We Are Partisans for Representative Democracy

Editor's Note: Daniel Stid is director of the Hewlett Foundation's new Madison Initiative, which we wrote about recently. We are pleased that he's taken the time to write a detailed response to our article. 

Last week, Inside Philanthropy’s David Callahan posted a critique of the Hewlett Foundation and our newly launched Madison Initiative that he entitled “Why Won’t Foundations Like Hewlett Just Stand Up and Fight for Their Values?” Unfortunately, the post mischaracterized both the Foundation’s values and its work, while calling upon us to adopt an alternative strategy that, far from alleviating polarization, would contribute to its acceleration. We appreciate Inside Philanthropy giving us this chance to respond.

Callahan’s critique is actually helpful in its full-throated censure and comprehensive scope. In conversations with left-leaning funders, advocates, scholars, and elected officials, we’ve heard oblique hints of what Callahan has now said loudly and forthrightly. He has thus given us an opportunity to explain what we are up to (and why) to people who may have been hesitant to challenge or question us directly. Callahan didn’t pull punches, to his credit, and I will do him the honor of not doing so either.

We need to start with the question of values that motivates Callahan’s critique. According to Callahan, the Hewlett Foundation isn’t rallying sufficiently to “the bigger battle to shape America.” The problem, he says, “is that foundations like Hewlett embrace policy goals that require prevailing in ideological combat, yet they tend to shrink from such combat.” (While the implication is that such foundations are legion, no others are ever named, and, to be clear, I am responding only on behalf of the Hewlett Foundation).

Callahan looks at the “Values and Policies” and “Guiding Principles” pages on our website and laments that “you won’t find a clear normative statement anywhere of 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 of details about process, including, ‘grantmaking is pragmatic and non-ideological.’”

Notwithstanding these intentional statements by the board and president of the Hewlett Foundation about the values we hold as an institution, Callahan presumes to speak on our behalf. We are, it turns out, “fighting for a very clear set of values,” for, whether we know it or not, “Hewlett is a foundation that does have an ideology, which is liberalism.” Having thus positioned us right where he wants us, Callahan then scoffs that “it’s silly for Hewlett to say that its grantmaking is ‘non-ideological.’” Worse, this silliness keeps us from waging the “larger level battles” we need to win to realize the ambitious goals in our various program areas.

Except we meant (and mean) precisely what we say: Our grant making is pragmatic and non-ideological. We do not begin with a grand theory of society and reason down from this abstraction to programs and strategies. Rather, we identify problems we think we can help to solve and then do our best to determine the approach most likely to do so. In some areas of our work, such as our efforts to combat climate change and to defend women’s reproductive health and rights, we are funding causes that can be construed as progressive or liberal in nature. However, in many other areas of past and present grantmaking—conflict resolution, education, effective philanthropy, nuclear security, and cyber security, to name only a few—our grantmaking cannot readily be pigeonholed into Callahan’s desired ideological category. What is not in doubt is that he subscribes to this ideology, and he wants to see it woven throughout our work—or, to the extent it is not, to assert that it should be if we want to be effective.

Callahan goes further and says that our refusal to enter the partisan battle under the banner of promoting liberalism reflects an outdated, technocratic approach that “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.”

To be clear, we harbor no illusions about the extent to which our political system has become unreceptive to ideas, even very good ideas, whose development has been funded by well-intentioned philanthropists. On the contrary, it was our growing appreciation that the political landscape has shifted that prompted us to launch the Madison Initiative. From the start, we have been told by the researchers whose work we are supporting in this area that that foundations need to change tacks in the increasingly polarized environment, and we accept that. We have, indeed, been working to share that very message with the broader field. We just don’t think that Callahan’s alternative approach is the way to proceed (nor do we find it particularly new or different from what others are already doing).

Turning to Callahan’s objections to the specifics of the Madison Initiative, he begins by saying we have misdiagnosed the problem of polarization because we do not blame it all on Republicans. Like many other progressives, he is content to begin and end his diagnosis of the problem by grabbing a headline from Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein that, conveniently for his political purposes, goes, “Let’s Just Say It: Republicans are the Problem.”  

