On Monday, I argued that polarization in America is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Lots of people seem stuck in the denial or bargaining stages of grief, but at some point, we have to face reality and get on with things.

Today, let’s zoom in a little and take a look at a particular sector, one that is arguably at the center of the climate change struggle (and many other progressive struggles) because, well, it’s where all the money is: institutional philanthropy. Just about anyone working in analysis, advocacy, or activism depends on the flow of dollars coming from foundations. Half of every nonprofit’s life is begging foundations for grants. The flow of money shapes the political landscape in ways both visible and obscure. How the philanthropic sector chooses to adapt to polarization in the U.S. is thus of great interest to a great many people.

Luckily, some smart people are on it. Probably the best and most important thing I read while I was away was an article in a journal called the Stanford Social Innovation Review. (Yes. Nerd. Moving on.) It’s called “Philanthropy in a Time of Polarization,” by Steven Teles, Heather Hurlburt, and Mark Schmitt. It addresses exactly our question: Given that polarization is here to stay, what should foundations do? It requires a subscription, so I’m going to quote big chunks of it at you.

Today’s philanthropic sector came of age during a time, from the 1960s through the 1990s, when political parties were extremely weak.

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In a Congress with a large number of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, members were as likely to find allies in the other party as in their own, and they adopted Congressional rules that weakened party leaders and enhanced the opportunity for members to form opportunistic, temporary coalitions. …

The loose structure of Congress allowed members to form legislative coalitions in any number of different ways, including partnerships between moderates of both parties, strange-bedfellow coalitions of liberals and conservatives, and alignments of regional or economic interests.

This was a time of chaos and ferment, when no single coalition had control of the long-term agenda. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle would often rely on common sources of data and analysis, funded by widely respected foundations; that common base of information provided the basis for negotiation.

Leaders in philanthropy have pursued a vision of social change that rests on a set of long-held assumptions: that strong ideas and persuasive research, coupled with broad public support and validation by elites, will motivate elected officials; that policy proposals designed to reflect the ideological preferences of both major parties, or the poll-tested preferences of centrist voters, can provide a basis for insider bargaining; and that policy entrepreneurs who operate both inside and outside legislative bodies can act as advocates, sources of ideas and information, and mediators.

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Acting on these assumptions, foundations “were able to engage deeply in the policy process without being ‘political’ in the conventional sense of that term.” This self-conception — rigorous, expert, above politics — became extremely important to foundations and shaped the think tanks and advocacy organizations they funded, many of which, especially on the center-left (and in the environmental world), cling to that self-conception to this day.

Unfortunately, the environment in which that self-conception made sense was “an artifact of a short-lived period, rather than a permanent feature of the American system.” As I described on Monday, red America and blue America have been drifting apart. Not unrelatedly, the authority of “scientific, journalistic, and other establishment institutions” has been declining for decades.

The country lost the mediating power that these institutions had over public discourse, and in particular their ability to certify basic claims of fact. In their place came media outlets that reinforce polarization in order to profit from it. The center of gravity in the think-tank world shifted from the Brookings Institution—which prided itself on being a “university without students,” with deep roots in academia and with friends in Congress from both parties—to the Heritage Foundation, which was most closely affiliated with conservative social movements and the House Republican caucus. Liberals responded by building more assertively partisan organizations of their own, such as the Center for American Progress. These changes, combined with a broader segmentation of the American media landscape, have resulted in the creation of largely separate, partisan worlds of information.

The most mobilized and most attentive citizens now distrust the model of cross-party negotiation. In many cases, they perceive the party opposite their own as extreme, untrustworthy, and even a threat to constitutional government. In the late 1970s, nearly half of all citizens who identified with one party had relatively warm feelings about the other party; today, by contrast, that number stands at less than 20 percent. And it is the citizens with the most extreme views who are most likely to vote, to contribute money to candidates (especially in primary elections), and to participate in grassroots party politics.

No issue is immune from partisan fever. Many traditionally non-partisan issues (agriculture policy, infrastructure spending) have become more polarized, and issues that once had small but vital groups of centrist backers (the environment, nuclear disarmament, programs for low-income working families) have lost that support. [my emphasis]

The environment has almost entirely lost its status as a focus of bipartisan agreement. So, I fear, has climate change. They have been caught up in polarization, which isn’t going away.

