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Jane Mansbridge, the philosopher of friendship

The American thinker and activist reflects on 50 years of research, which is centered on democracy and power

Ana Vidal Egea
Jane Mansbridge
Jane MansbridgeLuis Grañena

Jane Mansbridge, 84, recalls that, at the beginning of her career, she was motivated by hope. Today, however, she says that she’s motivated by fear. Over the last 50 years, the contributions made by this prestigious political scientist — who works at the intersection of philosophy and feminism — have been decisive in the evolution towards a more inclusive society.

When she was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize — considered to be the Nobel Prize in Political Science — in 2018, the jury declared that Mansbridge has helped shape our “understanding of democracy in its direct and representative forms, with incisiveness, deep commitment and feminist theory.”

Felipe Rey Salamanca, a Colombian academic, is a specialist in her work. In an interview with EL PAÍS via email, he writes that, for him, Mansbridge is one of the most complete thinkers, because “she’s a philosopher, politician and normative theorist.” He not only celebrates her brilliance in the professional field, but also her integrity as a person. “She closes her eyes when she thinks and invites you to think with her. Like a good friend, she always tells you the truth. And she has the ideals of deliberative democracy incorporated into her character: she listens and is receptive, but argues with clarity and ferocity.”

Mansbridge received her doctorate in political science from Harvard University at the age of 32, coinciding with the rise of the second wave of feminism, in which she actively participated. At that time, in the early 1970s, women were prohibited from accessing the university library and there were no female professors in the history department. In 2020, she retired with the title of professor emeritus from Harvard, where she worked for 24 years. Her activism not only contributed to women’s equality in academia: she also became one of the most emblematic professors at the Kennedy School of Government, where she taught political leadership and democratic values. Two awards are named after her.

Her origins are humble. She grew up in Weston, Connecticut, a town of about 10,000 people, and loved to sing in the church choir on Sundays. The daughter of a middle-class marriage (her mother went back to school and worked as a research librarian once her children graduated, while her father was an editor at Cambridge University Press), she grew up without television and experienced bullying during her high school years. Perhaps this experience explains why her activism has always been based on respect and consideration for others.

One of Mansbridge’s most significant contributions is the concept of unitary democracy, or friendship, developed in 1980. This is based on equality, empathy, dialogue and consensus. It opposes the current democratic model, which she calls “adversarial democracy.” She affirms that the standard democratic model considers enmity or conflict as being an intrinsic condition to politics.

Mansbridge agrees to a video interview with EL PAÍS just before midnight… this is one of her limited slots of free time before bed. She converses without losing an iota of lucidity, humor or kindness (her voice is soft and warm) while pointing out that “preventing wars is one of the fundamental priorities of humanity today.” One of the ways to achieve this, she emphasizes, is through assemblies of randomly selected citizens (a citizen lottery) “as a model for reaching agreements, where the first objective of the citizens isn’t to win the elections, but to understand the problems and propose effective public policies.”

In this sense, she proposes a hypothetical scenario to address the current political situation in Spain: “Imagine that 250 Spaniards, chosen at random and representing various classes and ideologies, decide, for example, with an 85% majority, that granting amnesty to Catalan separatists is beneficial to heal the country’s divisions. If this group were to explain the reasons for its decision, the public reaction would be very different from the current one.”

At 84, she continues to write. She’s now working on Everyday Feminism, a book based on interviews with low-income women from the early 1990s. Simultaneously, she’s advising filmmaker Elizabeth Wolff on a documentary that explores the feminist movement in the United States from 1960 to 1980. And, in her personal life, she’s the main caregiver for her husband — a prominent intellectual, whom Jane describes as the most intelligent person she’s ever known — who now suffers from dementia. Her motivation to stay active is to improve on what matters to her. “As the issues that concern me persist, the constant need for conceptual clarification and factual information about the ideas and actions of others drives me to continue reflecting and wanting to help.”

Mansbridge points to the possibility of nuclear war, climate change and the misuse of AI as the catalysts for the end of the world as we know it. “I’m really worried about the future of my seven-year-old grandson,” she sighs. In a recent essay, she addresses the existential fears of our time and highlights the need to legitimize the exercise of power. “We still have to understand and practice resistance.”

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