Menlo Park, Calif. — It is hard to look at events of the past few years without concluding that democracy in America is in trouble. Surveys routinely find that most Americans think poorly of the federal government and, in particular, of Congress. Such frustration and mistrust do not bode well for our system of government.
Against this backdrop, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced today that it is launching a new initiative to help alleviate the problem of polarization, with a special focus on the problem in Congress. The foundation will invest $50 million over the next three years in what it is calling the Madison Initiative. It will use this initial phase of grantmaking to assess whether and how it can help strengthen the nation’s representative institutions so that they are better able to address the major issues facing the country—and do so in ways that work for the American people.
The Initiative takes its name from James Madison, who warned against “the mischiefs of faction.” He and the other Founders designed a system of government built on representative institutions meant to foster negotiation and compromise. They understood that governing a nation as extensive and diverse as the United States would require leaders capable of reaching agreement among, and on behalf of, people and groups with different and often conflicting interests, beliefs, and agendas.
Reflecting its Madisonian roots, the Initiative will have the foundation joining forces with other funders, civic groups, and leaders—in and outside of government—working to restore pragmatism and the spirit of compromise in Congress; to reform campaign and election processes so they set the stage for problem solving; and to promote a more informed and active citizenry.
Hewlett’s approach is unequivocally agnostic on particular policy outcomes outside of democracy-enhancing reforms. The Initiative is based on the premise that the health of a representative democracy is measured not by whether any particular policy is adopted, but by whether its institutions are working in ways that most people find acceptable.
“Strengthening the ability of democratic institutions to find solutions is better for everybody in the long run, no matter which political party is seen to benefit in the short term,” said Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation and former dean of Stanford Law School. “We want to see better and more productive debate and deliberation on the most challenging problems facing society, which are simply not being addressed at the moment.”
The Madison Initiative will be explicitly bipartisan, engaging with and supporting nonprofit grantees from the right, left, and center who share the goal of improving representative democracy in the United States.
The Hewlett Foundation is not the first grant maker seeking to shore up the country’s flailing democracy. There are many other donors in the field. Ellen Alberding, president of the Joyce Foundation, a longstanding funder in this area, observed, “We are delighted to have the Hewlett Foundation joining this effort. They are bringing a powerful vantage point and a collaborative spirit to their work, and we look forward to working with them to advance the goals we have in common.”
The Initiative has been structured as an exploratory effort in which the foundation will invest $50 million over the next three years; if the preliminary grantmaking is seen as promising, the Foundation will return to its Board of Directors for additional funding in 2017.
About The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation helps people build measurably better lives. The Foundation concentrates its resources on activities in education, the environment, global development and population, performing arts, and philanthropy, and makes grants to support disadvantaged communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. A full list of all the Hewlett Foundation’s grants can be found here.