Dear Philanthropists: How about One Percent for Democracy?


Here’s something I just learned: The annual budget for political reform groups in the U.S. is a combined $45 million, which amounts to roughly .01 percent of the $300 billion in total charitable giving in 2011. It’s also less than one quarter of the Chamber of Commerce’s $200 million annual budget.

This funding disparity is a jumping off point for a new symposium over at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas entitled “Everyone’s Fight: The New Plan to Defeat Big Money.”

Most significantly, the issue includes a powerful call-to-arms from Nick Penniman and Ian Simmons for the philanthropy community to contribute “One Percent for Democracy”:

Our proposal: 1 percent for democracy. Some $300 billion is donated annually to charitable causes. So, $3 billion for reform. Yes, $3 billion sounds like a lot of money. But 1 percent of philanthropy is not excessive—especially not for a purpose as important as maintaining a government of, by, and for the people. We spend magnitudes more than that funding the arts and humanities, fighting infectious diseases, providing the poor and needy with the services they need, and trying to improve our educational institutions. Committing a sliver of philanthropy to making sure Washington and the state capitals are free of corruption—both legal and illegal—seems like a smart investment. Doing so should not be seen as merely advancing an abstract concept of “good government,” but as a concrete and necessary step in advancing solutions to the great challenges of our time—solutions that the philanthropic sector often invests in but never sees actualized.

There are other essays, too, and all are worth reading. Here’s the summary of the symposium from the editors.

We asked 11 contributors to diagnose the different parts of this problem and prescribe some solutions to each. Bill Moyers and Arnold Hiatt pen a letter to their friends in the progressive philanthropic movement, arguing that political reform groups are desperately in need of funding and support. Nick Penniman and Ian Simmons make the case for why foundations that fund worthy causes like environmental and health-care reform need to invest more in the reform movement—and propose a specific way for them to do so. Wendell Potter argues that even groups with nonpolitical agendas—like those devoted to public health or retirees—must make political reform a priority. Stan Collender recalls the moment when lobbying first infected the politics behind the budget—and describes how things have only gotten worse. Meanwhile, Jacob Hacker and Nathaniel Loewentheil take a look at the economic impact of that distorted budget process—and argue that political inequality has paved the way for economic inequality.

What do we do about it? Trevor Potter and Bryson B. Morgan lay out a series of solutions to the problems created by Citizens United, none of which would require the nigh-impossible step of enacting a constitutional amendment. Finally, former Senator Russ Feingold bemoans Democrats’ succumbing to the new campaign-finance order and suggests how we can build a permanent movement for political reform.

Both the Moyers/Hiatt and Penniman/Simmons pieces nicely lay out why philanthropists and other advocates need to think seriously about money-in-politics issues if anything is going to happen on any of the other issues they care about.

Short version of the argument, which readers of this blog are probably already familiar with: whatever your issue (environment, gun control, education funding, you name it), you are probably frustrated because either you are up against a major lobbying and campaign finance juggernaut, or you can’t even get anybody to pay attention to your issue in the first place because you don’t have a multi-million budget for lobbying and campaign finance.

Here’s Penniman and Simmons:

While foundations and environmental groups have done everything humanly possible for the last 20 years to prove that global climate change is not just a reality but also a threat, they are virtually incapable of getting the kind of laws passed that would actually tackle the problem because they are drowned out by the money the big coal and oil companies pump into the political process every year. The good guys simply don’t have the money to compete in that arena. The same holds true for a near-endless list of causes that would advance the public interest.

And here’s Moyers and Hiatt making the case, and also trying to explain why money-in-politics as a cause has been underfunded for decades:

Over the years, we’ve encountered various reasons why there is so little investment in reducing the power of Big Money over politics and policy-making: Good-government groups don’t do a good enough job of selling themselves and are too fractured along policy lines; money in politics is seen as a wonky issue that only liberals care about; philanthropy is increasingly focused on short-term “deliverables” and “quantifiable outcomes” and reform is too hard to measure in those terms; foundations are risk averse when it comes to supporting efforts that might be perceived as political. And the list goes on.

All of these are understandable concerns. But none of us can any longer afford to allow such arguments to stifle the flow of money into the struggle to save our democracy. Citizens United and super PACs have brought America to a historic juncture—one path leads toward oligarchy, the other toward representative government. Abraham Lincoln defined the latter as the American ideal. It was the cause of Thomas Paine, the Revolution, and the Constitutional Convention. Today it is the inspiration for good health care and a good education, for fair and competitive markets, for honest government, for a sustainable environment, and for a decent job and livelihood for everyone. For these promises to be kept, the deep pockets of the moneyed class must be countered, because to travel upstream of any major issue facing our country—from Too Big To Fail banks to climate change—is to encounter a small, extremely powerful group of well-connected and well-heeled interests controlling the flow of the stream.

It’s a case a lot of us who do this kind of work have been making for a long time, but it’s nice to see it being made so forcefully. So share it widely, and let’s hope that this is a call to arms that a wide range of philanthropists will take seriously.