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The following speech was delivered to attendees of the Donors Forum breakfast.

Good morning. Thank you, Diana, for that very kind introduction, and for setting out clearly why paying attention to our democracy is so important. My thanks to Donor’s Forum for their hard work in putting this event together: to Don Cooke, to Valerie Lies, and to all her staff. We all owe Valerie a great debt of gratitude for all she has accomplished in leading the Forum since 1987 and we wish her the very best when she steps down in June. And we look forward to working with Eric Weinheimer when he takes over in June.

As you know, MacArthur is an international philanthropy.  But Chicago is our headquarters and our hometown.  We support more than 200 arts and culture organizations here, local efforts to ensure economic vitality and quality of life in Chicago neighborhoods, and projects that address such urgent local problems as violence and the state’s fiscal challenges.  Our commitment to Chicago is unshakeable. 

It is good to be among so many who serve the common good through grant making or working directly in the community. Donor’s Forum plays a valuable role in keeping us aware that, beyond our own individual efforts, we also have impact as a sector. I want to persuade you that, of all the things we can choose to have impact on, the health of our democracy should rank very high indeed. Democracy is supposed to be the common good in action, serving the interests of all the people. When it is healthy, it should be making our jobs easier.

...government has a crucial role to play in our society. The failure of our political system to deal adequately with crucial issues is not in the national interest.

I will share briefly with you what spurred MacArthur to address American Democracy as an area of work; what we have decided to fund, and why; and a few words about what I think philanthropy should be doing before our panel weighs in.

Not long after I came to MacArthur, the political climate in Washington – which had not been good for some time – took a distinct turn for the worse. Elected representatives were engaged in debates that seemed more like posturing, there seemed to be no willingness for constructive dialogue or compromise. Since then we have lurched from confrontation to crisis, achieved far less than we should, and have a Congress whose approval ratings are at all-time lows. At times, the whole apparatus of government seems to be grinding to a halt – which, for some people, may be the idea.

But government has a crucial role to play in our society. The failure of our political system to deal adequately with crucial issues is not in the national interest.  I think of climate change, healthcare, our fiscal future, the criminal justice system, immigration and education, and that list is not exhaustive. 

From our perspective in philanthropy, government policy is a key to whether our grantees are able to accomplish what they hope to. The policy environment is powerful. The amount of money government can spend dwarfs our collective resources. In effect, a bad policy environment devalues our currency and makes it harder to achieve our goals.

You will have heard a good deal of late about inequality and how the rich are getting richer. Sometimes this is called hyper-concentration of wealth or income. Now, I don’t object to people getting rich. That’s part of the American way. I know that there are all sorts of reasons, from globalization to new technology, that have made it possible to accrue more money, and faster, than people have in the past. But there is something troubling about extreme disparity of wealth when it starts to undermine democracy.

Elections are supposed to take place on a level playing field, and everyone’s vote is supposed to have equal weight. When moneyed interests can buy more influence, elections are less representative. Being rich shouldn’t give you more votes.

Still more disturbing is the effect on policy. If our legislators owe their positions to the people who paid to put them there, it will be those people’s interests that they look after first. When they make the rules about taxes, or regulating business, or social programs, and special interests have first priority, it is unlikely that the rest of us will benefit much.

When the concerns and aspirations of ordinary people are not represented at the policy table, it is not surprising that there is less opportunity, less security for the middle class – and growing cynicism that the system is rigged. That is a fatal disease for participatory democracy.

MacArthur’s interest in democracy, then, is not just about a narrow interest in politics or elections. It is about the wellbeing and the future of the American experiment. 

MacArthur’s interest in democracy, then, is not just about a narrow interest in politics or elections. It is about the wellbeing and the future of the American experiment. But we think politics is an essential part of making America a better place and a part of our social system where improvements could yield outsized rewards. 

 So let me tell you how we got started to get a handle on it:
First, we spoke with leaders in media and journalism, academics who study democracy, and elected officials to see whether our perception of the situation matched theirs. On the whole, it did. Everyone saw dysfunction, and they directed us to a set of issues that we explored further – among them the decline of civility in Congress, changes in journalism and how the media operates in the new digital environment, campaign finance and money in politics more generally, redistricting and gerrymandering, and the voting process itself.

So we undertook a more systematic analysis of these issues, and how they fit together. We organized a set of “Democracy Dinners” around the country to hear what a range of thought-leaders had to say and held a competition for digital media producers to share their views on democracy.

Where are we now? I think we have a reasonable grasp on what you might call the ecosystem of a healthy democracy – not the democracy we have, the ideal version we’d like to see in place.

This is a system in which well-informed and engaged citizens are able to vote, with ease and efficiency, for candidates who represent their views and interests (and who are not beholden to other interests). Those candidates, once elected, work together and compromise to make policy that addresses the most critical challenges, based on the best available evidence. Our republic is stronger as a result.

Not exactly what you see on the news.

How do we get there from here?

