It has not been my usual practice to write annual letters—they feel at odds with the foundation’s commitment to “operating in the modest, low-key style of our founders.” But after a year as tumultuous and unsettling as 2017, a few words seem appropriate. Not to cheerlead or sound a clarion call to the barricades; everyone working in the social sector understands that extraordinary events are afoot and fundamental values are being tested. What matters now, is not rhetoric, but how we meet these tests—substantively, and on the ground.
This is especially true for a funder. We don’t do the work that matters: we support other people and organizations who do. Yet that must be balanced against our responsibility to steward the foundation’s resources wisely—a duty that lies here, with us, and that cannot be outsourced to others. How, then, should we weigh what our grantees say and want against our own best judgment about what’s happening and what we should do? How do we find the right balance between change and continuity? That’s a difficult question in the best of circumstances, so the very least we can do is to explain clearly the adjustments we’re making, and why.
We did a lot of adjusting on the fly this past year, learning and adapting to changes in the landscape while trying not to lose sight of principles that have guided us well for more than 50 years. That’s particularly challenging at times like these, when so much that we have taken for granted—shortsightedly it seems—is under threat.
I am thinking especially of democratic institutions, both in the United States and abroad. Having spent most of my adult life studying and writing about U.S. constitutional history, it’s hard to watch the cracks that have emerged continue to widen, even harder to stomach the hate-filled tribalism that passes for public discourse these days. That much, ironically, seems to be shared across the political spectrum. Sometimes, it feels like it’s the only thing shared.
The work of philanthropy rests, and in the end depends, on this abiding faith in the dignity of individuals and the possibility of progress.
When cynicism or hopelessness creeps in, I remind myself of what inspired Bill and Flora Hewlett to create this charitable foundation: their belief in the capacity of people to do good and to become better. Certainly there is evil in the world, and people can do incomprehensibly awful things. Institutions run by individuals acting in complete good faith can commit, or ignore, terrible wrongs. Our task is to help rectify these wrongs—something we do motivated not by anger, an understandable but unhelpful reaction, but rather from a firm conviction that we can all learn, can all change, can all become better. The work of philanthropy rests, and in the end depends, on this abiding faith in the dignity of individuals and the possibility of progress.
The Hewlett Foundation’s approach to philanthropy flows directly from this hope and ethos. The Hewletts may not have foreseen things like climate change or the rise of social media, but they built into the DNA of their foundation some enduring values that continue to guide us and to which we continue to aspire.
Topping the list, our first Guiding Principle, is a commitment to “seek to bring about meaningful, socially beneficial change in the fields in which we work.” That principle was on my mind a great deal in 2017. As I have written elsewhere, when it comes to complex social problems, meaningful social change is not achieved by quick fixes. Effective philanthropy requires becoming part of and helping to nurture an ecosystem of grantees, beneficiaries, and other funders whose efforts, cumulatively and over time, can deliver lasting impact. This means making long-term commitments, while leaving room for goals and strategies to adapt and change with the times.
Our emphasis in 2017 was heavy on the adaptation side of that equation. Changes in the political landscape, both in the U.S. and abroad, threatened progress and exacerbated problems we’ve been working on for years. We responded by allocating more than $60 million in available flexible funds to bolster our most vulnerable strategies. These extra funds, spent on top of ongoing grantmaking of roughly $400 million, enabled us to pivot responsibly and try new things while our grantees adjusted, altering their own strategies or making new efforts.
We have long known that the challenges of unintended pregnancy are disproportionately faced by low-income women and women of color, who are less likely to be able to pay for contraception and abortion services, and more likely to have a child as a result of an unintended pregnancy. Once children are born, parents—all too often the mom alone—must cope with the demands of parenthood, frequently forgoing education in favor of low-wage employment just to provide food and shelter. The consequences carry over to their offspring, whose lives are palpably worsened by persistent poverty and family stress.
The combined effects of increasing income inequality, stagnant economic mobility, and decreasing marriage rates make it imperative to provide women and families the means to achieve socioeconomic stability. Critical among these means are safe, effective, and affordable contraception and abortion. Because women’s reproductive years directly overlap their years in school and first decades of labor force participation, they must be able to plan for childbearing to achieve educational and employment goals and attain economic security. This is not a theoretical claim: low-income women who use contraception are more likely to graduate from school, get and keep jobs, and support themselves and their families.
