe this strongly enough that I published a book last year, Mistrust, making the case that many Americans would be better off trying to make change through activism or nonprofit organizations than through engaging directly in the political process.

This time, though, the candidate was Danielle Allen.

Danielle campaigning in a barn in Plainfield, MA.

I often introduced Danielle’s candidacy to friends by explaining simply that she’s the smartest person that I know. She’s a scholar of classical Greek political philosophy, who’s written books about ancient Athens, the US Declaration of Independence, and incredibly movingly, about her cousin’s experiences with incarceration and reentry from a drug conviction. She’s won all the academic plaudits one could hope for; a professorship at Harvard, a MacArthur fellowship, a stint at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, but she is driven by a desire to fix things. She’s chaired the board of one of America’s most prominent foundations, and she spent the first year of the pandemic running a task force building relationships between academics, policymakers, and experts to help best figure out how to tackle the social crisis. People like Danielle don’t usually run for political office, but they are exactly the people that I hope would run for political office. I was all in.

I was preparing to do something else radically out of character this Thursday. I was planning to go to the town hall in my hometown, Lanesborough, Massachusetts, and participate in the Democratic Party Caucus. I intended to nominate myself as a delegate to the Democratic Party Convention to make the case for Danielle Allen being included on the Democratic primary ballot. I expected to lose. Our town is very small and sends only two delegates to the convention. One of those delegates must be female. I felt pretty sure one of the established players in the local Democratic Party would self-nominate to support Maura Healey, but I wanted to be part of a movement to try to get Danielle on the ballot.

For more than a year, Danielle has been traveling across the Commonwealth, meeting small groups of voters and listening to the problems that people articulated; housing, transportation, the opiate epidemic. She’s responded with a series of detailed and rich policy papers that have been thus far, shaping the conversation about what might change in my home state.

But I’m not going tomorrow night because Danielle suddenly dropped out of the race. I was surprised. I’d spoken to her just a few days before and she told me her read on the situation. She told me that she didn’t expect to poll well against Healey, the front-runner based on her name recognition from her time as state Attorney General. The plan was to try and come in second in the caucuses and use the run up to the election to have a conversation about possible futures for the state.

And here’s the rub: the caucuses are winner takes all. In a race like this one where a well known candidate like Healey is likely to get the majority of votes in most Massachusetts’ towns, it’s incredibly difficult for an outsider candidate to turn up 15% of the delegates. If Massachusetts allowed each town to allocate delegates proportionally, it’s a fair fight, but in a race where majority rules, a popular candidate like Healey will knock everyone else out of the field. After two weeks of caucuses, Danielle’s advisors told her she had no path towards 15%. State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz is likely to come to the same conclusion in the next week.

What this means, in practical terms, is that the Massachusetts governor’s race is likely over, less than a month after Healey declared her candidacy. Massachusetts is a safe democratic state. We occasionally elect moderate Republicans to the governorship, often after Democrats have run up social spending. But Charlie Baker, the relatively popular Republican governor, is not running for a third term and the Trump-endorsed Republican candidate is not very popular. The brutal battles over the future of the Republican party make it hard for Massachusetts Republicans to nominate the sort of candidate who could win statewide. And so, it is likely that the Massachusetts governor’s race has been settled this past weekend before even the Democratic primary occurs. Due to the structure of the town caucuses, Healey will likely emerge as the only candidate on the Democratic ballot, and the Democrats’ registration advantage makes the race itself a non-contest.

The irony for me in all of this is that Danielle is not just someone I admire; she’s a colleague I work with closely and who has greatly helped shape my thinking about civic participation. We talked (and argued) extensively in the lead up to my book Mistrust. While I believe that many institutions of American life are so broken and unfit for purpose that we might do better in seeking to radically change them than to make small fixes to them,
Danielle makes a compelling case that we cannot abandon our existing institutions instead, we need to examine them closely, think about their original intentions and motivations and help bend them back to purpose. Her book, Our Declaration, is an ambitious rereading of the Declaration of Independence, which finds within its text written in part by slaveholders, a compelling argument for equality of all Americans and in “the pursuit of happiness” a commitment to the continued hard work of building a healthy society together.

In honor of Danielle, I wrote in my book about radical institutionalists, people who believe that our best path to change comes from the hard work of forcing our existing institutions to work for all of the people. And yet, what are our institutions but a set of rules and procedures and processes, sometimes apparently arbitrary, but ultimately deeply significant. What’s the logic of the 15% rule in the Massachusetts caucus? Presumably the goal is to create a meaningful choice between serious candidates and to strip away those who’ve found little or no support. Yet Allen has has held events all across the Commonwealth, has raised more than a million dollars, has a well-staffed campaign and a pile of thoughtful political proposals, while Healey only officially entered the race less than a month ago.

There’s countless other structures in American democracy where a small tweak in the rules might lead to a radical change in outcomes. Advocates for ranked-choice voting point out that voters often pick a candidate who they feel is good enough but not their first choice so that they can prevent another candidate from winning. For instance, you might vote for a moderate Democrat because you want to prevent a Republican from taking the office. In ranked choice voting, you can vote for a more progressive candidate, rank the more moderate candidate second, and the Republican third and more accurately express your preference. Advocates for this system believe that candidates farther from the center and candidates from third parties would have a much better chance of electoral success if this form of voting was used.

The truth is it’s hard to get people to pay attention to these structural changes. Politics is more a game of individuals and narratives, but here’s where there’s a chance to bring these two together. The Massachusetts gubernatorial race would be a far better, more interesting, more civically engaged contest had Danielle Allen stayed in the race. Democrats would have had months to hear from Allen, Chang-Diaz, and Healey about rival visions for the Commonwealth, and different policy ideas would have been put forward.
Can we use the story of the first Black woman to run for governor of Massachusetts as a moment to pay attention to a structural issue that otherwise might go unnoticed? Can we look at the sad case of a gubernatorial election being settled months before anyone votes and conclude that it might be the appropriate time for a rule change?

Danielle has promised to focus her efforts on challenging access to the ballot in Masschusetts, telling audiences that the Massachusetts caucus system is structured to “push out qualified but nontraditional candidates and rob [voters] of a real choice on their ballot”. In a communication with supporters earlier today, she pointed out that Massachusetts’s rules on ballot access are way out of line with most other US states. In addition to winning caucuses in enough towns to generate 15% of delegates, a candidate needs to present 10,000 signatures to be present on the state-wide ballot. In California – a much larger state – a candidate can present 7,000 signatures, or $4000 and 100 signatures.

Institutions, above all, are meant to serve us all of us. That’s what Danielle Allen taught me. Here’s hoping her campaign, which ended far too soon, might teach us something about how we need to change and transform Massachusetts institutions.