Madisonian, and Not Going to Take It Any More!

The Hewlett Foundation wants to improve the effectiveness of our political debates

By the standards of the $9 billion William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, its Madison Initiative is not (yet) a large project. But Larry Kramer, president since 2012, has been aiming toward something like it for many years.

As the former dean of Stanford’s law school, Kramer opened his best-known book with a quotation from James Madison, and like “the father of the Constitution” Kramer thinks public policy should be energetically debated and settled by the people themselves. He’s not concerned if their disputes become heated. Kramer does worry, however, when the people and their representatives become so polarized that they lock up and fail to settle on decisions.

When he interviewed for Hewlett’s presidency, the board asked Kramer for his views on the foundation’s priorities. He replied that all five of Hewlett’s funding areas are important, but that one thing was missing, especially since so much of the foundation’s work aims for changes in public policy. “If no one on any side can move public policy, in any direction, whether to get government to do more or less, then everybody is wasting time and resources.”

Kramer hoped to probe the questions, “Can we understand the problem of polarization? And do we have a reason to think philanthropy can make a difference?”

Polarizing vs. paralyzing

Kramer and Daniel Stid, whom he brought on to develop Hewlett’s project on political polarization, asked the board in 2014 for an initial three years and $50 million. Like Kramer, Stid has an academic background steeped in American history, and he understands that our founders intended “freewheeling debate” and conflict to exist in U.S. politics. But our Constitutional order also assumes that as arguments progress, majorities will be built up that can reach decisions.

There have been previous efforts to address polarized politics, many of them aimed at fostering “civility” in political debates. Critics have objected that these calls for civility often masked a partisan desire to stifle one side in disputes where ­powers-that-be were frustrated after being stymied by opponents, or bothered by what they considered the bad taste of popular opposition. Kramer and Stid insist that they’re not trying to grease the skids for any particular agenda. “We’re agnostic on policy outcomes,” Stid says.

Hewlett’s roughly 100 grants to date bear out this claim. Mostly six- and seven-figure gifts have gone to groups that span the left, right, and center of the political spectrum. “We think genuinely vigorous dispute is valuable,” Stid reiterates. “We now fund fairly far on the left and right.”

Polarization, in this view, only becomes a problem when it causes the machinery of government to grind to a halt. As Kramer puts it, “Say you root for the Mets and I root for the Cubs. We can still come together and set rules for the game without trying to twist them so that one side always wins. We know that’s possible. And desirable, because rules that favor one side today may flip around tomorrow.”

Kramer and Stid are especially concerned that Congress is not functioning well—both in its internal arrangements and distribution of power between committees and leaders, and in the way Congress allows and even encourages the other two branches to perform functions it should be handling in our ­representative system.

Hewlett concedes that polarization is a massive issue to confront. “It took decades for the U.S. to get into the present stalled situation,” Kramer and Stid told their board. “It will take decades to get out.”

Has the electorate developed such deep differences in principle that this project is hopeless? “We can’t take popular government on a continental scale for granted,” Kramer admits. “Making that work is the great ­American experiment. Our Founders understood how difficult that would be, but they also had faith in the possibility. We have to remember that the country has seen worse than today. Look back to the 1850s, when Senators were nearly killing each other on the legislative floor.”

What about the idea that polarization stems largely from the growth of the U.S. government beyond anything Madison envisaged, raising the stakes of government decisions to dire levels? Kramer believes that “isn’t the fundamental problem” and argues that earlier expansions of government’s scope—Alexander Hamilton’s creating the first national bank, Andrew Jackson’s shutting down the second national bank, the ­Louisiana Purchase, the New Deal—didn’t cause today’s levels of polarization.

But Kramer is also not keen on the claim, popular among liberal donors, that tighter campaign-finance restrictions would be a cure-all. He worries that the limits already passed have weakened the influence of political parties, which have historically moderated our politics. He is concerned that the legal requirement that politicians rely on many small donations causes them to spend so much energy on fundraising (which requires oppositional rhetoric) that they lack opportunities and motivation to form friendships across political divides.

Hewlett is, however, funding groups that support more astringent campaign-finance restrictions and disclosure laws. For instance, it has provided two years of funding, totaling $450,000, to the United ­Republic ­Education Fund, which works with its advocacy arm, Represent.us, to promote controversial ­campaign-finance laws as “anti-corruption” measures.

Skeptics on the right also noticed that the director of a Pew Charitable Trusts project to alter state voting and registration procedures—funded with a $1.5 million Hewlett grant—previously worked for the ideologically charged People for the American Way, whose campaign against the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court was a milestone in the polarization of our politics.

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In this graphic (produced from research by Penn State academic Clio Andris and five others), each dot represents a Member of Congress in 1951. Color indicates party, and placement indicates voting behavior. As you can see, Democrats and Republicans didn't always vote separately but sometimes mixed in the middle. (Mauro Martino / PLoS One)

Forging alliances

Building friendships among peers is part of Hewlett’s mission for this project. Donors that the foundation has worked or hopes to work with span the ideological spectrum and include such notables as the Joyce Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Omidyar Network’s ­Democracy Fund, and Searle Freedom Trust. Politically, that’s a stark mix of sheep and goats.

George Cheung, program officer for the Joyce Foundation’s democracy portfolio, which supports liberal grantees such as FairVote and the Brennan Center for Justice that Hewlett also funds, says that one of the most valuable aspects of the initiative so far was a large meeting Hewlett convened last year in Baltimore with dozens of grantees of widely varying perspectives. “Hewlett has done a good job building relationships with organizations and leaders across the political spectrum,” Cheung says. “Having ideologically diverse conversations about how to strengthen democracy is quite inspiring”—and quite rare in philanthropy.

