Last week I wrote about Richard Mellon Scaife, who recently died after spending four decades as a kingpin of conservative philanthropy. Along with a handful of other right-wing funders who commanded relatively modest resources, Scaife helped orchestrate major changes in U.S. public policy that elevated market-based approaches and conservative values more broadly. These funders plunged headlong into the war of ideas and won on many fronts.
This example of high-impact strategic philanthropy was on my mind as I dug into the Hewlett Foundation's latest exercise in what it thinks of as strategic philanthropy: The "Madison Initiative," a three-year, $50 million exploratory effort announced last week to strengthen American democracy by taking on polarization.
The news wasn't a surprise, since Hewlett president Larry Kramer made it clear that the foundation was going down this path over six months ago. In the announcement, Kramer said, “We want to see better and more productive debate and deliberation on the most challenging problems facing society, which are simply not being addressed at the moment.” The foundation says that the initiative will "be explicitly bipartisan, engaging with and supporting nonprofit grantees from the right, left, and center who share the goal of improving representative democracy in the United States."
That all sounds nice, but to me, this initiative is a case study of why big mainstream funders, for all their resources, often fall short in the bigger battle to shape America. In a nutshell, the problem is that foundations like Hewlett embrace policy goals that require prevailing in ideological combat, yet they tend to shrink from such combat.
The reasons for this run deep and have nothing to do with any unique blindspot on the part of Larry Kramer or the Hewlett Foundation. Kramer's a creative leader looking hard for the big play, a trait I greatly admire, and Hewlett is an outstanding foundation in many, many ways.
Still, as James Smith argued in his important 1993 book the The Ideas Brokers, and as others have argued since, mainstream philanthropy has a dangerous weakness: It places too much faith in reason and social science, with a theory of change that goes like this: Research the problem, identify solutions that work, and educate elites and the public until reform is achieved.
Values Trump Technocracy. Get Used To It
Once upon a time, in a more innocent and technocratic America, that model worked, and sometimes it still does. But from the 1970s onward, the game began changing, led by funders on the right like the Olin and Bradley foundations, and the three foundations controlled by Scaife. You can dismiss these funders as "ideological," but I would call them values-driven: Instead of focusing on advancing specific policy solutions, these funders have focused on advancing core beliefs about human nature and how society should best be organized.
And guess what? When you pit a technocratic approach against a values-based approach, the latter wins because it connects with how most people actually think. Conservatives have had a further edge because they've been pushing values with deep traction in American life: individual self-reliance, limited government, and traditional morality rooted in religion.
Of course, a place like Hewlett has strongly held values, too, but they are very coy about stating them directly. Check out the "Values & Policies" section of the foundation's site, and its statement of "Guiding Principles," and you won't find a clear, normative statement anywhere regarding how the world should operate when it comes to matters like individual versus collective responsibility or the role of the market. Instead, you'll find a lot details about process, including that "Grantmaking is pragmatic and non-ideological."
Now that would all be fine if Hewlett only funded museums, animal shelters, and so on. But such is not the case: Hewlett is fighting for a very clear set of values. This is a funder that believes that society has a collective responsibility to address poverty and create opportunity, as opposed to leaving everything up to individuals and the market. It believes that humans should live in balance with nature, and that we need to regulate market forces to protect the environment. It believes that women should have the right to control their reproductive choices and get an abortion if necessary. It believes that robust artistic expression is essential to a healthy civilization and that, again, this is not something that should be left exclusively to the market.
In short, Hewlett is a foundation that does have an ideology, which is liberalism.
Given this, it's silly for Hewlett to say that its grantmaking is "non-ideological." But worse, the official edict to stay even-handed holds the foundation back from engaging in higher-level battles that its side needs to win if all that great program work is going to get anywhere.
Like certain other liberal foundations, Hewlett is great at planting saplings, but hesitant to take on the clear-cutters. This polarization initiative is a case in point. Here's why.