Progress in securing women access to family planning—reflected, for example, in the Affordable Care Act in its original form—continues to be threatened by a relentless crusade to take such choices away. For many on both sides of the debate this reflects a moral imperative. Yet lost in unresolvable differences over the meaning of privacy or indeterminate constitutional language has been this fundamental connection between reproductive rights and women’s opportunities for financial autonomy and secure homes.
The Hewlett Foundation had already been exploring a grant-making strategy to highlight family planning as a critical contributor to women’s economic empowerment, social mobility, and family stability. This natural connection, integral in the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, was severed in the years after Roe v. Wade, which (intentionally or not) had the effect of turning a social and economic issue into a predominantly legal one. Today, social policies and programs in the U.S. typically treat family planning, education, and employment as distinct and unrelated domains. The negative consequences of doing so were greatly magnified by the 2016 election and its aftermath. For despite professing concern for the poor and disadvantaged, the new Administration immediately launched an assault of unprecedented ferocity on women’s access to family planning and reproductive health in all forms. The sheer relentlessness of the campaign is dumbfounding—particularly given the near certainty (from past experience and research) that the policies being pursued will weaken families and hurt millions of women and children.
We have, under the circumstances, taken steps to elevate the importance of universal access to family planning for economic opportunity and mobility. We are seeking to do this by supporting organizations that are deeply embedded in and connected to the affected communities—organizations that create opportunities and space for women to speak about their own, lived experiences. Integrating concerns for reproductive health into efforts to advance women’s economic empowerment, social mobility, and family stability can improve lives, while narrowing the deplorable (and growing) gap between less-advantaged and more-advantaged women and families in the U.S. We have for too long been defensive in our work to support women’s life choices—unnecessarily ceding ground to a constricted, one-dimensional narrative that ignores the very real consequences of some very bad policies. It’s time for this story to change.
Winning the race against climate change
No problem today is more serious than climate change. History is replete with societies that simply vanished when the local climate shifted, and the threat we face now is bigger than this, because it’s global, not local. Manmade activity is changing the climate of the entire world, and the repercussions will be felt everywhere and by everyone. Already, we are experiencing significant effects—heat waves, droughts, forest fires, flooding, crop failures, famine, and more—with costly consequences. Climate-related disasters in 2016 alone tallied more than $12 billion, with related economic costs in excess of $300 billion. The future bill, if we don’t do something, will be incalculably higher.
Yet this is a battle we can win. Significant climate philanthropy began only in 2007, when the Hewlett, Packard, and McKnight Foundations jointly committed $1 billion to launch the ClimateWorks Foundation. At that time, the world was on track for a global average temperature rise of 5° to 6° Celsius by the end of the century—an increase that would have catastrophic impacts on people and the planet. In the ten years since then, nations around the world have taken steps and made pledges to reduce emissions enough to potentially limit this warming to less than 3° Celsius by 2100.
That’s incredible progress when one considers that the entire global economy has been running on fossil fuels. This headway came about as a result of dedicated, courageous work by thousands of scientists, activists, government officials, elected officeholders, journalists, diplomats, and others. But philanthropy has played a critical role too, and it is not an overstatement to say that the progress so far already comprises one of the most successful philanthropic efforts in history.
I say “so far” because it’s still not enough. We may be winning, but we are winning too slowly. At present rates of emission, we have no more than 10 to 15 years left to keep global warming within the Paris goal of “well below” 2° Celsius—itself a somewhat arbitrary benchmark that will still be accompanied by far-reaching impacts. Yet we cannot achieve even that goal without accelerating our efforts to peak emissions by 2020 and get on a trajectory to zero emissions by midcentury.
Fortunately, this is doable. Better yet, there are reasons to be optimistic, if not quite yet confident. Consider a few facts:
Global momentum has shifted in favor of meaningful action. After years of pushing the climate boulder uphill, world leaders united at the end of 2015 to tackle global warming. President Trump may have rejected the Paris Agreement, but he is a lone outlier—and his rejection had the ironic effect of motivating other world leaders to reaffirm their nations’ pledges. Today, the United States is the only country in the entire world not committed to reducing emissions.
