Vitriol. Personal calumny. Extreme narcissism. Across the political spectrum, a disregard for elementary standards of truth. Campus mobs suppressing speech they disagree with. The most overt partisan bias by the media in decades. Public expressions of vulgarity in the name of motherhood. This is the state of America’s public discourse today.
This is not the first time our republic has seen such divisiveness. The great American experiment of self-government has survived the tempestuous election of 1800, the drunken brawling of the Jacksonian era, a titanic civil war, bitter disputes over the New Deal, the sins of slavery and racial discrimination, the lies of Alger Hiss and the false accusations by Joe McCarthy, the riots of the 1960s.
There are two features of American life that have saved our country through bitter conflicts in the past. One is extraordinary political leadership during times of crisis. George Washington marshaled in his administration the genius of both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, even as they were vilifying each other. Abraham Lincoln helped to bind up the nation’s wounds, with malice toward none and charity to all, through the biblical language of his Second Inaugural. Ronald Reagan rekindled a spirit of American patriotism among supporters and opponents alike.
The second saving grace has been civil society—Americans working together to solve problems, sometimes through the political process and more often through churches and other houses of worship, neighborhood civic groups, and the creation of large-scale reform movements. Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and wrote about our “nation of associations” during the political turmoil of the Jacksonian presidency. My colleague Karl Zinsmeister writes about the remarkable social-change movements of the nineteenth century—for temperance, abolition, literacy, and religious revival—in What Comes Next? How Private Givers Can Rescue America in an Age of Political Frustration.
Philanthropists today can play a crucial role in reducing the divisive acrimony of our hyper-partisan age. Here are some examples where funders from across the philosophical spectrum are working together:
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation are jointly funding the Federalist Society’s Article I initiative to examine and restore the constitutional responsibilities of Congress. This is part of Hewlett’s $150 million Madison Initiative to foster bipartisan problem-solving in Congress.
The John William Pope Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and Duke Endowment are jointly funding the North Carolina Leadership Forum at Duke University, a yearlong conversation in which civic, business, and political leaders with different perspectives engage in civil debate. This year’s focus: how can we enable more North Carolinians to earn enough to support their families? Next year’s question: energy policy. Funders in other states may want to explore similar series of civil debates on the great issues of our times.
Koch Industries and the Laura and John Arnold, Ford, and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundations are jointly funding the Coalition for Public Safety, which includes the ACLU, NAACP, Center for American Progress, Americans for Tax Reform, and Right on Crime, and is pursuing strategies to lower both incarceration and crime rates.
A new guidebook by my Philanthropy Roundtable colleague Thomas Meyer, Uniform Champions, showcases leaders in veterans’ philanthropy such as Bernie Marcus and Howard Schultz from across the philosophical spectrum.
Perhaps the greatest area of left-center-right philanthropic collaboration has been in K-12 education reform. The growth of multiple charter-school networks where low-income children beat the odds—one of the most significant achievements in the history of American philanthropy—has been made possible by a broad combination of progressive and free-market funders. In the face of well-funded opposition from unions, reform coalitions in many states have often had to supplement philanthropic giving with political giving to candidates who will allow charter schools to grow. Just this May, a left-center-right reform coalition elected a pro-charter school board majority in Los Angeles.
The subject of this issue of Philanthropy—community colleges, apprenticeship programs, and other institutions that can open up career and technical opportunities—offers fertile ground for left-right collaboration. Progressive and free-market funders may disagree on issues such as the minimum wage and work requirements for public-assistance programs, but they have a common concern for restoring and strengthening upward mobility.
Indeed, funders can help lead the country away from the political hyperbole, free-speech wars, and endless partisan conflicts waging around us, and identify concrete paths to truly resolve some of our nation’s greatest problems.
Adam Meyerson is president of The Philanthropy Roundtable.