The Hewlett Foundation Blog
December 2, 2013 — By Daniel Stid
As recent events make all too clear, the democratic process of the United States is in bad shape. Even apart from the travails of Obamacare and the high-stakes combat in Washington over the government shutdown, we are confronted by legislative inaction on a range of pressing policy issues, a runaway campaign-finance system, new assaults on voting rights, worsening economic inequality, and growing cynicism and withdrawal among citizens taking all this in.
The Hewlett Foundation has a particular interest in these issues given that we make grants to solve social and environmental problems at home and around the world. We cannot always count on persuading the government to adopt policies we favor, nor is our ability to do so the measure of whether our political system is working, but our grantmaking presumes a minimally rational and functioning democratic process. Unless the mounting problems of governance are removed or reduced in importance, we risk being stymied on other aspects of our work.
In the spirit of transparency, and in the hope of soliciting some constructive feedback, let me outline how we are planning to respond to these challenges.
To focus our efforts, we are going to zero in on the problem of political polarization and its three most notable markers: increasing ideological coherence within and divergence between the Republican and Democratic parties, hyper-partisanship, and gridlock.
We recognize that polarization is not the only problem with our democratic process. We believe, however, that alleviating polarization is a precondition for successfully addressing the other problems that bedevil us. Lasting reform on issues like campaign finance and voting rights will require politicians of both parties to work together. Moreover, as we focus on the problem of polarization, we will also be working on important aspects of these other problems–for example, the distorting influence of ideologically driven campaign spending.
We appreciate that taking on the problem of polarization is a daunting task for a private foundation. Yet we are cautiously optimistic. Events of the past two years, and the past two months in particular, have brought home to a much wider audience the need to do something. Also, the values we will be pursuing—deliberation, compromise, and “curing the mischiefs of faction” as James Madison put it—are not new ideas, but foundational principles we want to see the nation rediscover. Finally, we will not be acting alone but in concert with other funders, civic groups, and leaders in and outside of government.
Many partisans understandably believe that the solution to polarization is simply for their party to win and sustain an effective governing majority. But we don’t see this as a feasible option given how closely divided we are as a nation and the many veto points our separation of powers, checks and balances, and federal system hand to partisans of all stripes. Even if it were possible, ongoing dominance by one party is not the answer, as the lack of political competition would undermine accountability and responsive representation.
For the same reasons, we do not hold out hope for an emerging national consensus or centrist agenda that will somehow span and resolve the multiple points of disagreement that separate our parties and their affiliated coalitions.
So the challenge remains: how do we aggregate, weigh, and trade off the different, divergent, and often incommensurate interests and perspectives that have been intentionally encompassed and given great liberty to express themselves in our system of government?
Our ultimate goal is to help make it possible for the representative institutions of the federal government to solve problems in ways that most Americans will accept and support.
To realize this goal, we need to buttress four key underpinnings: governing institutions that foster pragmatism and the spirit of compromise, campaigns and elections that set the stage for problem solving, citizen engagement that improves the quality of participation and representation, and media that explains and alleviates rather than exacerbates the political forces driving polarization.
Our approach is explicitly agnostic on particular policy outcomes. Indeed, to proceed otherwise would be to miss the point. Any assessment of a democratic government’s effectiveness should depend on whether its representative institutions are addressing problems in ways the public supports—after the fact, if not beforehand.
This last phrase is important. American democracy relies on representatives to do more than simply mirror preexisting public wants. We want to preserve room for leadership and compromise. We are not looking to have public opinion mechanically drive policy any more than we want it to be ignored.
As we work toward our goals, we must not fool ourselves into thinking that the journey will be easy or that we will make great progress in the near term. The American polity comprises a complex, dynamic, and nonlinear system of systems. When it comes to reforming it, we recognize that there are no silver bullets and there will be plenty of unanticipated consequences. Our early efforts will thus involve experimentation and spreading a series of smaller bets to ascertain whether and how we can help create the conditions for success in the longer term.
We also recognize the need to bolster the capacity of organizations in the existing field that are working to support pragmatic problem solving. This capacity has been eroded by years of limited and programmatically focused funding. In several instances we will also need to seed and cultivate the development of new lines of research and advocacy, along with new organizations and networks to carry them out. Throughout we will take care to avoid accelerating polarization through our own patterns of grantmaking.
So there you have it—our nascent plan in a nutshell. You can learn more about what we are thinking from a talk that our president Larry Kramer recently gave at the 100th anniversary of the Rockefeller Foundation. We’d welcome your feedback on our proposed approach. What makes sense and, more importantly, what doesn’t? For, in keeping with the title of our new blog, this plan is very much a work in progress!