Even in the United States, there is significant progress—and significant opportunities for more—from subnational actors that have stepped in to fill the void. Nearly four hundred mayors have committed to honoring the Paris climate agreement, and twenty-nine states have set renewable-energy targets. Driven by a combination of effects already happening and opportunities for economic growth, action at the state and local levels transcends the red/blue divide: Texas, Iowa, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Kansas are leading the nation in generating wind energy, for example, and 31 U.S. cities have committed to getting to 100 percent renewable energy.
Business is likewise stepping up. Nearly half of all Fortune 500 companies have set climate or clean-energy targets. Dozens—including Apple, GM, Facebook, Google, IKEA, Microsoft, Nike, Proctor & Gamble, and Walmart—have committed to using 100 percent renewable energy for their operations. Better still, businesses increasingly recognize the need to consider and disclose the impact of climate change on their operations. More than 100 leading global banks, insurers, and investors, representing more than $3 trillion of combined market capitalization, have pledged to support voluntary international guidelines for disclosing climate-related risks, making the financial system more resilient and accelerating climate progress.
Climate progress is increasingly resulting from simple market forces as well. Renewable energy is now as cheap or cheaper than fossil fuels in most places, attracting new capital and driving ambitious clean-energy goals. This is particularly evident in countries like China and India, which are acting aggressively to curb climate change and combat air pollution. China will spend $360 billion on renewable energy by 2020, creating 13 million new jobs; India is eight years ahead of its goal to produce 40 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuels.
The same is true of transportation and mobility. Thanks to improvements in battery technology, coupled with supportive policies, there are 100 times as many electric vehicles on the road today as there were in 2010—a rate of growth that shows no signs of abating. GM and Volvo have already announced plans to go all-electric, while Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota, and Daimler, among others, are making enormous investments in electric vehicles. The world’s mobility systems are on the cusp of massive progress, creating opportunities and benefits on multiple fronts.
This brief inventory hardly exhausts the list of positive developments, which is why the board of the Hewlett Foundation voted in November to commit an additional $600 million to climate mitigation efforts and the goal of keeping the average global temperature rise below 2° Celsius. This new funding is accompanied by a variety of strategic adjustments in our work that can be found in a strategy paper on our website.
We remain enthusiastic—prudent, but unwavering—about the possibilities for a reasonable, sustainable, and cost-effective transition to clean energy. That our future lies in clean energy is incontrovertible—as certain as the replacement of mechanical systems by digital ones. The question is whether we can muster the collective will to reach this future fast enough to ward off terrible costs that will otherwise be imposed by the energy systems of the declining industrial age.
We hope our foundation’s new commitment will influence other funders to join the effort. The Hewlett Foundation presently works with and alongside a cadre of outstanding funding partners, and we expect many of them likewise to step up their commitments in the coming year. But they understand what’s necessary and don’t need us for additional inspiration. Our aspiration is to reach funders who do not presently have climate in their sights.
Less than two percent of philanthropic dollars are presently spent in the fight to mitigate global warming. Think about that for a moment. Climate change is—unquestionably—among the most serious challenges facing humanity today, both in itself and because it will aggravate and accelerate so many other problems. Likewise beyond doubt is that philanthropy can and does play a pivotal role in helping to mitigate it. Yet the vast majority of funders have chosen to disregard the issue.
Their choices matter a great deal. For while that two percent has taken us quite far, it is not enough to succeed. More funding is needed in all the areas philanthropy currently reaches—promoting renewables, electrifying transportation, improving efficiency, replacing high potency gases other than CO2, and so on. Plus, there are gaping holes in global funding of other critical efforts: we need a lot more funding for research and development of energy alternatives and technologies, and funding is practically non-existent when it comes to things like negative emissions and carbon sinks, nuclear alternatives, and carbon capture and storage, not to mention in developing regions like Africa and Southeast Asia. Nor, to be clear, is the problem a lack of organizations or strategies to tackle these issues. We have those aplenty, as well as capacity to help new funders find or create them. What’s missing is financial resources, pure and simple.
There’s an unwritten rule of etiquette in philanthropy that one mustn’t lecture other funders about what they should (or should not) be funding. It’s a good rule by and large, and not just for preserving genial relations. There are so many worthwhile problems and causes, so many different ways to address and work on them, and so many different views and ideologies and ways of thinking. It’s foolish for anyone to think they have found “the” problems for all philanthropy and all philanthropists. When interviewing for my present position, someone asked what I thought about Hewlett’s choices of programmatic areas. My answer was that the foundation had chosen five or six of the twenty or so problems that could plausibly claim to be in the top ten, and that was about as good as anyone could hope to do.
