An Open Letter to Patriotic Philanthropists
Dear Fellow Citizen,
Shortly before the election last fall, The New York Times ran an editorial about the flood of independent money in the campaign. The editors noted, “The business interests behind those hundreds of millions are not going to give up the influence and the power that spending has given them. That’s the reason this unlimited money is so corrupting: win or lose, it binds lawmakers, corporations and special interests ever closer.”
If the Times’s readers could tolerate it, such editorials could run every day—and not just during elections.
Because others in this issue of Democracy are writing about the many dimensions of the problem, we won’t pile on. But we do want to point out that both of us have, for eight decades now, been witnesses to—and proud products of—the American experiment. And in that time we have never seen our democracy so utterly subjugated by the power of well-heeled special interests.
So, what can be done? A lot, is the answer. But here’s one simple idea: Help fund the groups that fight for political reform.
Both of us have been doing so for a long time—one as the president of a small family foundation whose benefactors were devoted to the renewal of democracy, one as an individual citizen concerned for his country. Over the years, we’ve collectively helped reform groups raise millions of dollars. But that’s only a thimble-sized sum compared to the need.
It’s been rewarding to see the many groups we’ve supported do so much with so few resources. But it’s also been painful to see them toil away in a long and losing battle, seriously outgunned on Capitol Hill by the lobbyists who profit from the current system, and outmaneuvered in the courts by the lawyers and justices who deem money the equal of speech.
How much do these reformers spend annually? An estimated $45 million. Only about .01 percent of total charitable giving in America (which was roughly $300 billion in 2011). It’s about one-fourth of what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spends annually (roughly $200 million in 2010), and roughly one-tenth of what Koch-related groups committed to spending in the 2012 elections to promote their agendas ($400 million, according to Politico).
The two of us could list most of the funders of reform on the back of a napkin. Like their grantees, they’re very capable and dedicated people who strive to accomplish much with few resources. Like us, many of them are frustrated that the pool of philanthropists has remained so consistently small over the years. And, also like us, many can’t keep investing in this cause much longer, not for lack of interest but for lack of resources.
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.
That’s why it’s about time for others who are well connected and well heeled to provide a counterweight. When some people think about philanthropy, they think of building libraries and wings of hospitals, of endowing university chairs and curing diseases, of providing comfort to the afflicted, and preserving pristine lands. All noble goals. But beneath them lies a larger structural problem with the way our country functions, or doesn’t function. Helping solve that problem offers philanthropists a shot at a different kind of legacy—one that would make Jefferson and Lincoln proud.
Now is the time to invest in such a legacy. The tinder of public opinion is dry. In a recent Gallup poll, 87 percent of respondents said that ending government corruption should be a “very important” or an “extremely important” priority for the President. The only priority that ranked higher was job creation.
There are more than two dozen groups working mightily to ignite the popular movement necessary for rekindling the American Dream of justice for all. If patriotic philanthropists fail to meet the challenge, future editorials in The New York Times on money in politics will read less like urgent calls for change and more like obituaries.
Bill Moyers & Arnold Hiatt
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