Political Scientists and Philanthropy

Elite Philanthropy in an Age of Populism

Editors’ Note: Delphia Shanks-Booth, who is guest-editing this forum on political science and philanthropy with Sarah Reckhow, continues the discussion with a post on the potential democratizing role of elite philanthropy in an age of populism. 

“I’m going to be going around the country not only to blue states…but to red states, conservative states. We’re going to go to Alabama, we’re going to go to Mississippi. I think the message that we have is resonating. People are going to get involved with the political process, we’re going to drive turnout up and when we do that we win.” –Bernie Sanders (CBS’ “Face the Nation,” July 12, 2015).

Mobilized by populist sentiment and their lived experiences, Americans representing major political, social, and economic cleavages are actively working to ensure that government is responsive to their lives, experiences, and values. Each group provides a compelling vision of what their America should look like, and as Sanders alluded to in 2015, these efforts might even cross traditional red/blue divides as they seek to unite Americans against a system that is not working in their favor. The substance and modality of populist efforts have varied, but the aim has been political: to let elected government representatives know that their actions are being watched and their continued legislative service is dependent on satisfying their constituents. At first glance, it would seem that elite philanthropy and populism would be at odds, given the populist valorization of the common person and distrust of concentrated wealth and power held by elites, but this is not necessarily the case. Rather, there is an important role for elite philanthropy to play in response to the rise of populist sentiments and movements in order to ensure that populist movements do, in fact, include all Americans.

Although some political leaders are drawing greater attention to Americans whose voices are often left out of the political process, there is a group whose concerns policymakers long have marginalized—but whom are unlikely to benefit from populist pressure. In all states except Vermont and Maine, for example, restrictions are placed on the voting rights of people convicted of a felony, resulting in an estimated 6.1 million disenfranchised Americans, or 1 in 40 adults. Six states have disenfranchised more than seven percent of their adult population. Unsurprisingly, given that non-white people are more likely to be incarcerated than white people because communities of color have been the targets of particularly harsh and mutually reinforcing punitive policies and practices, this restriction disproportionately affects people of color. One in every 13 African Americans cannot vote, while less than 2% of non-African Americans are ineligible because of felony disenfranchisement. Despite the restrictions on their civic life, more than 75% of those disenfranchised for felony convictions live in the community—full participants in the daily fabric of American life.

Two implications of these numbers are particularly troublesome. The first is normative: a group of people over whom the state has a disproportionate amount of control and coercive power, has no check on the state. Felons face reinforcing barriers to putting their lives back together and most of these barriers are created by legislation. In other words, elected officials proactively craft policies that exclude felons from social benefits and also maintain policies that bar these Americans from the political process to change these same policies. This consequence has been studied at length by scholars. In this piece and in light of recent trends in this country to discuss the rising tide of populist reactions to establishment politics, I’m concerned with the second implication: the position of felons within different populist movements is weak. No matter how we define populism, in fact, I argue that populism in the United States likely will leave the voice of felons silent, even as these political movements advertise themselves as privileging the voices of all Americans.

Felons are in a politically vulnerable position in populist movements for different reasons. If, as Ted Lechterman’s post notes, you define populist movements as those whose ethno-nationalist identity is central and inseparable from their anti-elitism, then felons, who are disproportionately people of color, present an easy target for symbolic and harsh policy because of their weak political rights and low social status. In fact, given the recent election of a law-and-order President combined with voters who were heavily motivated by race, the conditions are ripe to reassert the punitive set of policies that disproportionately affect urban communities of color but have been reformed in recent years.

But when progressive populists claim the mantle of inclusion, convicted felons still face an uphill battle to be heard and represented within the movement. Importantly, other forms of political engagement beyond voting, such as calling one’s elected official, only carry weight if the elected official has some incentive or obligation to be responsive. Forms of direct political pressure, such protests or marches, are time and resource intensive and, as public actions, their effectiveness can be sensitive to media portrayals and public perceptions. In addition, felons who are on probation or parole are likely to face disproportionately harsh consequences if they are arrested for political activity. Finally, avenues of institutional protest are often closed to ex-felons because those avenues require a critical mass and shared identity to create pressure for change that others must recognize. To summarize: in populist movements that are inclusive of felons, they hold a relatively weak place in the coalition; other populist movements, by virtue of the very things that tie them together, exclude and even target those convicted of a felony crime.