I still believe that, generally speaking. But climate change is different. It’s such a huge problem, and the evidence of its disastrous consequences is by now so clear, that I don’t see how anyone can ignore it. Bear in mind, too, that climate change intersects with and will exacerbate almost every other problem philanthropists work on. Whether one cares about improving health outcomes, alleviating poverty, advancing racial equity, dealing with population or migration, preserving ecosystems, addressing famine and food—the list goes on—the effects of climate change will, over time, swamp or undo whatever progress is made as a result of today’s investments.
And here’s a frightening fact: enough time has passed to bear out many of the forecasts made in climate models. What they predicted was likely to happen is, in fact, happening. But the models envisage a range of possible outcomes, and temperature rise has been on the low end of the models’ predicted range, while its effects are on the high end. If anything, we are underestimating the likely consequences of global warming.
Why, then, so little funding? Why would funders, at least those who profess to believe that manmade climate change is real, nevertheless slough it off? One explanation that makes sense to me is the time delay: the fact that we won’t suffer the really bad effects of global warming for another half century.
Could that be it? Do delayed effects make the problem seem less pressing? We are presently experiencing only the first inklings of change. Climate-related wildfires like the ones that raged in California recently, hurricanes like the ones that ravaged Texas and Puerto Rico a few months ago, flooding and famine and heat waves like the ones that killed thousands in Asia and Africa last year, are but the first small effects of carbon already put into the atmosphere. Things will be much worse by 2100 if we fail to decarbonize.
Put aside dire predictions about the end of civilization and take a middle-of-the-road assessment. If we continue as we are, by 2100 lethal heatwaves will be common everywhere during summers, and storms like Harvey and Irma will be routine events during annual storm seasons, as will wildfires throughout the American West and like ecosystems. Many highly populated regions will become unlivable, particularly in poor nations, driving huge migrations that will make what’s happening today is Syria seem small and uncomplicated by comparison. Shifts in precipitation will produce incessant flooding that disrupts agriculture, as well as imposing massive costs on cities. Sea-rise of anywhere from four to twenty feet will make coastal cities in poor nations unlivable (driving still more migration), while imposing on cities in the developed world adaptation costs that dwarf today’s numbers. Changing weather patterns will reduce crop yields on staples like corn, soy, wheat, and cotton by anywhere from 20 to 30 percent, increasing food costs, devastating agribusiness, and making famines markedly more frequent and severe. Rising ocean acidity due to carbon absorption will finish off already dying coral reefs, shattering local economies that depend on the sea life these reefs sustain; the economic costs of this in the U.S. alone are estimated as high as $500 billion per year, global costs as high as $1 trillion.
Remember: these consequences reflect relatively moderate projections. Note, too, that my list is only partial. Plus, I haven’t accounted for additional costs likely to be produced by the intersection of these developments, or by the intensified effects of reaching tipping points, like the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Nor are these the rantings of a wild-eyed fanatic for whom the climate challenge represents an apocalyptic crisis of biblical proportions. I feel pretty clear-eyed and dispassionate about what’s happening. If it seems otherwise, you have not been reading what a massive amount of research and data, increasingly bolstered by facts on the ground, indicate is likely.
Now, imagine that these effects were being felt today, right now, every day, in cities and countries around the world. Imagine further that I went to foundations and philanthropists and said:
“You can make this stop if you help fund ongoing climate mitigation efforts. This doesn’t need to be your only philanthropic priority, or even your main one. Just shift five percent of your funding (we can help you spend it effectively), and you can be a factor in allaying these global disasters.”
Is there any doubt that every philanthropist and every foundation in the world would step up and do something, no matter what their other work?
If they are not doing so now, it must be at least partly that the delayed time till this is our world makes the problem seem less real, less terrible, than it will in fact be. Yet the effects of what we are doing today—the effects of continuing to pump CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—will create that world, as surely as the fact that a dropped ball will hit the ground. The effects may be time-delayed, but they are a product of physical laws and all but mechanical processes. They will be felt not by us, but by our children and our grandchildren—and by their children and their grandchildren for centuries to come.
