Current Events and Philanthropy

Why Popularist Attacks on Progressive Philanthropy Miss the Mark

Editors’ Note: Over the last year, a number of center-left and centrist journalists and political operatives have advanced a critique of progressive philanthropy from a “popularist” perspective, arguing that progressive philanthropy has promoted causes without significant support from the American public that have proved injurious to the electoral prospects of the Democratic party. This critique often combines explicit strategic counsel with implicit suggestions about the legitimate role of philanthropy with respect to majoritarian preferences. HistPhil has asked a number of scholars and activists to respond to this critique, in the context of the broader history of American philanthropy and social movement. Gara LaMarche provides the first of these responses.

This is a season of dread for many progressives. The 2020 election was much closer than it ought to have been, with almost half the country casting a vote for a would-be despot. Worse, while Trump waits in the wings, the party he conquered has become a threat to democracy itself. Despite some substantial first-year achievements, Biden’s ambitious economic agenda appears stalled, and thanks to the obstinacy of two centrist Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, prospects for federal legislation to combat an all-out Republican war on voting are virtually dead. Inflation is back, COVID is still here, and spikes in murder rates and homelessness bedevil cities that are traditional blue strongholds. The midterm elections loom, and at this rate the Democrats will be very lucky to defy the odds and retain at least one chamber of Congress.

In this acrid setting, some progressives are doing what our camp seems to have a special gift for – hunting for scapegoats on our own side. Did Democrats barely win, and do they face the prospect of electoral slaughter, because a greedy and energized left saddled many of its candidates and officeholders with radical slogans like “defund the police” and “abolish ICE?” and maximalist proposals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All? Are popular kitchen-table economic measures like paid child-care and tuition relief languishing because they’re being neutered or gutted by corporate Democrats? In these arguments, Manchin and Sinema come in for much deserved condemnation, to be sure, but a curious and surprising aspect of the current reckoning (which in my view has arrived way too soon and dangerously diverts energy that is desperately needed to prevent the Hungarian-style illiberal democracy we may be careening toward) is the culprit identified by a few center-left pundits: progressive philanthropy.

Exhibit A is a widely-read and shared piece by Jonathan Chait in the November 22 issue of New York Magazine. In the course of reporting on the “squeeze” on Joe Biden from a resurgent left on one side and Wall Street Democrats on the other, Chait writes that progressive foundations, who “have churned out studies and deployed activists to bring left-wing ideas into the political debate,” have “enjoyed overwhelming success,” in effect dictating a political agenda that is among the key factors sinking Biden’s popularity. Thomas Edsall, writing earlier this month in his weekly New York Times column (“The Law of Unintended Political Consequences Strikes Again”) strikes a similar note, and blogger Matt Yglesias has been flogging this horse for some time now, writing that “one of the most underrated aspects of contemporary politics is the extent to which ‘activists on the left’ and ‘major funders’ are the same people.” While I both admire and disagree with aspects of these men’s writing on other subjects, on the question of foundations, they’re wide of the mark.

Full disclosure: though we never spoke in the course of his reporting for the story, Chait used a few quotes from me to buttress his argument about foundations and progressive donors trapping Democrats in positions that are popular among liberal elites but few other segments of the population. The source was an interview I gave last year to David Callahan at Inside Philanthropy, as I prepared to step down after seven years heading the Democracy Alliance. In the quotes Chait used, I said that The DA’s strategies in my time “moved several notches to the left as the donor class has as a whole” and noted that “more of the money is white and more of the places the money goes to are BIPOC organizations.”

All true, but if we’d had a chance to speak, I would have expanded to Chait on the first quote, whose context was about my vision of the Democracy Alliance as a big tent politically and ideologically, and primarily about economic policy – where, yes, I am happy to claim some credit for pushing progressive political donors to get much more focused on the centrality of wages and work, childcare, anti-monopoly, etc. – which Chait notes, correctly, that Biden has tried to stay focused on, and which I agree are also politically popular. (Though I am coming to have doubts about whether a long-cherished premise of those of us who have been pushing an economy-centered agenda – that it would yield political benefits and cause the so-called culture issues to wane in potency – will prove out.)  

At the same time, I also stand by the second quote, which has to do with increased investment in progressive infrastructure led by people of color, which for years has been chronically underinvested in, a gap which a year or more of stepped-up support, mostly post-George Floyd, has not erased.

I have more agreement with some of Chait’s argument (not just the latter part of it about corporate Democrats) than he might think. While I have been outspoken over time about the need to invest more in civic engagement – in sustained on-the-ground organizing – by communities of color, I am concerned that many progressive activists make a mistake in assuming that all voters of color sign on to a maximalist left policy agenda, and I see signs that the traditional allegiance of many of those voters to the Democratic Party is far from immutable.

But as I’ve written to Chait, I think he gets the part about foundations wrong. With very few exceptions (Open Society, for instance, which in addition to the core foundation has a separate and robust c(4) operation on whose board I have served since I worked for George Soros over fifteen years ago), foundations are extremely skittish about politics and have no real connection with the political world. I know this because from inside and outside philanthropy I have often pushed foundations to be more politically engaged, within the parameters of their c(3) status, and it’s always been a hard sell. Ford Foundation President Darren Walker’s quote in the Edsall piece rings true for him and most foundations: “We make no calculations about how our grantees give credibility or not to the Democratic Party. That is of no concern to the Ford Foundation, or to me personally.” In any case, despite the theme of the Chait and Edsall pieces about a “progressive-foundation complex,” they don’t illustrate it with many specific examples, and had they done so, it would be easier to engage the argument, which I fear will be echoed and distorted by right-wing media and politicians, particularly if and when they regain control of Congressional investigating committees.