So far I have tried to make the case that populist movements cannot credibly claim to speak for all poor, working or middle class Americans whose voices have been marginalized in national politics, and in fact may actively or passively disadvantage the six million citizens who have no formal and little political power. This has important implications for public policy. As Erik Patashnik argues, passing legislative reform is only half the battle. The other half is to make reform sustainable. Reforms are susceptible to erosion or retrenchment after their adoption, and two conditions make it more likely they will “stick.” The first condition is the degree to which organizations invest in changes with the expectation that the reform will be around for a while. In the case of states that have enacted criminal justice reforms in sentencing, probation, and parole, organizational investments in a new system have been clear and significant. But the other condition that makes reform more likely to stick is whether established interests emerge that can successfully make their case to legislators that the reform should be protected. Felon disenfranchisement automatically undercuts the ability of this group to mobilize on behalf of their own interests and apply pressure to legislators that can counteract pressure for retrenchment.

As a result, there are at least two reasons for philanthropy to take seriously the case for felon voting rights. Since my research focuses on private foundations, I will limit my discussion to the role that philanthropic organizations can play. First, these organizations have demonstrated a commitment to the normative exercise of increasing democratic and civic engagement. Between 2011 and 2016, foundations gave over 36,000 grants for a total of $3.6 billion benefitting democracy in the United States, and 68% of those dollars awarded were for enhancing voting access and voter education, registration, and turnout. Within these efforts to enhance democracy, only 32 of these grants specifically targeted detainees, ex-offenders, offenders, and wrongfully incarcerated people. In other words, and in keeping with research about how resources are allocated to intersectionally disadvantaged groups, the 1 in 40 Americans who cannot vote are allocated 1 in every 1,000 grants. Of course, it is likely that many of the 36,000 grants may also address felon disenfranchisement, but it is a notably small number of grants that give this issue their explicit support.

The second reason is pragmatic. Philanthropists—and especially private foundations—have been an integral part of the bipartisan efforts for federal state-level criminal justice legislative reforms. Not only have they played an important role by supporting research that documents the extent of the carceral state and its consequences, but they have provided support to raise awareness in the general public as well. And, importantly for my argument here, they have provided key support to help create bipartisan reform in sentencing laws, juvenile justice, the death penalty, and reentry. It is in private foundations’ interest to create the conditions in which these bipartisan reforms, in which they have invested years and millions of dollars, will stand firm in the face of increasing polarization and the convergence of punitive populists as a voting force and institutional power.

Felon disenfranchisement matters to the goals of private foundations along the ideological spectrum, because building durable reform is the only way to effect systematic change. To do this, they can invest in three things. First, they can continue to support work that challenges disenfranchisement laws and barriers to reinstating voting rights for felons. Second, they can challenge organizational tendencies to privilege their most advantaged constituencies by encouraging and supporting felon-specific efforts when they fund democracy and civic engagement initiatives. Third, and in keeping with the previous suggestion, they can support organizations that explicitly mobilize and empower former felons.

If we continue to conflate “everyday Americans” and “ordinary Americans” with populism, we fail to see how many other ordinary Americans do not just simply feel excluded from establishment politics, but are purposefully silenced through legislative means. We can also see that populist movements cannot reliably be counted on to advocate on behalf of those without a voice. Thus, elite philanthropy has both normative and pragmatic cause to ensure that all Americans are able to participate as citizens whose government is responsive to them.

-Delphia Shanks-Booth

Delphia Shanks-Booth is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at Cornell University and a graduate fellow at the Roper Center for Public Opinion. Her work focuses on the intersection of organizational behavior and politics, and her current research examines philanthropic funding of criminal justice work. 


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