We can shirk our responsibilities to our progeny and hand them this colossal bill. Or, for pennies on the dollar today, we can avert these costs—and, while doing so, revitalize our economies and step into the future. Isn’t that an obvious choice?
Fixing democratic dysfunction
Political polarization in the U.S. and its attendant discontents—especially the gridlock in Congress produced by unchecked hyper-partisanship—have been steadily worsening since the 1990s; by 2012, when I joined the Hewlett Foundation, it was obvious that public faith in democratic politics and American government was eroding.
That this should happen was distressing, but not actually surprising. Among the clearest lessons of two thousand years of political history—from ancient Greece and Rome to medieval Italy and twentieth century Germany—is that dysfunction and inaction in a republic will breed disaffection and alienation, which in turn provides fertile ground for demagogues, and eventually brings about the collapse of democratic government. It would be hubristic to assume that the United States, or any government or nation for that matter, is immune to these all-too-human propensities.
With that in mind, we launched the Madison Initiative in 2013, looking to ascertain the feasibility of an audacious goal: to “fix” Congress. More specifically, we asked what could be done to restore or create conditions in which the members of Congress might productively deliberate, negotiate, and compromise in ways that more Americans support.
Only in Congress can the myriad interests, ideas, and agendas of the whole nation be represented and reconciled in a democratically meaningful fashion.
Why focus on Congress? First, only in Congress can the myriad interests, ideas, and agendas of the whole nation be represented and reconciled in a democratically meaningful fashion. That cannot happen in the White House or in the Supreme Court. On the contrary, as President Obama could surely attest, unilateral policy decisions from these branches tend to aggravate rather than alleviate polarization. Federalism helps, and certain issues can be managed at the state and local levels. But the Constitution established a strong central government in recognition of the fact that other issues, including many of the most important ones, can only be handled at the national level. Plus, hyper-partisanship that began at the federal level has been steadily spreading down and out, and state officials increasingly mirror the polarizing behavior of their federal counterparts.
Second, leadership matters: what members of Congress do—and, more important, how they do it—matters. Ordinary citizens take their cues from elected officials as much or more than the reverse, especially when it comes to partisan attitudes and political behavior. Hyper-partisanship and polarization started in Congress, gradually infecting other parts of government and, now, the populace more generally. But the same may be true in reverse: if members of Congress once again begin to treat each other with respect—recognizing the legitimacy of opposition and of their opponents’ positions, working together to find solutions to pressing public issues—the American people will follow, or at least enough of them will follow to make a difference. The most effective way to reduce the tribalism that has disfigured America’s politics, in other words, is for tribal leaders to model better behavior by treating political opponents as kinfolk with different views, rather than mistrusted, hated enemies.
Over a three-year period, we tested a long list of hypotheses about where the foundation might make a difference, and eventually settled on three areas for deeper investment: (1) supporting bipartisanship, and the kinds of leaders and relationships that make it possible; (2) strengthening Congress as an institution by reforming its rules, norms, and processes, and strengthening its staff capacity; and (3) improving campaigns and elections for Congress, with a particular focus on campaign finance and on electoral rules to temper the effects of single-member, winner-take-all districts.
We expected that working across these areas would, cumulatively, enhance collaboration and pragmatic problem-solving within a polarized Congress, as well as help make cooperation easier and more routine. In the short run, this would help Congress, and the broader political system, cope with polarization. Over time, as the historical and cultural conditions that produced polarization change, these same interventions would facilitate a stronger, quicker recovery. To these ends, we have supported a host of grantee organizations, from across the ideological spectrum, who share our concern for making Congress more effective in a polarized age.
The work of the Madison Initiative was on track as we entered the 2016 campaign season. None of us expected that year’s presidential contest to be a high point in the annals of politics, but even so we were taken aback by its unrelenting awfulness. As in Europe, a constellation of issues associated with globalization—trade, wealth inequality, immigration, refugee crises, and terrorism—emboldened radical, populist, and illiberal voices. More so than in Europe, these forces were aggravated and intensified by a homegrown mix of polarization and hyper-partisanship, unsettling comfortable certainties and leaving a messy, muddled playing field. As responsible planners, we developed and assessed a scenario in which Donald Trump won. But until November 8, we saw this as a remote possibility. Like so many others, we were caught off guard by Trump’s election. The emergence of a populist demagogue may have been one of the risks we identified to support launching the Madison Initiative, but we never imagined it could happen so quickly.