As for individual progressive donors of the Democracy Alliance variety, it’s hard for me to think of many at any scale who use their funding to drive a policy agenda of any kind – Tom Steyer on climate, George Soros on criminal justice reform (not to my knowledge “defunding the police”), Nick Hanauer on alternatives to trickle-down economics, a few more recently on democracy reform.

My sense of what is going on with foundations and key progressive groups is that a few things have happened in the last five or ten years. One is that some larger foundations, historically more focused on policy and research, have widened their lens to include what you might call power-building organizations – organizing networks and the national support centers that connect them, like Center for Popular Democracy and Community Change. At the same time, after years of being criticized for overdirecting their grantees with targeted project support, more foundations have been making general support grants and giving their grantees a lot more leeway in setting their priorities. I’ve been a big advocate of both of these approaches. But when foundations do that, they’re to an extent underwriting policies and strategies that they might not agree with some of the time. So my impression is that what is going on is almost the opposite of what these writers are suggesting – it’s not foundations pulling their grantees left, but in a sense being pulled left, or being associated with certain left stances, by the work of some of their grantees. The foundations, of course, are not engaging with the Democratic party and political actors, but many of their grantees may be. I know from conversations with some foundation leaders, particularly since these recent critiques have emerged, that this concerns them from time to time. But that kind of occasional frustration comes with the territory of giving general support to multi-issue organizations.

So I don’t think foundations are guilty as charged of driving the Democratic party’s agenda, whatever you think of that agenda. But all this begs the question of what foundations should be doing, in particular whether they ought to be using their protected tax status to support or advance positions that are, at least at the start, counter-majoritarian and politically unpopular.

I’ve been conflicted on these questions for some time, as I’ve written in The Atlantic and The Nation. I worry, along with other critics like Rob Reich, Megan Ming Francis, Edgar Villaneuva and Erica Kohl-Arena, about the power that foundations hold in public debates and policies with very little scrutiny and accountability. Yet at the same time I believe that the occasional boldness of foundations has helped push the Overton Window on key social justice questions in ways that laid the groundwork for civil society and political actors. I’ve used my own periodic access to philanthropic resources to try to do that, and encouraged other foundations to do so, though always with a core emphasis on identifying marginalized voices who are pushing those envelopes and providing support for them to take the lead. 

To cite just one example, twenty-five years ago, when George Soros’s foundations began to fund research and activism challenging the war on drugs and its consequences in abusive policing and mass incarceration, these causes were on the margins of political feasibility, even on the left. Today they are, as they should be, at the center of political debates, marijuana has been decriminalized or legalized in state after state, and the overuse of imprisonment is one of the few remaining issues on which it is possible to forge bipartisan agreement.

That trajectory is true, of course, for any significant shift in social norms and public policy, from slavery and universal suffrage to marriage equality. Who is to say that radical reform of police departments and immigration enforcement will not be an issue where center-left writers like Chait will look back twenty-five years from now and wonder why and how we squandered so much on overmilitarized enforcement and not on more effective ways of dealing with crime, global migration, and for that matter, social challenges like lack of housing and access to mental health and other support services. (My further thoughts on how maximalist campaigns change thinking and foster change are here.)

In the meantime, by all means let’s talk more about how foundations act in the public sphere and debate their power and privilege and how they relate to social and political movements. Let’s also continue the debate about the progressive political agenda and how to communicate and prioritize it in the dire times we are living in. But let’s be very careful to ground those discussions in reality and avoid thoughtless scapegoating. Foundations are not pulling the strings of political actors. If anything, they are being increasingly, if belatedly, responsive to genuine social movements, as they should be.

-Gara LaMarche

Gara LaMarche is a Senior Fellow at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at City College in New York and a Senior Adviser to The Raben Group. His 45-year career in human rights, social justice and philanthropy included stints as President of the Democracy Alliance and The Atlantic Philanthropies, Director of US Programs for the Open Society Foundations, and senior positions at the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.

2 thoughts on “Why Popularist Attacks on Progressive Philanthropy Miss the Mark

  1. To accent Gara’s note here, I often see hand-wringing discourse to the left-of-center with regard to the role of philanthropy and its enablers and the connection to political activities. Yet to the right-of-center – where the same kinds of structures and activities are certainly occurring – there is very, very little discussion. On that side, either there is less concern, less care, or perhaps less understanding of the nexus between philanthropy and politics. Perhaps all three.

    In many respects, isn’t this discussion an extension of the transparency/anonymity debate in philanthropy? How much does the public deserve to know behind these connections versus the rights of the philanthropist/funder to remain private?

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  2. I agree with Lamarche that the push towards any semblance of progressivism within the philanthropic field is often not deriving from top foundation leadership, but rather from insurgent program officers & grassroots organizers. The recent funder organizing & advocacy of Climate Justice Alliance is a great example of this.

    But I still wish there was more of an honest assessment of both the historical and present-day movement capture of left-wing organizing by philanthropic social engineers. There is a long and well-documented history of both centrist & progressive foundations indeed “pulling the strings of political actors” in-the-making. I’m thinking specifically about the research of Megan Ming Francis & Joan Roelofs here.

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