The question, then, is what the philanthropic sector can or should do about it. The authors lay out three options.

One is to stick to the familiar model, “to pursue change through the application of strong research and support from elite cross-partisan validators.” There are still some confined circumstances in which that model can work, but it “now seems unable to move significant new ideas or policy changes past determined ideological opponents.” Witness immigration reform, which had cross-partisan validators at several points but was mercilessly crushed by House Republicans. Or witness the cap-and-trade effort of 2009-10, environmental philanthropy’s grandest and most coordinated effort to put the old model to work, to co-opt big business and gain key early support from “sensible centrists.” We know how that ended:

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The second option for institutional philanthropy is to fund efforts to de-polarize the system through procedural reforms — “open primaries, nonpartisan redistricting, changes to Senate filibuster rules, campaign finance reform,” and the like. This kind of thing has always had a strong pull among the intelligentsia; every generation produces another wave of good-government types, “goo-goos” in the lingo, trying to fix the system. You can see Lawrence Lessig gaining some traction going after money in politics.

But taking away various tricks partisans use won’t address partisanship’s deeper causes. In fact, such procedural reforms often backfire, as partisan forces find new, more creative routes of influence. (For instance, restrictions on donations to political parties had the effect of funneling money to even more hyper-ideological outside organizations.) There are worthy procedural reforms, of course, but little prospect of any reform powerful enough to reverse the trend to polarization.

The third option is “to accept the realities of partisanship and to adopt models of policy change that work within the political system as it is.” This is the option endorsed by the authors (and me), but what does it mean?

The accept-and-adapt model, as they call it, involves one of two “strategic paths.”

[Foundations] can work opportunistically to build unexpected cross-party coalitions around certain issues. Or they can embrace the need to shift their resources toward one ideological pole or the other.

Their description of the first path is interesting:

Some of the most creative advocacy work currently under way builds cross-party coalitions that are anchored not by centrists, but by figures with unquestioned ideological credibility. We call this style of advocacy “transpartisan,” because it recognizes that the critical political gatekeepers are no longer ideologically neutral actors in the center, but the authorizers of ideological orthodoxy at the poles. The art of transpartisan policy entrepreneurship is to develop policy frameworks that can support gatekeepers who have chosen to bless certain unorthodox ideas or shifts in policy. Opportunities for transpartisan coalitions are rare, and it may take years before the work of building connections among outside advocates and peripheral but strategically important players pays off. [my emphasis]

The piece tells the story of two such transpartisan successes, involving committed partisans on both sides, one around prison reform and the other Pentagon spending. Foundations played a “crucial role” in both.

Two of the conservatives who blessed prison-reform efforts were Ed Meese and Newt Gingrich. As it happens, I remember Newt from another effort to build a cross-party coalition “anchored not by centrists, but by figures with unquestioned ideological credibility.”

That one didn’t go so well. And other efforts to take this strategic path on climate have not paid off:

Not every effort by philanthropists to create a strange-bedfellows coalition works out so well. Consider the Creation Care initiative, a push to attract evangelical support for legislation to reduce global warming. Environmentalists and some of their funders were cheered when Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), embraced younger evangelicals’ interest in environmentalism and, with mainstream foundation support, attempted to enlist important evangelical leaders to support action on global warming. But conservative activists counterattacked. They forced Cizik to resign from the NAE and began funding efforts to portray environmentalism as a thinly veiled assault both on religion and on the free market. Many evangelicals withdrew or watered down their support.

So far, conservative gatekeepers who dare heresy on climate change have not found converts, but have been forcefully re-educated or excommunicated. Newt quickly learned his lesson and backpedaled. John McCain folded like a cheap card table the second it got hot for him. Republican Bob Inglis dared take climate seriously and got primaried out of his seat for it. On the right, at least, it would seem that climate change has become too strongly and uniformly coded in partisan terms to turn back. Without gatekeepers willing to validate climate concern, there are no “unexpected cross-party coalitions” to be had.

So, er, what about that second strategic path, then? The authors call it “taking sides.”

To safeguard their investments in advocacy, foundations should almost always be prepared to work primarily with allies on one side of the political divide. Pundits who say that “nothing can get done without bipartisan support” no longer have the evidence on their side.