Callahan’s solution to polarization follows directly from this diagnosis: Since the problem is the Republican Party, we need only defeat the GOP with large and sustained progressive majorities. The answer to polarization is “more political combat, not less” (his emphasis). We don’t need to foster or restore the spirit of compromise. We need to render it unnecessary by grinding the other side into irrelevance. Callahan argues that if the Hewlett Foundation is going to do its part in this struggle, we have to recognize our “real enemies” on the right and join the progressive attack against them. If conservatives are opposed to our policies in, say, climate change, “why won’t Hewlett just step up directly and fight these folks?”

Actually, we do fight them—in our Environment Program. (Funnily enough, shortly after Callahan’s broadside appeared last week, another Inside Philanthropy blogger felt obliged to acknowledge that our colleagues on that team were squarely in the corner of the environmental advocates rallying to the defense of the Obama Administration’s new climate rules.) But the problem we seek to address in the Madison Initiative is not the failure of government to enact policy solutions we favor in our other programs. It is to promote a well functioning democratic process, something of value in and of itself.

I return to this last point below. But taking Callahan on his own terms, what does he think the Hewlett Foundation should do as a non-partisan funder to “speed up the process” of ending polarization? “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).” Demonstrating at least some self-awareness, Callahan acknowledges that “this kind of stuff sounds like a blueprint for Democratic ‘dominance,’” but he argues that we need to put our non-partisan scruples—and, it would seem, the spirit, if not the letter, of the law prohibiting electioneering by private foundations—to one side and just “keep in mind how the cycle works.” Once the GOP gets beaten into submission by a progressive alliance backed by the clear-eyed foundations among us, the wayward Republicans will come round and return to the center.

If only it were so easy—if only polarization was simply a product of rogue GOP leaders and factions that will naturally correct itself in the face of hardball politics and the operation of the median voter theory. We believe the situation is more complicated. Having studied the evidence and talked to a wide range of political scientists and other experts over the past year, we have come to the conclusion that both parties have changed. Both are contributing to polarization, and any differences between Republicans and Democrats are differences of degree, not of kind. In reality, polarization and hyper-partisanship have been worsening in a slow, relentless, downward spiral that began in the 1970s as the parties have fought for and traded control of Congress and the executive branch. The current state of affairs is, in fact, a product of deep-seated historical forces that have been unfolding for decades and won’t be so readily redirected.

One of the most important of these trends was instigated by a victory for democracy reform, the Voting Rights Act, which set in motion a profound political realignment. As Lyndon Johnson predicted, it led to an exodus of Southern conservatives into the GOP, which shifted the ideological balance in that party. That shift, combined with the influx of newly enfranchised African American voters into the Democratic Party, made it more uniformly progressive. These dynamics became reinforcing, making it harder to be a conservative in the Democratic Party or a liberal in the GOP over the ensuing decades.

These effects have been amplified by another long-term trend set in motion by the rise of the activist state in the 1960s and 1970s. During this period, the federal government greatly expanded in size and scope through the social programs of the Great Society; new regulatory powers and agencies focused on the environment, labor, and consumers, and the recognition or extension of new individual rights (everything from Miranda v. Arizona to Roe v. Wade). Leading political scientists have observed that his wave of activism, strongly supported by liberal elites, in turn led to a counter-mobilization among conservative elites. The resulting dynamics have transformed American politics. As the two sides squared off in the subsequent decades—one defending the expanded state and its powers, the other seeking to retrench them —organized interests have increasingly picked one side of this fight and stayed on it. The result has been stable coalitions of “intense policy demanders” aligned with one or the other of the polarized parties. These coalitions are keeping each other pinned down in unrelenting political trench warfare. Neither side has been able to win, largely because neither side can afford to lose.

This high-stakes political contest has been intensified by virtue of it being balanced on an electoral knife-edge. Consider that from 1954 to 1994, the Democrats enjoyed continuous control of the House and, with the exception of six years under Reagan, the same in the Senate. During the past two decades, in contrast, the Senate has changed hands six times and the House three. The new reality, in which both parties are effectively one election away from winning or losing control of each chamber, yields a permanent campaign that has led both parties to engage continuously in partisan “teamsmanship,” to use political scientist Frances Lee’s apt phrase. Lee has shown how patterns of hyper-partisanship have infiltrated Congress even on non-ideological issues, as each party looks to exploit any opportunity to gain the upper hand politically. Tit for tat has become the new equilibrium.