1. Hewlett Gets the Problem Wrong
Read Hewlett's statements so far on polarization (including here and here), and you'd never know this problem has been been mainly driven by the sharp rightward shift of the Republican Party, according to many experts. That shift began in the early 1990s even as the Democratic Party was completing a DLC-orchestrated move to the center and accelerated under Obama, who has been fairly moderate, enacting market-based health reform and offering a fiscal "grand bargain" that made his base cringe.
That recent history—Democrats moving to the center, Republicans moving to the right—helps explain why Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, two eminent centrist scholars, published an op-ed in 2012 titled: "Let's Just Say It: Republicans Are the Problem." The duo wrote:
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.
Meanwhile, Larry Kramer and Daniel Stid (the director of the Madison Initiative) have talked about polarization as if it's a naturally occurring cancer on the body politic. This may jibe with the foundation's official non-ideological stance, but otherwise makes no sense.
If Hewlett won't acknowledge the cause of the problem that it's throwing $50 million at, how much good will this money do?
2. Hewlett Sidesteps Key Lessons of History
The naive worldview behind this initiative was captured by Larry Kramer's claim back in December that "democratic reform is not partisan. It favors neither Democrat nor Republican." That may be true in the abstract, but in the real world, democratic reform has tended to be pretty darn ideological, seeking to empower ordinary people vis-a-vis wealthy elites or challenging a repressive status quo on race, gender, and sexuality.
And historically, reform has moved forward through more political combat, not less. Just look at the democratic reforms of the Progressive Era, including two constitutional amendments, which happened because reformers ramped up conflict—not because a bunch of reasonable people got together for dialogue. Ditto for the democratic reforms achieved by the hard-hitting social movements of the 1960s and, most recently, the successful battle for LGBT rights.
A decade ago, gay rights was among the most deeply polarizing issues in politics. But thanks to intense activism (and strategic philanthropy), public opinion shifted, homophobic politicians ran for cover, and this famous flashpoint receded, the same way that the broader culture war over gender and race has waned in the wake of brutal, but successful, political combat.
3. Getting Along Better is Not a Theory of Change
A key premise of Hewlett's polarization project is that reducing polarization is, as Daniel Stid has written, "a precondition for successfully addressing the other problems that bedevil us." Polarization concerns Hewlett because, among other reasons, if government can't function, "we risk being stymied on other aspects of our work." Elsewhere, Kramer writes that "gridlock" has "incapacitated our national government’s ability to do anything about serious matters."
But wait a minute, didn't the Washington Post note in late 2010 that the "stormy" 111th Congress "was the most productive in decades," passing landmark healthcare and financial reform legislation, as well as the biggest economic stimulus ever? And didn't the EPA just enact an unprecedented crackdown on carbon emissions?
Yes and yes. It's also worth adding that even the 112th Congress, which supposedly got nothing done, agreed on a few trillion dollars in deficit reduction, albeit through several rounds of chicken with Tea Party crazies.
President Obama achieved so much in his first two years, more than any president since LBJ, because he had a strong majority in Congress. Among other things, we've seen more movement in the past six years on climate change, one of Hewlett's top issues, than in the previous twenty.
In turn, the Tea Party made headway on its key objective of limited government by mobilizing power and winning the House.
And that, more or less, is how big stuff usually happens in politics. Electoral shifts, not compromise, pave the way for serious change.
Conservative funders like Scaife always understood this, which is why they invested in the broader movement-building work needed to shift public opinion and win power in addition to specific policy ideas. So for example, on welfare reform, these funders backed work that documented the failings of the system and outlined alternatives. But they also funded public intellectuals who argued more broadly in favor of individual responsibility.
Policy gains aren't made by blue ribbon commissions. They're made by political movements that can tell a story that propels them to victory and then can translate their key values into concrete policies.
3. Hewlett Won't Acknowledge its Real Enemies or See a Path to Beating Them
Conservative funders like Scaife also understood another key point: That they had enemies, whom they identified as the liberal establishment and the "New Class," as Irving Kristol put it.
Hewlett has a clear enemy, too, in the far right.