Some of these adjustments involved short-term, defensive actions to safeguard key institutions. We provided funding to shore up administration of the 2020 census, for example, and to establish a robust, real-time, fact-checking and communications capability to watchdog the recently shut-down Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. But we also made a variety of important corrections in our plans for moving things forward. These plans—also discussed in a strategy paper found on our website—will be shaped by two fundamental insights in how we understand the problem: insights that will, over time, not only affect how we proceed, but that we think are important for anyone working to repair American politics.
The first concerns our past emphasis on bipartisanship, which is problematic if understood to mean a Solomonic dividing of the baby and settling for policy midpoints that no one favors. For many, “bipartisan” has become synonymous with ineffectual, wishy-washy, and anodyne: an approach to politics that feels outdated and quaint and, at this angry moment, positively undesirable.
But that’s not at all what we had, or have, in mind. In a functioning Congress, work gets done through fluid, short-term, cross-party coalitions—partnerships that form and dissolve and take new shape from issue to issue. Democratic politics presupposes ideological differences; it has, in fact, flourished in contexts where such differences were as great, or greater, than anything we see today. But it situates those differences in a pluralistic environment in which members have multiple commitments and relationships and opportunities: in which every issue is not framed for every member in binary partisan terms. This makes it possible to absorb appropriate levels of ideological combat while still reaching the agreements needed to serve the public.
Appropriate legislative behavior begins with shared commitment to the values and norms underpinning liberal democracy—most importantly, acceptance of opponents’ different views as a normal and legitimate feature of a shared political community. It presumes that, beyond the claims of party, legislators can and should bring to bear the particular needs, interests, and viewpoints of their constituents; their practical and professional experience; and their own policy agendas. In a functioning Congress, members’ political identities are not wholly defined by party or cabined by party discipline.
To be sure, most members vote with their parties most of the time, but all do and should depart on occasion. Sometimes the occasion is that a member doesn’t share the party’s views on a particular matter. Life is much too complicated for any thoughtful person to be liberal or conservative on every single issue. The representatives of neither party are ideologically undeviating, and when given freedom to vote their conscience reveal a wider spread.
In other instances, representatives depart from party orthodoxy based on special expertise that has shaped their views in idiosyncratic ways. After all, they had lives and careers before politics. Members who had been doctors or insurance agents or farmers or whatever might choose to eschew party discipline based on what they know from life experience. Participation on committees used to affect voting for similar reasons. When committees were the locus of power in Congress, before leadership usurped their authority, members who had spent time and effort developing deep knowledge about a subject and wanted to use what they had learned to accomplish something were often eager to forge agreements across party lines.
Finally, members often put partisanship aside to serve the interests of their state. Earmarks were an extraordinarily useful way to get things done. At an estimated total cost of less than one half of one percent of the budget, congressional earmarks made possible an enormous amount of useful legislation. Nor, by the way, has the elimination of earmarks in Congress led to their eradication; it simply shifted them to the executive branch. The point, in any event, is not to advocate for bringing back earmarks—that ship may well have sailed. It is that serving the interest of one’s state to help serve the interests of the nation, even at the expense of party and ideology, can be an appropriate and desirable form of legislative behavior.
Changes in Congress over the past thirty years have progressively limited the space available for representatives to give play to these sorts of influences. Members of Congress have been squeezed into partisan straightjackets that further neither their own reasons for entering public service nor the good of the country. And it gets worse after every election, as older members retire or are replaced. Today, scarcely anyone in Congress even remembers what it was like to work in a functioning body.
We must find ways to restore this functionality. We must recreate freedom for members to assert plural political identities defined by more than party labels. Strict party discipline is a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S., and it is ill-suited for an American constitutional system that was conceived and has evolved without it. As political scientists Frances Lee and James Curry have shown, very few bills become law without support from members in both parties, and the rare laws that do (like the Affordable Care Act or the newly enacted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act) seldom find popular acceptance and mainly intensify partisan enmity.
