American Democracy: Time for Intensive Care

February 15, 2017

Near the end of 2013, in what now seems like a distant and more innocent political era, the president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Larry Kramer, spoke at Duke about his foundation’s effort to “help fix democracy” in the United States. At that point, Hewlett’s newly minted Madison Initiative was just setting out to battle political polarization, especially in Congress, but also in the electorate more generally. Even then, before anyone had ever heard the expressions #NeverTrump or “Lock Her Up,” polarization seemed to be threatening to throttle American government and politics and turn compromise and comity into quaint relics of the past. The question for Mr. Kramer was whether philanthropy, with its relatively modest resources and its lack of any democratic mandate, could actually do anything to improve matters. He and Hewlett were determined to try.

Then came the tempest of 2016, and circumstances that had previously seemed merely dreadful were now suddenly catastrophic.

Mr. Kramer returned to Duke this semester to address the Foundation Impact Research Group, and to take stock of what had changed and what, in these dismal circumstances, the Hewlett Foundation still believed it could do to restore honest deliberation and negotiation to American politics. His assessment, though sobering, was far less discouraging than one might have expected. (Watch the full video here.)

In fact, for anyone looking for a glimmer of hope in the present circumstances — and even more, for anyone who wants to understand the problem in all its multiple dimensions — Mr. Kramer’s remarks are not to be missed. The first 50 minutes of the video offer the most complete and sophisticated tour d’horizon of American political paralysis available anywhere. 

With so many pundits expounding daily on the subject, it is tempting to believe you’ve already heard everything there is to say about it. And most careful observers of politics will no doubt find points here or there in Mr. Kramer’s remarks that are all too familiar — the role of Nixon’s Southern strategy in the 1960s and ’70s, Robert Bork’s failed Supreme Court nomination in the ’80s, changes in campaign finance, the domination of primary elections by the ideological extremes, the increasing tendentiousness of news media in the internet age, the centralization of congressional power among party leaders. But the way these fit together — the complex interplay of problems and aggravating factors — is a tale rarely told well, and almost never told as thoroughly and thoughtfully as Larry Kramer did in less than an hour at the Sanford School.

Plus, there are several surprises. One example: Gerrymandering, in Mr. Kramer’s view, is largely peripheral to the problem of polarization, and while it undermines democracy in important ways, fixing it is unlikely to bring back Congress’s ability to function properly. (Be alert for this intriguing argument beginning around the 25-minute mark in the video.)

In the end, even more than in his 2013 remarks, Mr. Kramer outlines a long-game strategy for the Madison Initiative. He acknowledges that, before November 8, 2016, Hewlett had some fairly aggressive plans for correcting some of the underlying causes of polarization. By the early hours of November 9, many of those had crumbled. In their place, he now describes a slow and patient process of seeding reformist organizations, especially involving current and former members of Congress, and spotlighting scholarly and political thinkers who can formulate and promote new approaches.

In the meantime, he asks, in the brutal and fruitless period that lies before us, “What do we do while [the two parties] battle each other back to stalemate? Because that’s what’s going to happen. Nobody wins this. We need to find a way to keep the ideas out there, so that when they’re both bloody and broken, after the 9,000th round, we can say: ‘Remember, there’s actually a different way to have this fight. So let’s get ourselves back to some set of rules and conventions’” (beginning roughly 40 minutes into the video).

That long, patient game is a reminder of why philanthropy — especially perpetual foundations, with their long time horizon and relative shelter from shifting political winds — is so valuable to a democratic society. Foundations’ endowments afford them the privilege of long-term thinking, learning and perseverance — all indispensable assets in a period when the short-term solutions all seem to lead headlong into dead ends.

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Tony Proscio


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