How can philanthropy support work that leads to better public policy when longstanding mechanisms for creating that policy have broken down? That’s the question Steven Teles, Heather Hurlburt and Mark Schmitt tackled last week in the Stanford Social Innovation Review article titled “Philanthropy in a time of Polarization.” The authors had helped us organize a conference on this topic in January 2013; their article is an elaboration of the issues that surfaced in that discussion and their ongoing reflection about whether, when, and how philanthropy can shape public policy. They offer a bracing assessment that should give most foundations plenty to think about—it certainly has in our case.
Their premise is that the traditional operating model for philanthropy—funding development of fact-based, apolitical solutions, which can then be advanced by bipartisan coalitions—no longer works. “Partisan politics and ideology have become much 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.”
Teles, Hurlburt, and Schmitt note that the traditional operating model developed in what was, in retrospect, an anomalously depolarized “golden age” in the mid-20th Century. After tracing the rise and fall of this outlying period, they observe that we have now returned to the type of polarization that has characterized the U.S. for much of its history—and that it “is now at a level comparable to that of other advanced democracies.”
If they have their history and comparative politics right, and I think they do, then polarization is neither a trend that can be reversed nor a problem that can be solved; rather, it is a predicament with which we need to learn how to cope.
I have been particularly intrigued with the authors’ proposed alternative to the bipartisan problem-solving that philanthropy has long focused on supporting:
Some of the most creative advocacy work currently underway builds cross-party coalitions that are anchored not by centrists, but by figures with unquestioned ideological credibility. We call this style of advocacy ‘transpartisan,’ because it recognizes that the critical political gatekeepers are no longer ideologically neutral actors at the center, but the authorizers of ideological orthodoxy at the poles.
Examples of transpartisan coalitions that have been able to impact public policy in notable ways include the efforts of conservative fiscal hanwks, evangelicals, and libertarians to join forces with progressive critics of the racial inequities of mass incarceration to advance criminal justice reform. A similar coalition of strange bedfellows from left and right has come together to check defense spending. And Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, the bête noire of so many on the left for his determination to shrink government to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub, is proving to be a shrewd ally in their collective and ongoing push for immigration reform.
In talking with fellow funders, grantees, and observers in the field about the idea of transpartisanship, I’ve often heard “that’s nothing new” or “we are already doing that,” responses that suggest this is a jargoned-up reprise of the perennial quest for bipartisanship. But these dismissals gloss over the brute fact right in front of us—the complete erosion of the ideological overlap between the Democratic and Republican delegations in Congress, i.e., the middle ground that once served as the seedbed for bipartisan compromise. Such responses also fail to come to grips with the issue-specific, time-limited, and thereby fleeting if not fickle nature of transpartisan coalitions.
To be sure, it remains an open question whether transpartisanship can really suffice as an alternative to bipartisan problem-solving when it comes to aligning politics and policy in the U.S., especially when the institutions of government continue to be controlled by party leaders and majorities actively seeking to prevent any form of productive work across the aisle.
We will continue to explore the possibilities (and limits) of transpartisanship, not least because we want to understand if there is something foundations can do to underwrite new forms of infrastructure and networks that might be needed to support this emergent way of making policy.
In the meantime—and to help inform this inquiry—what do you make of transpartisanship as an alternative framework for solving our nation’s collective action problem? What is its potential, and what questions does it raise for you?