A second change in our understanding concerns broader patterns in U.S. politics. Popular government is neither easy nor natural. Making a republic work depends as much or more on informal customs and conventions as on formal laws. Implicit agreements define the arena within which ideological and political competition occurs and establish rules for the fight. These sorts of customary rules and conventions are essential for a reason James Madison called out in 1788: because a tendency toward “the violence of faction” is “sown in the nature of man,” and people whose interests, beliefs, and desires differ are “much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”
To counter that tendency, to mediate differences and opposition and keep politics from spinning out of control, we agree—not explicitly, but as a matter of political culture and custom—to accept limits and live by conventions that supersede the desire to win short-term ideological battles at all costs. Think democratic equivalent of Fight Club or Marquess of Queensberry rules. There’s no “right” set of rules for this purpose, no more than for culture generally. But while the rules that define how politics is played may vary from place to place and time to time, whatever they are, they need to be pretty sticky.
It took the people and leaders of this country a long time to figure rules out, and some outrageous things were done in the early years of the Republic. But they persevered, and, eventually, stable conventions emerged. These included everything from congressional courtesy in speaking to accepting the peaceful transfer of power, from adopting processes for use of roll call votes or filibusters to what constitutes fair game during a campaign. And while these have continued to evolve, there has, at any given time, been a broad consensus around rules for political engagement that restrain both winners and losers, and define the arena within which ideological and political conflict takes place. Most important, with the obvious exception of the Civil War period, “win at all costs” has never been the practice in American democracy.
In formulating the Madison Initiative, we zeroed in on one set of norms in democratic politics—the willingness to deliberate, negotiate, and compromise in crafting and enacting legislation—believing this was at the heart of the problem we were trying to solve. We now see how this was too narrow a conception. It’s more than just this one set of norms that has atrophied. The whole idea of informal, long-term norms whose observance is more important than winning ongoing policy disputes is under attack. Not all norms are up for grabs, at least not yet. But a broad array of practices that both presuppose and reaffirm a degree of respect for the legitimacy and bona fides of one’s opponents are being abandoned. And the more of these that go, the easier it becomes to cast aside still more.
Here, I think, the Republican Party must accept more of the blame. While the dynamic that led us here finds its roots as far back as the 1960s and is a product of actions by both parties, it seems hard to deny that the Republicans have pushed the envelope of partisan battle harder and farther—more willing to ignore even longstanding conventions of democratic politics to win.
I base that not just on the extreme rhetoric and inflexible opposition to Obama’s every move, no matter what. Nor on the usually implicit, but sometimes even explicit, support for absurdities like birther-ism. Thinking over a longer time frame, going back to the Clinton Administration, it is things like impeachment and the high-stakes government shut downs, eliminating the Office of Technology Assessment, and cutting congressional committee staff by a third. It’s shouting “You lie!” during a State of the Union address, and accusing the president of being a secret Muslim plotting the downfall of the nation. It’s indulging in insanely overdone and politically driven congressional investigations on topics like Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s email server. It’s refusing to give a hearing to Merrick Garland and shutting Elizabeth Warren down with an obsolete gag rule.
None of these steps was illegal. All were within the formal powers of Congress. Some were mere breaches of etiquette or protocol, and others had been done before, albeit not on the same scale or with the same frequency. But all entailed going beyond implicit understandings that have generally prevailed in politics. And, cumulatively, they signal a party that is now comfortable casting aside both formal and informal rules of engagement, as if all that matters is beating the other side.
Seen in this light, the substance of the new tax law, about which reasonable people can legitimately disagree, is not as distressing as the shameful process by which it was enacted—something no self-respecting adherent of constitutional democracy can possibly sanction. To get its tax bill through, GOP leadership overrode every shred of normal legislative process and respect for democratic norms. They didn’t feel it necessary to put up even a facade of caring about anything other than winning—as if there are no consequences or long-term effects from forcing legislation through in such a manner.
We’ll see what happens with the Democrats under Trump. They may not (yet) have gone to the same extremes as Republicans, but they have done their part to erode established norms. The Democrats under George W. Bush played with the debt ceiling as a tool for budget negotiations and were first to make a policy of filibustering every judicial nomination. President Obama contributed with his sweeping executive actions in areas like climate and immigration. The Clean Power Plan and Obama’s various executive orders may have been technically constitutional, but past presidents had not taken such politically dramatic steps outside the context of war or the Great Depression. And stretching executive power to wage a war or stave off immediate economic disaster is different from doing it just because you lost badly in the midterm election and can’t get a bill through Congress.