They reference the healthcare fight of 2008-09. While most foundations and advocacy groups struggled mightily, at great length, to gain Republican support, one, called Health Care for America Now (HCAN), did something different.

HCAN coordinated something that resembled a purely partisan mobilization strategy, and its leaders proceeded from the assumption that what emerged as the ACA would need an activated, passionate constituency more than it would need elite bipartisan consent. Had funders supported only standard bipartisan efforts to pass health reform, they would have been caught unprepared when it became apparent that health reform was going to become the territory of a long and intractable partisan war. The lesson of the ACA fight is that even when donors hope to attract bipartisan support on an issue, they are better off spreading their bets: Along with funding some cross-partisan efforts, they should put many or most of their chips on strategies that have the power to mobilize a constituency and that reflect the actual voting patterns in Congress. [my emphasis]

The success of HCAN (the ACA passed with exclusively Dem votes) also highlights the crucial need for long-term ideological infrastructure building.

Donors who focus on issues such as health care should also recognize that investments in building a broad partisan and ideological infrastructure may be as important to their success as issue-specific campaigns such as HCAN. In the current polarized political environment, few issues are subject to a stable consensus, and therefore opportunities for change may appear suddenly and unexpectedly. So will formidable threats to roll back progress. Adaptive think tanks, multi-issue advocacy organizations, and grassroots organizing groups are vital institutions that can respond to opportunities and challenges, build long and powerful relationships with political and media leaders, and help shape the overall climate of opinion.

You know who has been “building a broad partisan and ideological infrastructure”? The right. For decades, conservative donors have provided steady funding to think tanks, advocacy groups, student groups, and media outlets devoted to advancing the cause. Every one of these organizations produces a steady stream of conservative soldiers.

As (asymmetrical) polarization has accelerated, that infrastructure has become more explicitly partisan. Virtually the entire world of conservative research, advocacy, and journalism has been assimilated to the Borg. For a poignant recent example, look at what’s happened to the aforementioned Heritage Foundation. It is now primarily an enforcer of lockstep partisan orthodoxy and only secondarily a research organization. And it’s not an outlier.

On the left, especially on the center-left (and the “center,” which is what people on the center-left who don’t like using the word “left” call the center-left), foundations still cling to the old model, the old self-conception.

Mainstream foundations, especially those that pursue liberal-identified policy goals from an avowedly nonpartisan perspective, have tended to view such investments [in long-term ideological infrastructure] as inappropriate. …

Taking such steps will not be easy for a sector that prides itself on maintaining a distance from partisan politics. Yet the same intellectual rigor that has been a source of pride for many foundations demands that the world of philanthropy see the policymaking process as it actually is. Being on the “right” side of an issue and collecting elite endorsements are no longer enough. … Partisan conflict is not an external factor that advocates can work around. It is the defining axis of American politics today, and funders must be unafraid to reckon with it. [my emphasis]

So, if I can summarize this lamentably long post in a pithy way (and these are my words, not the authors’): There’s virtually no overlap left between the two sides in America’s culture war, not on policy, not even on basic facts and assumptions. The right has has become insular, hyper-ideological, and contemptuous of the unwritten rules that governed the age of bipartisanship. Positions that were once seen as commonsense or centrist are now exclusively the province of the left.

Given that fact, there is no point in center-left funders continuing to pretend that they float above politics like unbiased technocrats free of petty partisan concerns. Putting aside rare exceptions where transpartisan coalitions are still possible, any hope of seeing their policy preferences made law lies in strengthening the left. In other words, they should choose a side.


One interesting question, which I’m not totally qualified to answer, is: Where are climate-concerned foundations, think tanks, and NGOs on this? How many are still tailoring their funding and policy advocacy to the pursuit of centrist validators? How many are aiming instead at activating and sustaining a passionate (and partisan) core constituency? I don’t know enough about the green philanthropy world to generalize.

Funders are, I know, distraught over the total failure of their efforts to move the needle on climate. I know they are groping for a road forward. As a first step in reassessing their strategies, they should accept the fact of partisanship and consider how to operate in that context.

Climate is, for now and for the foreseeable future, the left’s issue. If you want something done about it, build up a passionate constituency for it on the left. The logic is difficult to escape.

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