The net effect of all these dynamics has been to erode completely the ideological overlap between the two parties in Congress, which had long been the seed-bed for bipartisan policymaking and compromise. In the course of a single generation, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans went from being commonly sighted to rare birds if not extinct species. We now have ideologically coherent and political divergent parties. In this, we may be like most other modern industrialized countries. The challenge is that ours is not a parliamentary system, but one built upon a scheme of separated powers ill-suited to handle this sort of party alignment.

Making matters worse, polarization among party elites is increasingly reflected in—and as a result, reinforced by—the larger electorate. As the Pew Research Center reported just last month (full disclosure: we helped fund this research), “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines—and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive—than at any point in the last two decades. These trends manifest themselves in myriad ways, both in politics and in everyday life. And a new survey of 10,000 adults nationwide finds that these divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process.”

It is here that Callahan’s desire to end polarization by bringing Republicans to electoral heel runs smack into some politically inconvenient facts on the ground. The GOP currently controls the House of Representatives, appears poised to take the Senate in November, occupies 29 governor’s offices, and holds unified control of 27 state legislatures. Though Callahan may not want to hear it, this is not a product of gerrymandering or false consciousness. It’s the product of a country deeply and closely divided, with an electorate that comprises real differences in interests, passions, and beliefs. Such always has been and always will be the case in the extended republic of the United States, which is why we need representative institutions and processes capable of acknowledging such differences and forging workable compromises.

So what can we do? Given these trends and dynamics, we at Hewlett have come to believe that polarization is not so much a problem that can be solved as it is a predicament with which we must learn how to cope. How can we adapt our system of representative government, and the patterns of leadership and citizenship playing out within them, to function effectively in this new reality?

Philanthropy, in particular, needs to contemplate this question, because it bears more than a little blame for creating the situation we face. For the past several decades, foundations on both the right and the left have been doing what Callahan urges us to do—namely, working to realize substantive and sharply differing conceptions for the future of this country. But as these competing ideas and principles have been translated into the work of advocates and parties, they have helped polarize our system and sharpened the electoral contest with in it. The resulting political conflict is wearing down not just the effectiveness, but the very legitimacy of our representative institutions and processes.

Which brings us to the nub of the problem: The philanthropic sector has paid too little attention to shoring up the system of representative democracy through which it seeks to push all these competing political and policy goals. We think that needs to change. To be clear, we are not suggesting that foundations should drop the substantive and ultimately partisan causes they care about in particular policy domains; indeed, we are not prepared do that ourselves. But (at least some) foundations also need to support the health and development of our representative institutions and processes as good things in and of themselves. Foundations, with their unique perspective and ability to tend to the long run, can and should be taking the lead in this critical buttressing.

In short, a well-functioning system of representative democracy has intrinsic value, wholly apart from any particular policy outcomes it produces. A grantee shared a metaphor that makes this point well: I may root for the Red Sox and you for the Yankees, but we both have an interest in and should seek to defend the integrity of the rules and norms of baseball.

And that is why we have launched the Madison Initiative. It is emphatically not a value-neutral exercise. We will be partisans, but for representative government. In this effort, we will work with grantees and funding partners not only in the center but also on the right and left who, whatever their other commitments, believe in the fundamental importance of our representative institutions and processes, have good ideas about how to support and improve their health, and are prepared to engage in reasoned debate with others about the best way forward.

We don’t believe that any one part of the political spectrum has a monopoly on truth in this regard. Nor do we expect everyone to agree and sing “Kumbaya” at the end of the day. In fact, given the uncertainty about the best way to proceed, as well as the need to have wide support behind any changes that are ultimately put in place, we see virtue in funding a range of viewpoints and potential solutions, especially at this early stage. We also recognize that in this venture, like any worthy philanthropic endeavor, success is uncertain. That said, let’s not underestimate what can be done, provided we all take the long view and work with those who are likewise concerned for the health of our system of representative democracy—even if we might disagree about the policies we hope that system will adopt.