About That Flimsy WSJ Op-ed Attacking the Big Foundations

It's not often that an op-ed has me nodding my head at first and then shaking my head by the last word. But that was my reaction to James Piereson's op-ed today in the Wall Street Journal which basically blames liberal funders for the fall of U.S. democracy.

This piece reminded me of how well my six-year-old plays darts: Sometimes he hits close to the bullseye; usually he misses the board. 

Piereson is the head of the conservative William Simon Foundation and vice chairman of the Philanthropy Roundtable, which supports that embattled sliver of funders who care about strengthening a "free society" and issues regular critiques of the mushy liberalism of mainstream foundations. 

Piereson's op-ed looks at the rising concern within philanthropy about the state of American democracy. I was nodding my head early on when he wrote:

Leaders in the philanthropic world believe that, unlike politicians or business leaders, they have no ideological or financial agenda beyond advancing the public interest. In their view they stand above the political fray and are thus uniquely situated to represent the interests of everyone. This assumption is manifestly untrue. 

I made that same point just the other day, when writing about the Hewlett Foundation's new initiative to tackle polarization. I questioned how (and why) Hewlett could portray itself as a "non-ideological" funder when it was fighting for liberal values on a number of fronts.

Piereson is entirely right in pointing out that many of the big foundations have pushed an ideological agenda for decades. It's always seemed silly to me—or worse, self-defeating—when these funders won't own up to their true values. 

Strangely, though, Piereson fails to mention that an array of conservative funders have been battling with equal fervor (albeit smaller endowments) to push an ideological agenda of their own. Among them is the William Simon Foundation and an array of other funders that hang around the Philanthropy Roundtable. 

As I've often noted, the big difference between the liberal and conservative foundations is that the latter are more explicit about their values-based agenda and unafraid of the movement building and political combat necessary to turn those values into action. Funders like Piereson, in my book, have a lot to be proud of. For all the blather from mainstream funders about "strategic philanthropy," it's funders on the right who understand this game best, and particularly the huge leverage power of ideas and policy.

If Piereson wants to zing the Carnegies of the world for pursuing an ideological agenda, fine, but he might have paused for a moment to note how much better funders like himself are at playing this game. 

The much bigger problem with this piece, though, is Piereson's claim that the liberal foundations created today's crisis in American democracy by backing big government solutions which put elites in the driver's seat, empowered narrow interest groups, and fostered popular distrust of public institutions. 

Piereson writes:

Foundation officials today complain about stalemate, interest-group influence and ideological politics. But their predecessors played a large role in fostering voter distrust of government—because voters do not know who is in charge, and every program operated by the federal and state governments is protected by an advocacy group backed up by a litigation and public-relations strategy. This strategy played a large role in fracturing the national consensus.

To which I say, seriously?

As Piereson well knows, trust in all institutions has fallen in recent decades and it's hard to blame a single culprit, much less, say, the Ford Foundation.

One macro driver here, as demonstrated by political scientist Ronald Inglehart's work on world values, is that rising individualism, peace, and prosperity across all advanced nations has made people less willing to defer to authority of any kind. That makes sense. When people are insecure, they're willing to cede autonomy to the state, the church, and other forms of authority. Less so when basic human needs are met, and especially if their smart phones have more computing power than the Pentagon commanded in 1960. 

More narrowly, falling trust in government within the United States—where, by the way, anti-statism is part of the DNA—has varied causes. These include a wave of major scandals starting with Watergate and, maybe even more importantly, the failure of government to address falling or stagnant wages among a large swath of lesser educated Americans who didn't fare so well in the post-industrial age. 

It's not just that government didn't stick up for Joe Six Pack when the factories started closing, it's that Washington did go to bat for more affluent Americans who got free trade agreements, tax cuts, and deregulation of the financial industry. These Americans never lost faith in democracy judging by their very high levels of all forms of civic participation, and you can see why not. The system's been working well for them. 

If we want to point fingers at foundations in this story, how about those conservative funders who argued that a hands-off market approach could magically solve our economic challenges and made sure the state stood down even as Japan and China ate our lunch? For the record, I'd also blame places like Ford for betting on rinky dink policies like "asset building" when far bigger efforts were needed to reinvent the U.S. economy for a new globalized era. 

Piereson is perfectly right that hyper-pluralism has also undermined government and democracy, as interest groups gridlock the public square. But here again, he misses a larger story while absurdly pinning blame on liberal foundations. As Mancur Olson argued in his 1982 book, The Rise and Fall of Nations, all pluralist societies run the risk that government will become calcified over time. Democracy makes it easy for interest groups to grab a slice of the pie and to defend it to the death against a more passive majority. 

Did the rise of the liberal state, promoted by major foundations, exacerbate this dynamic? Sure. But it's worth noting that the rest of the developed world created even more extensive states in the absence of philanthropy and also struggle with calcification. As it turns out, materially prosperous citizens everywhere want things like clean air and water, close oversight of food and drugs, and protection from bigoted employers. McGeorge Bundy didn't invent that desire. 

Other big drivers of hyper-pluralism in America include technology and money in politics. It's simply a lot easier now for citizens to mobilize to get what they want—say, greater funding for breast cancer research by the NIH—than it used to be. Those citizens most mobilized tend to be affluent, according to researchers who've looked closely at interest groups. 

More alarming, it's a lot easier now for private interests to get what they want by bribing politicians and then unleashing swarms of lobbyists on them. Which is why, yes, top foundations are focused on campaign finance reform. 

Piereson doubts that the new foundation focus on strengthening American democracy will make any difference, and I'd second that view if he's referring to wafty things like Hewlett's polarization initiative. But efforts to get money out of politics and bring more ordinary people into our democracy have the potential to make a big difference.