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.