November 20, 2015 by Jean
Last month, I read Danielle Allen’s book Our Declaration (W.W. Norton, 2014) for a discussion with my retirees lunch group. Allen is a political philosopher, and the book is a close reading – sentence by sentence, word by word, punctuation mark by punctuation mark – of the Declaration of Independence, including a history of how the Declaration was written. Allen argues against the conventional wisdom of an inherent tension between equality and liberty in our country’s founding documents. Her analysis of the Declaration of Independence makes equality and necessary foundation for liberty.
Not everyone in our group was enamored of this book; the historian in our midst found that Allen’s lack of attention to 18th century intellectual history sometimes led her to misinterpret the founders’ words. But I was among those who found this book inspiring. For me, it provided a much-needed antidote to political cynicism and political despair.
As an undergraduate sociology major in the 1960s, I learned that all societies have (and must have) a “polity,” some kind of political system or government that makes decisions for the society as a whole. The assumption here is that societies are not just aggregations of individuals and individual actions; some important things can only be taken care of at the group (community or society) level. This book reminded me of that essential wisdom. We can’t exist without politics, no matter how frustrating they may be. Allen uses the phrase “the art of democratic writing” to describe the process of writing the Declaration of Independence. That process, she tells us, was not always a smooth one, and it required compromise. She gives us successive revisions: first Jefferson’s draft, then the changes made by the committee of which he was a member, then the changes made by the Congress. Those changes were often contentious, and Jefferson was sometimes grumpy about what had happened to his original document. But the process was necessary; the colonists didn’t all agree on the best course of action in response to King George III, and coming to a decision that they could all support was inevitably a process of compromise.
Recently, the AP published the results of an AP-GFK poll on how Americans feel about compromise in governing. The poll showed a deep divide in American society, especially among Republicans, about the necessity and desirability of compromise. Of those who identified themselves as Republicans, 56% said that “they prefer leaders from their party in Congress to stick to their principles even if it makes passing legislation difficult.” Those who identified as Democrats or independents were more likely (60%) to favor leaders who compromise to get things done. When I was young, I think I would have have come down in favor of principle; I wanted my politics and policies to be ideologically pure. Life experience has taught me that policies I was opposed to have not always been the disaster I thought they would be, that policies I favored sometimes had unintended consequences that no one anticipated, and that sometimes incremental steps in what I think of as the “right direction” are very effective in moving the society along that path. The result is that I’m now more likely to admire the compromisers.
In my retirement, I’ve been tempted to turn away from the political process, to give up on trying to solve problems on the societal level and instead just focus on my own little world. Danielle Allen’s analysis reminded me that the political process is hard and always has been; getting to a compromise isn’t pretty. But the purpose of that process is essential and worth the struggle. Our Declaration has inspired me to civic re-engagement, particularly on the issue that I’m most concerned and passionate about: climate change. It’s not enough to modify my individual lifestyle to reduce my carbon footprint; I also need to work on societal-level changes and climate-friendly policies. Donating to environmental organizations is a small step in that direction, but I can do more. I am becoming more pro-active in contacting my state and national representatives about these issues, and I have volunteered to serve on my town’s Conservation Commission. I’ve also decided to become part of 350, an international organization with active local chapters in Maine. I think I could be a particularly effective community educator. Thank you, Danielle Allen, for inspiring and re-energizing me.