Philanthropy in a Time of Polarization

From Heather Hurlburt, Mark Schmitt, and Steven Teles, writing for Philanthropy News Digest:

Institutional philanthropy, by law and by tradition, has had an indirect and often awkward connection to the policy process. For the most part, foundations don’t lobby directly for legislation, and they are prohibited from engaging in the kind of political activity — such as campaign spending — that gives other players leverage in policy making. Instead, leaders in philanthropy have pursued a vision of social change that rests on a set of long-held assumptions: that strong ideas and persuasive research, coupled with broad public support and validation by elites, will motivate elected officials; that policy proposals designed to reflect the ideological preferences of both major parties, or the poll-tested preferences of centrist voters, can provide a basis for insider bargaining; and that policy entrepreneurs who operate both inside and outside legislative bodies can act as advocates, sources of ideas and information, and mediators.

This model accounts with a fair degree of accuracy for some of the great legislative successes of the past few decades, including tax reform in the 1980s, Medicaid expansion in the 1990s, and education reform in the 2000s. It was a model that aligned almost perfectly with the cultural assumptions of philanthropy. Assuming that bipartisan coalitions and elite bargaining were the key to progress, the model justified disengagement from the partisan fray. Foundations have traditionally seen themselves as part of civil society — as mediating institutions that form a bridge between dispassionate knowledge and political advocacy. Their resources, many in the sector have hoped, could fund objective, nonpartisan research that would take the edge off partisan conflicts and pave the way for broadly accepted social progress.

But in recent years, American politics has taken on a different cast, and the old model has repeatedly run into the buzz saw of partisan and ideological polarization. Gun safety legislation, a job-creation initiative, campaign finance reform, and (so far, at least) immigration reform — all fell apart, even though foundations and the groups that they support have worked assiduously to follow all the rules of the familiar model. Partisan politics and ideology have become more closely aligned, leaving less room for maneuver between the two parties and greater opportunity for an ideologically unified party to block change. Science, disinterested analysis, and establishment institutions can no longer close the partisan divide.

Red the full article.