Eugene Meyer, who heads the conservative and libertarian Federalist Society, was impressed when Stid remarked that the legal group has produced meaty analyses of the judicial and executive branches, but hasn’t done much work on the proper role of Congress. Meyer agreed, and accepted $1.5 million in ­Hewlett funding to research, publish, and hold seminars for members of Congress and their staff on topics like the budget process, gerrymandering, and existing incentives to dodge responsibility on tough decisions.

The Bradley ­Foundation, a long-time Federalist backer, has also begun supporting this project. Its vice president for programs, Dan Schmidt, says he agrees that developing a deeper understanding of how ­Congress is designed to work with the other two branches will be valuable, especially if it encourages less congressional passivity.

Another grantee that has benefited from ­Hewlett’s interest in strengthening Congress is the journal National Affairs. Editor Yuval Levin, a former ­Bush-administration staffer, says he was impressed by ­Hewlett’s open-­mindedness. “They don’t think they know what all the answers will be.” Levin also values the wide-ranging meetings Hewlett has convened. The foundation “clearly believes that allowing debate to happen is good.”

He disagrees with Kramer’s diagnosis on the role of increased statism, saying “a government that’s playing so large a role will be controversial in ways the Founders never imagined, and will inevitably polarize arguments.” But Levin agrees with Kramer and Stid that “Congress is the ‘sick man’ of Washington, and its weakness invites aggression from the other branches in ways that are destructive.” Levin also agrees that “polarization must be worked with, because it can’t be undone.”

Columnist Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, also appreciate Hewlett’s open approach. “Mike and I are social conservatives,” Wehner notes, which makes them unusual grantees for a foundation that supports abortion and population-control efforts. But Stid was interested in their work on how Christians can find “new models of cultural engagement.” Their Hewlett grant will be used to explore that challenge with evangelical Protestant leaders who want to take part in national discussions in ways “that don’t require Christians to give up their convictions, but, on the other hand, don’t involve speaking with serrated edges and provoking people to deepened division.”

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Sixty years later, the two parties have almost completely separated into opposite poles, with little engagement between them. (Mauro Martino / PLoS One)

Playing on a fair field

Another topic studied by this project is the rise of minorities in the electorate. Ruy Teixeira of the liberal Center for American Progress is conducting large-scale studies of how America’s changing makeup will affect its politics. ­Teixeira has managed to foster a bit of political ecumenism by bringing on board counterparts from two of ­Washington’s powerhouse think tanks, the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the liberal Brookings Institution.
Teixeira demurs when presented with the theory popular with many left-of-center thinkers that the notion of “fair” rules for deliberation in a democracy is a smoke screen that protects privileges based on race, sex, or class. “The U.S. has always had an unequal distribution of power and wealth, and yet we’ve managed to get things done. I disagree that things today are so terrible. I think American democracy is flawed but still real.”

Hewlett’s leaders are sober about how much they and their grantees may be able to accomplish to reduce polarization in immediate ways. But willing to be patient, they remain passionate about any progress they can make. “I believe,” Kramer avers, “that this republic is more than worth fighting for.”  

Off the Cuff with Hewlett’s Larry Kramer

Q:  Some researchers have observed a correlation between being better informed about public policy and being more polarized politically. What do you make of this?
A:  Because of fragmentation of the news and information pipeline, people today can choose among a million news sources: not just MSNBC and Fox News, but blogs and a myriad of online sources that come at them with a range of journalistic quality and ethics. Back when there were three TV networks and a few newspapers, all basically centrist or maybe with a slight lean to the left, people might disagree about what we should do, but they were all working from the same set of facts. That’s just not true today. We can’t argue about how to handle an issue when we don’t even agree on what the issue is. At the same time, this has also been true in the past. At the beginning of this country, there were a multiplicity of overtly partisan newspapers, and still the system worked reasonably well.

Q:  What is the biggest cause of polarization?
A:  When both parties encompassed an array of ideologies, it was fairly easy to get things done in Congress. Over the past few decades there has been a kind of political sorting. Today, all liberals are Democrat, and all conservatives are Republican, which makes it really difficult to build coalitions across party lines. Making matters worse, members in both parties are pushed to be more extreme and inflexible because they are chosen in caucuses or primary elections in which only a small number of voters, who reflect the extremes, turn out. Campaign finance is also a contributing factor. Partly that’s because so much of the money also comes from the ideological extremes, and it takes less money to affect a primary. Just as problematic, the need to raise so much money leads candidates to spend well over half their time fundraising—which means less time to govern, less time to learn about issues, less time to develop relationships with each other and build trust. Plus, spending so much time with donors inevitably affects how candidates think about issues.

Q:   How do you define success in the long run?
A:  One major benchmark will be: how does the public feel about the job Congress is doing? Approval of Congress used to poll in the 40 percent to 60 percent range, depending on things like how the economy was doing, who was President, and the like. Now it bounces in the 10 percent to 20 percent range. One sign of improvement will be that we see approval of Congress back in its historical range, or at least moving in that direction. This would tell us that whatever Congress is doing or not doing, it’s what the public wants. Other measures will be the extent to which members from both parties work together: How much bipartisan co-sponsorship of legislation takes place? How frequently do we see members voting for legislation sponsored by the other party? These trendlines will help us track whether the problem is improving. But the bigger questions we’re raising don’t lead to simple, quantifiable answers. Judgment calls will be needed.

Q:  Under you and your predecessor, Paul Brest, Hewlett has encouraged healthy argumentation. Does that have something to do with your shared background in the law, which has a tradition of debate? Or with your Jewish heritage, which has an even longer tradition?
A:   I don’t know. Maybe those are both factors. I know it had something to do with my mother!

Contributing editor Scott Walter is executive vice president of the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C.