What we have now is:
 

  • An electorate that is to a great extent unengaged, badly informed on the issues, and poorly prepared to do critical thinking as citizens;
  • We have a media that have financial incentives to inflame and distort issues rather than to educate. There is a huge amount of profit in running 20 second attack ads that undermine any serious analysis done in news shows, and the move toward news stations that serve particular political perspectives means that fewer people see more balanced coverage.
  • We have the infusion of huge amounts of money into the political process. Since this money gets politicians elected, it tends to distort policy decisions towards the donor’s interests not the public interest. And the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United allows the source of much of this money to be concealed. 
  • And we have elected officials who are not motivated to make good policy that can command bipartisan support. They have to pursue money to secure their re-election, are beholden to their largest contributors, and are more extreme in their views than the citizens they represent.   

In such a situation it is hard for the public even to discern where its interests lie, let alone the nuances of complex policy to be aired and improved.

Obviously, a single foundation cannot tackle problems on this scale either alone or at the scale that they demand. But we can make choices to go after the places in which we feel we can make a significant difference.

Almost everything we have chosen to work on is at the national level.
That does not mean we have written off state and local issues – far from it – but, in our analysis, the roots of this problem are at the federal level, and that will be where we can have the clearest result.

Our first target was voting, not least because we started to make grants in 2012. We supported voting rights at a moment when new obstacles to the franchise were emerging. In our view, nobody should be discouraged from voting, let alone systematically targeted. The new voter ID requirements addressed a problem – voter fraud – which is, research suggests, rare and insignificant. Some people would find it hard to get the ID demanded and are thus discouraged from voting, which we did not find acceptable.

So we funded efforts to expose and challenge measures that restricted voting rights, including policy work, litigation, communications, and advocacy by organizations like the Brennan Center, the Advancement Project, and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights.

We also thought that the mechanics of our voting system were antiquated and unworthy of the world’s leading democracy – and that worries about the polls could be addressed by upgrades and efficiencies far more effectively than by stricter identification requirements. We want a system that is modern, accessible, and makes good use of technology. Some of the projects we have supported include how to design the best, most functional ballot and how to encourage online registration – which is cheap, accurate, and reduces lines at the polls. Our grantees include the Pew Elections Project, the Verified Voting Foundation, and many others.

We support work to decrease the influence of money in politics. To do that, we first have to know where that money is coming from, which requires both the disclosure of campaign contributions and someone to collect, analyze, and share the data.  We support The Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute of Money in State Politics who make that information available to citizens in a useful form. 

We are also looking into alternatives to the current campaign finance system, such as the efforts underway in several places to use public funds to match smaller donations. This, we believe, can help reduce how much candidates depend on a few big donors.

And, of course, we support the journalism that informs the public about these issues of democracy. Most of you will recall the MacArthur’s funding of Public Broadcasting and of high-quality documentary films on hot-button issues. We are still committed to that work, and have increased our scope to include the investigative reporting of the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica.
 
So we have picked our spots, and we will continue to make grants in these areas as long as we see results.

Fortunately, several other funders are coming into this area. The Hewlett Foundation supports work to decrease political polarization, and has made some of the same choices as MacArthur.

The Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Open Society Foundations, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Democracy Fund, Wellspring Advisors, the Piper Fund, the Wallace Global Fund, the Stoneman Family Foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies and others are all supporting work to strengthen democracy. One of our most valued colleagues is the Joyce Foundation, which has been working on voting rights, redistricting, fair courts, and election law in the Midwest and nationally for many years. 
 
I said earlier that MacArthur had chosen to work mostly at the national level. But, as the saying goes, “all politics is local.” All elections are local. All our representatives are elected from specific places by specific communities.

While we have decided to look at big systemic issues, most of the actual change will take place in states and localities and be led by you in this room, and by others like you around the country.

Civic engagement begins when communities see the importance of standing up for their interests and being represented. Community organizing is one powerful way for this to happen – and the Woods Fund and others in Chicago have supported this essential work for decades.
Being literate about the news, knowing what is reliable information and what is not, is vital. Our colleagues at the McCormick Foundation have been working on this issue.

Change Illinois is working to make the redistricting process more open and participatory. Groups like the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Common Cause Illinois are supporting stronger protections for voters. Our Cook County City Clerk, David Orr, is seeking to register all eligible voters. Argonne National Lab is looking at voting system security, specifically, the chain of custody for marked ballots. 

I could go on, but I know that our panelists will be able to share in depth the kind of efforts they are engaged in, or allied with.

But for each of us, the challenge is the same. How can we make our democracy truly representative? How can we make government more effective and efficient in serving the people? How can we be part of the solution we must find together?

We are here because we care about issues that matter to people. Whether we are working on the environment, or social services, or housing, or education, we need these important concerns to be on the public agenda and tackled by our shared resources. If we are going to get there, we need to fix our democracy along the way. There’s a lot to do, and we are all in this together.

Thank you: I look forward to hearing your thoughts in a few minutes.

Strengthening American Democracy, Chicago, Policy, United States