The political theorist Danielle Allen has won this year’s John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity, a $500,000 award administered by the Library of Congress that recognizes work in disciplines not covered by the Nobel Prizes.
Dr. Allen, a professor at Harvard University and the author of “Our Declaration,” a study of the Declaration of Independence, is known for work that ranges from close readings of historical texts to broad efforts like the Democratic Knowledge Project, a K-12 educational platform aimed at developing skills needed for civic engagement.
At the library, she will lead an initiative called “Our Civic Purpose,” aimed at engaging educators, the general public and political leaders in promoting what she calls “civic strength.”
In a statement, Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, said the choice of Dr. Allen would further a “timely national conversation” on how to strengthen American democracy.
“Now is an important moment to discuss ways we can all promote civic strength and engagement, which is at the core of our national culture,” Dr. Hayden said.
The Kluge Prize, established in 2003 and given roughly every two years, has long been part of a rarified group of international humanities prizes that come with a headline-making $1 million award. Past winners, usually senior scholars honored for lifetime achievement, include the philosophers Jurgen Habermas and Paul Ricoeur and the historians John Hope Franklin and Drew Gilpin Faust.
But 18 months ago, the financial award was scaled back to $500,000, both to make sure it could be given every two years, and to allow the library to devote more resources to public programming around the prize, according to John Haskell, the director of the Kluge Center.
He said the change was part of a new approach to the prize under Dr. Hayden, who became Librarian of Congress in 2016, and one that emphasized the center’s public outreach mission.
“The Kluge Center is not just a place where really great scholars hang out,” he said. “It’s also supposed to bring scholarship to Congress and the rest of the policymaking world and to the interested public.”
Dr. Allen, 49, has been a prominent voice on civic reform efforts. She was co-chair of a bipartisan group that wrote a recently released report listing 31 recommendations for reinvigorating American democracy, including expanding the size of the House of Representatives, expanding early voting and voting by mail and requiring philanthropic foundations to spend more of their endowments to support civic life.
Separately, she has also led a group analyzing ways to safely reopen the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic, an event she said revealed the degree to which our civic strength has been “sapped.”
“I was shocked, at the beginning of Covid-19, how quickly people moved into this way of thinking, ‘Oh, maybe we should just let the elderly go’ or ‘Maybe we should just let young people get it and see what happens,’” she said in an interview. “The willingness to abandon parts of our society is the definition of a broken social compact.”
As for the programs at the library (which will be virtual), she said she hoped they would help rebuild “civic strength,” which she said was as important as economic or foreign policy strength.
She also cited the much-commented-on 2017 survey showing that only 30 percent of millennials agreed that it was “essential” to live in a democracy — a finding, she said, that illuminated the failings of our democracy more than those of the respondents.
“There is a real sense that democracy isn’t delivering what it promises, and that’s disillusioning,” she said.