I. Where we at
This is a moment of crisis for our country and for the institutions that stand against a lawless tyranny. In this environment, what is the role for liberal foundations whose mission it is to serve vulnerable communities? How neutral and growth encouraging can they afford to be when lawmakers are being bought up and down the Potomac by the very wealthy, when even the trenchant term “class war” seems an overpolite way to refer to the crushing of the poor and middle class?
We look up from our screens, leaving for a moment the politically charged atmospheres of Twitter and Facebook, and we step into an engulfing and healing calm. We have our children to take care of, our chores to do. Unlike the places we read about in the news, we don’t see rioters carting off pieces of the central government; there are no sprawling refugee camps just outside our cities. If we work at a foundation or a nonprofit, we might have a clearer sense than most about the challenges to vulnerable communities, to the environment, to American democracy itself. And we might be lulled into believing that the present is no more than an extension, by gradual degrees, of a familiar past.
On this last point, we would be tragically mistaken. The world has not so much shifted as lurched these past few years. The acorn is now unmistakably an oak.
Attacks on democratic processes and institutions. Activists have struggled for years to introduce democracy to the United States. And while OpenSecrets.org and other organizations have been documenting and warning us about the effects of obscene amounts of cash in political races, the Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates to influence-buying by the very wealthy on a grand scale. Gerrymandered districts; intense voter suppression efforts; and this administration’s ho-hum attitude towards Russian interference in US elections tell us that it’s open season on our republic.
Inciting violence. This country has seen many long periods of state-sanctioned violence, beginning with the genocide of Native Americans and continuing through the slave trade to the new Jim Crow. What is not new, but rather a new spin on an old sin, is this administration’s sustained dog whistling and its more direct calls to violence, especially against people of color, Muslims, immigrants, women, and members of the LGBT community. The jackbooted skinhead and your bigoted uncle have been unleashed, championed by the most powerful man in the world.
Attacks on the rule of law. We currently have a President who flouts rather than enforces our nation’s laws. From direct attacks on judges to packing the courts with unqualified ideologues, Trump and his enablers understand that the only thing standing between them and complete victory is a fawning judiciary (however much our framework of laws generally favors the well-off). The danger cannot be overstated. To paraphrase Thomas More in Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons: ‘When the last law is down, and the Devil turns round on you — where will you hide?’
Attacks on the media. According to a recent New York Times article, Trump’s attacks on the media are having their intended effect, with 46 percent of Americans now believing the news media makes up stories about him. As noted by communications strategist Steve Schmidt, we tolerate a news network “indistinct from propaganda in authoritarian countries … aimed directly at weakening essential institutions and misinforming the American people.”
I very much appreciate Robert Reich’s unusual candor in his description of the current state of affairs:
This was the oligarch’s deal with the devil (Trump) from the start: Get us a huge tax cut, use the resulting deficit to justify cutting Medicare and Social Security, and get rid of environmental and financial regulations. In return, we’ll finance you, we’ll back your allies in the GOP, and we’ll mount PR campaigns on your behalf that magnify your lies. Hell, we’ll even make you look like a populist. …
These American oligarchs don’t have to worry about whether Social Security or Medicare will be there for them in their retirement because they’ve put away huge fortunes. They don’t worry about climate change because they don’t live in homes that might succumb to hurricanes or wildfires. They don't care about public schools because their families don't attend them. They don't care about public transportation because they don't use it. Truth to tell, they don't even care that much about America, because their personal and financial interests are global.
They are living in their own separate society, and they want people who will represent them, not the rest of us.
The Republican Party is their vehicle. Fox News is their voice. Trump is their champion.
It might seem a stretch to call the actions of these plutocrats instances of “class war” since this implies the existence of a war room, a coordinated effort among hyper-wealthy families to screw the rest of us. But of course no cabal is necessary. Each of these families can simply seek to maximize its own benefit and all else falls into place. If there are deals to be struck, these can be arranged over a round of golf or a baptism.*
Recall that all of this is happening against a background of staggering wealth inequality in the United States and a lack of universal access to medical care. Also keep in mind that while the oligarchs’ de facto waging of class war has intensified in recent years, it is by no means new.
II. If not raising a fist, then maybe just raising a fuss?
In one night in November 2016, hundreds of millions of dollars in liberal foundation funding essentially went up in smoke. Trump judicial appointments would now set the country back decades. The regulatory environment that was the fruit of years of advocacy and impact litigation would be cudgeled. Criminal justice reform efforts would die on the vine. An all-out assault would shred even further the little bit of safety net so many advocates had fought to preserve.
I’ve been following what my foundation colleagues have been writing ex cathedra, and I feel there’s a strange gulf between what I read and the urgency of the moment. If I’m mistaken about this, I’m happy to be set right, but for now I’m left wondering (and here I'm speaking to the leadership of these foundations directly**): Where is your voice? What kind of leadership can you provide in these troubling times? Where is your coordinated, sustained, and overwhelming response to this crisis? I understand that public foundations need to raise a buck from wealthy donors they dare not alienate. I’ve been there. But overall, where’s your sense of urgency? Can you show us your theory of change?
I have some suggestions: Instead of the more business-as-usual tones of your websites and other communications, might you instead join with your colleagues in affirming that these nefarious times require extraordinary measures; that the attacks on our democracy and its institutions, the incitements to violence, the demonizing of the media, and the laying waste to our environment are unprecedented and unacceptable? Will you commit to bringing the people most affected by these attacks directly into your planning and your work? What will be your extraordinary thinking and extraordinary acts in these extraordinary times? Will you content yourselves with asserting your “obligation to capitalism,” or will you encourage the exploration of other options for a people and a planet that are getting hammered by Big Capital?
I applaud Darren Walker’s call for moral courage. I have been—and I continue to be—a coward. When I was a community foundation CEO, I didn’t love and I didn’t care hard enough, and now I’m fearful for my country. I hope I’ll have another chance to find the moral courage Mr. Walker so eloquently describes.
* Nor is it necessary to posit evil intent. In the US, we adhere largely to good Judaeo-Christian values. Rather than kill poor families directly, we prefer to let the markets do it for us.
** As if they would be caught dead reading this blog! Our leadership has better judgment and taste.