The point is, each side uses the abuses of the other to justify its own, neither paying much attention to the fact that, meanwhile, they’re unraveling the very rules and practices that make popular politics possible. And make no mistake: the long-term effect, if we don’t find a way to turn this around, will be nothing less than the ruin of America’s democracy.
So what’s a philanthropist to do?
It’s hard, in a competitive game, to reestablish an equilibrium once disrupted. Civics education (which has all but disappeared in the past thirty years) could help, but that’s slow and uncertain, and the content is itself a hugely polarized and polarizing issue. Game theory teaches that, when cooperation breaks down, competitors most often find their way back by playing tit-for-tat until all realize that no one can win. (Recall the scene at the end of the movie WarGames, in which a computer that has seized control of our nuclear arms learns by playing tic-tac-toe that no one will win in a thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union.) But many game theorists believe there is also an important role for narrative—providing actors with alternatives to which they can turn once they have exhausted themselves in combat.
Here is a place where philanthropy can definitely contribute. Broadly speaking, we can support grantees that help cultivate understanding of and appreciation for the values, norms, and, most important, the practices that underpin our liberal democracy, as well as the shared sense of national community it requires. More practically, we can work with actors on both sides to develop alternative norms, rules, and practices that can be taken up when circumstances permit—which is to say, when the two sides finally beat each other into exhaustion and accept that no one is going to “win” this way. While neither side is likely to accept a return to former practices, both can (without losing face) try something new. Regular order has completely broken down when it comes to core legislative responsibilities, like adopting a budget and exercising oversight of the executive—processes both sides know need to be fixed. It follows that sites like these offer real opportunities to develop new cooperative processes. If successful, moreover, these can provide a beachhead from which to build still other cooperative norms and practices. Just as earlier norms were at first abandoned slowly and piecemeal, perhaps we can begin to build new ones the same way. Nothing succeeds like success, after all. We have, accordingly, begun a wide-ranging inquiry to identify particular areas and specific ways in which to advance this idea.
Diversity, equity and inclusion
I want to end with a few words about diversity, equity and inclusion. These values are not something we started thinking about only last year, nor something around which our plans were significantly disrupted by the election. It nevertheless seems right to close with them because of other things that happened last year, things that have already spilled over to this one: things like the reemergence of white nationalism into public consciousness, the long overdue attention to sexual harassment, and now the rumors of racist slurs in the White House. Questions about race and gender, and identity generally, have become matters for everyone to grapple with, but especially organizations like ours, whose very purpose is the betterment of society. Now more than ever, we need to examine ourselves and our practices, and to show how welcoming and embracing our differences can make us stronger and better.
This effort is a matter of responsibility, not grace.
As I recently described in greater detail, the Hewlett Foundation began its exploration of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) several years ago, starting with our own operations and culture. We made commitment to DEI one of our Guiding Principles—stating explicitly why these values are important in our organizational culture, our internal operations, and our grantmaking and other external activities. We clarified what we do to live up to this commitment in staff hiring, recruitment, compensation, and workplace norms, and we launched a pilot to explore how we might support grantees that want to do their own institutional DEI work. Staff in all our programs are looking for ways to expand our grantee networks, support field-wide DEI efforts, and be more inclusive of the views of the people our philanthropy ultimately seeks to help.
In all these efforts, internal and external, we have tried to avoid reducing ourselves and our partners to labels, seeking rather to build stronger relationships and better dialogue through awareness of—and respect for—our differences. This is not some time-limited “diversity initiative,” with defined goals and an end point where we declare victory and say we have finished. It’s an ongoing journey, an effort to develop and nurture and sustain a different kind of culture, and a better culture.
This effort, as I have said elsewhere, is a matter of responsibility, not grace. As an endowed institution with significant resources, the foundation makes choices about how we use our assets. But the choices we make have consequences, and we have a responsibility to make those choices thoughtfully, mindful of the larger society of which we are part, and of the historical, economic, and cultural forces that shape it.
We have more to do and more to learn, and with goodwill and commitment, I believe we can and will do still better. Already it is clear that adding and empowering voices that have gone unheard or been unheeded has enhanced our work and made us a healthier, more effective organization.
In these days of rage and resentment, that’s a profoundly encouraging and affirming lesson: a measure of hope and of the possibility of progress to build on in 2018.