Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post.
Strangely, I feel the stirrings of optimism. For the past few weeks, I’ve been walking around with a bizarre phrase in my head. “We need a Cleisthenic moment.” This is the occupational hazard of being a scholar of ancient history. You’ve got names buzzing between your ears that mean nothing to almost anyone else.
Cleisthenes was a politician in ancient Greece. Nearly a century before his own time, in Athens, a first phase of democracy was born out of conflict between rich and poor, thanks to the help of a man named Solon who crafted compromises and introduced features of popular government. But the Athenians lost their first-generation democracy not merely to a tyrannical figure, but to an actual tyrant, Peisistratos, who, like many tyrants, happened to have foolish children. For many reasons, but partly the foolishness of those children, the Athenians rose up. They settled on Cleisthenes as the leader they wished to follow, and they recovered their democracy. But that’s not the important part of the story. That’s not the Cleisthenic moment.
The story’s about what comes next. The Athenians reorganized their political institutions to ensure connections among rural, urban and coastal populations. Thenceforth, all political work required knowledge sharing and collaboration among those three groups. That’s what I’ve had in mind with my scholarly ear worm: “We need a Cleisthenic moment.”
And we’re getting one. Republicans have attended to state-level politics for a long time. With a disciplined focus, then-Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus helped the party convert that foundation of power at the state level into a victory in the electoral college in November.
Now, Democrats, progressives, left-leaning independents and libertarians are also rediscovering federalism. They are relearning that you can build a distributed majority across the country, as is needed for an electoral college victory, only if you knit together conversations throughout all 50 states. They are awakening to the fact that if you cease to pay attention to electoral contests for state legislatures and lose influence over redistricting, you’ve handed over the keys to the polity. The town halls that we’re seeing around the country, in red as well as blue states, reflect new efforts on the part of those on the left to weave together coastal and interior regions in a shared conversation directly connected to the federal structure of our political institutions.
We may be seeing the quickening of a broad movement — across region, class, religion and race — for liberty and justice for all.
What does this phrase, from the Pledge of Allegiance, mean?
To seek liberty is to seek freedom from domination. We secure a set of basic rights and a structure of legitimate laws that protect each of us from being dominated by others, and any group from being dominated by other groups.
To secure justice is to ensure opportunity and fair play, equality before the law, equal access to our political institutions and the instruments of our shared self-governance, and realization of the commitments made in our federal and state constitutions.
What sorts of commitments are included here? Most state constitutions include a right to education. We are now also engaged in a profound public debate about whether access to health care is an equally basic right that we the people can reasonably decide to use the powers of government to secure.
But perhaps the most important phrase is “for all.”
Freedom is freedom only when it is for everyone. When some people argue for versions of freedom that empower them to dominate others, they are actually undoing freedom. We have to test our freedom arguments with judgments about whether particular decisions about how to secure rights do indeed secure freedom for all, or only for some.
Likewise, justice is justice only when it is for all the members of our polity. This is why Lady Justice is blindfolded in so many depictions. Without prejudice, she is responsible for and responsive to all comers. She represents the fact that we all have an ownership stake in our political institutions. They should work for all of us. We should all be able to expect responsiveness for the redress of grievances from our political institutions, and also from one another. We owe each other mutual acknowledgment and mutual trustworthiness. By holding ourselves to a standard of seeking to define what justice for all may be, we cultivate in ourselves habits for the decent treatment of one another. We learn, among other things, how not to be bullies — not in our personal lives, and not as we wield the instruments of our political institutions. We also develop a standard for human interaction that helps us think about what we do and don’t owe people outside our own borders.
There are other ways of expressing the aspiration to secure liberty and justice for all. Some people, for instance, invoke the ideals of liberty, equality, opportunity and fair play. But of one thing I’m sure: We will be able to pave a road toward liberty and justice for all only if we craft conversations that connect our rural, urban and coastal populations.
There’s also another thing I’m sure of. In a thousand years, no one will remember the name “Donald Trump” except people like me — the nerdy scholarly types who know how to pronounce “Peisistratos.” But America will endure, as will the pursuit of liberty and justice for all.