On climate change, movement conservatives stand as the main obstacles to progress even as big business and mainstream Republicans are coming around to the need for action. On global development, those same crazies are leading a wide ranging assault on U.S. development assistance, which is otherwise an area of longstanding bipartisan agreement. Of course, the far right fuels the attack on reproductive rights in the U.S. and globally, another passion of the foundation.
Why won't Hewlett just step up and directly fight these folks? Stid has said that ending polarization by bulldozing the other side won't work, "given how closely divided we are as a nation and the many veto points our separation of powers, checks and balances, and federal system hand to partisans of all stripes. Even if it were possible, ongoing dominance by one party is not the answer, as the lack of political competition would undermine accountability and responsive representation."
Again, history tells a different story: By changing minds and winning over the public, as the LGBT push did, successful movements can vanquish past divisions, create new kinds of coalitions, and reduce polarization. It's not that one party wins and achieves "dominance"; it's that the losing party moderates its stances and becomes more open to compromise. The Democrats moved to the center only after losing again and again. As a result, they compromised on flashpoint issues like welfare, trade, and regulation, reducing polarization in key areas.
4. Hewlett's Missing a Chance to Fund More Effective Work
It's no big mystery how to moderate the GOP: Keep beating them in national elections until they move toward the center, like the Democrats once did. In fact, this is the path already unfolding, with many Republicans and conservative intellectuals calling for more moderate stances in the wake of the 2012 wipeout. If there's another wipeout in 2016, you can bet that a Republican version of the DLC will emerge, if that doesn't happen even sooner.
Five years from now, today's polarization may be a thing of the past, with more moderate Republicans back in the driver's seat of the GOP, and plenty of openings for bipartisan dealmaking on the issues Hewlett cares about.
How can Hewlett help speed up this process as a nonpartisan funder? The obvious way would be to join with other funders who are deep into efforts to help low-income people and communities of color fully engage in our democracy, which can change the electoral balance of power (and has already). Tactics include pushing for same-day registration in more states, fully implementing the National Voter Registration Act, fighting voter ID laws, pushing back against voter suppression efforts, and directly funding groups engaged in nonpartisan voter registration and education work, particularly in Latino communities.
If this kind of stuff sounds like a blueprint for Democratic "dominance," keep in mind how the cycle works: After a party gets beaten enough to move to the center, it becomes more competitive in a nation where most voters are moderates. So, in effect, the upshot of efforts to "win" is more likely to be a more healthy and rational two-party system than any kind of permanent partisan victory.
Which sounds a lot like what Hewlett says it wants out of its new democracy work.
Anyway, enough of the critique. Let's wrap up by talking about what really matters: Who's going to get that fifty million bucks Hewlett just laid on the table?
The foundation hasn't named any grantees yet, but it has said that in addition to working with grantees "from the right, left, and center," it will join forces with groups "working to restore pragmatism and the spirit of compromise in Congress; to reform campaign and election processes so they set the stage for problem solving; and to promote a more informed and active citizenry."
That description leaves open the door for a lot of potential grantees, including many progressive groups, as long as they're part of a portfolio that is "balanced in the aggregate," as Kramer has said.
Groups that are already working the "crossing divides" beat would seem particularly well positioned: places like the Bipartisan Policy Center and Convergence, and ditto for groups in the dialogue and deliberation space, like AmericaSpeaks.
As mentioned, Daniel Stid is the point guy on the Madison Initiative, which so far is housed in the Special Projects part of Hewlett. A self-described "democracy wonk" and "skeptical optimist" (two useful traits for his current gig), Stid has a doctorate from Harvard in political science and has spent time on the Hill (where he said he got his "real PhD") and in academia. He writes often and thoughtfully on Hewlett's blog, and his posts are well worth checking out.
But mostly he's been in the consulting world, working for the Boston Consulting Group and then Bridgespan. Let's hope he has somebody to help him answer his phone and email, because I'm betting he's seeing a lot of incoming after last week's announcement.