Opinion

The Law of Unintended Political Consequences Strikes Again

The killing of George Floyd and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that followed drove an exceptionally large increase in foundation grants and pledges to criminal and racial justice reform groups and other causes, ranging from the United Negro College Fund to the Center for Antiracist Research and from the National Museum of African American History to the Yes 4 Minneapolis campaign to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.

Candid — a website that connects “people who want to change the world with the resources they need to do it” — published “What does Candid’s grants data say about funding for racial equity in the United States?” by Anna Koob on July 24, 2020.

Koob wrote:

Before Floyd’s death, Candid found that philanthropies provided “$3.3 billion in racial equity funding” for the nine years from 2011 to 2019. Since then, Candid calculations revealed much higher totals for both 2020 and 2021: “50,887 grants valued at $12.7 billion” and “177 pledges valued at $11.6 billion.”

Among the top funders, according to Candid’s calculations, are the Ford Foundation, at $3 billion; Mackenzie Scott, at $2.9 billion; JPMorgan Chase & Co. Contributions Program, at $2.1 billion; W.K. Kellogg Foundation, $1.2 billion; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $1.1 billion; Silicon Valley Community Foundation, $1 billion; Walton Family Foundation, $689 million; The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, $438 million; and the Foundation to Promote Open Society, $350.5 million.

There are Democratic strategists who worry about unintended political consequences that could flow from this surge in philanthropic giving. Rob Stein, one of the founders of the Democracy Alliance, an organization of major donors on the left, argued in a phone interview that while most foundation spending is on programs that have widespread support, “when progressive philanthropists fund groups that promote extreme views like ‘defunding the police,’ or that sanction ‘cancel culture,’ they are exacerbating intraparty conflict and stoking interparty backlash.” The danger, according to Stein, is that “some progressive politicians and funders are contributing to divisiveness within their ranks and giving fodder to the right.”

Matt Bennett, senior vice president of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, argued in an email:

However, Bennett continued, “It’s crystal clear that some ideas being pushed by activists and funded by lefty foundations go beyond that paradigm, treading into territory that is flat-out politically toxic and that undermine our collective goals.”

Bennett cited a post-2020 election study commissioned by Third Way and other groups that “found that Republicans used ‘Defund the Police’ as a cudgel against moderate Democrats, and it played a major role in the loss of more than a dozen House seats. These losses brought us to the brink of handing an insurrectionist the Speaker’s gavel.”

“It’s also clear,” in Bennett’s view,

Any foundation, Bennett declared,

Michael Tomasky, editor of the New Republic, wrote at the end of November that “It’s an undeniable fact that Democratic Party elites, progressive activists, foundation and think-tank officials, and most opinion journalists are well to the left of the party’s rank and file.”

It’s possible, Tomasky continued, “that certain issues, or ways of talking about certain issues, will be established as litmus tests within the party that could be quite problematic for Democrats trying to run in purple districts.”

Tom Perriello, a former congressman from Virginia who is now executive director of George Soros’s Open Society-U.S., strongly defends the role of foundations. Leading up to the 2020 election, foundations invested “$700 million in voter protection that probably held democracy together,” he said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “Philanthropy saved the day.”

Critics who focus on the small set of controversial foundation programs that may be used by Republicans against Democrats, Perriello said, fail to recognize that “what is hurting Democrats is that there is not a core economic message and that allows Republicans to set these (cultural and racial) issues as a priority.”

Perriello cited same-sex marriage as an example of philanthropy initially “pushing the Overton window” farther than the electorate was willing to go, but, over time, “now it’s a winning issue.”

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, argued in a phone interview that no consideration is — or can be — given to partisan political consequences:

Walker continued: “We support organizations that are working toward more justice and more inclusion in America, but we have no interest in the Democratic Party’s strengths or weaknesses.”

I asked Walker about the concerns raised by Stein and Bennett. “We support issues that are about progress and inclusion and justice, but the chips fall where they fall,” Walker said.

I also asked Walker about a subject that became a central issue in the 2021 Virginia governor’s race: “critical race theory.” Walker said that the foundation supports proponents of the theory “because we believe there is value in understanding how race is a factor in our legal system,” adding that the foundation does not support the views of its grantees “100 percent of the time, but at the end of the day we believe in certain ideas of justice and fairness in our society.”

Kristen Mack, a managing director at the MacArthur Foundation, replied by email to my inquiry about foundation spending:

The Nov. 2 Minneapolis election provided a case study of the complex politics of the defund-the-police movement. Voters in Minneapolis rejected — by 56 to 44 percent — an amendment to the city charter that would have dismantled the police department and replaced it with a department of public safety.

All three wards with majorities or pluralities of Black voters — wards 4, 5 and 6 — voted against the amendment by margins larger than the citywide average, at 61.2 to 38.8 percent. Voters in three other of the city’s 13 wards — 8, 9 and 10 — strongly supported the amendment to disband the police department, 57 to 43 percent. Voters in wards 8, 9 and 10 are majority or plurality white, with whites making up 54.1 percent of the population of the three wards taken together, according to data provided to The Times by Jeff Matson of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

The battle over the amendment reverberated into the races for City Council, resulting in the defeat of some incumbents who supported dismantling the police department.

Esme Murphy of Minneapolis television station WCCO interviewed several of the victors:

“Emily Koski, a mother of two, in south Minneapolis defeated Ward 11 incumbent Jeremy Schroeder, one of the strongest voices who in June of 2020 called for defunding the Minneapolis police.”

Koski told Murphy, “I felt this was the time to step up and make sure that we are actually listening to all of our community members and I feel like they felt they had been shut out.”

Similarly, in Northern Minneapolis, Murphy reported: “LaTrisha Vetaw beat incumbent Phillipe Cunningham. He too was a strong supporter of replacing the police. ‘I ran because I love this community and we deserve so much better in this community than what we were getting.’”

The single largest contribution, $650,000, to the Yes 4 Minneapolis PAC, the leading group seeking approval of the charter amendment to dismantle the police department, was from Soros’s Open Society Policy Center.

Some philanthropies, in the view of Larry Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, have inadvertently become trapped in the politics of polarization. In a phone interview, Kramer contended that

This set of beliefs in particularly problematic at this juncture, Kramer continued, because “the public has lost faith in all our institutions. Neoliberalism is dead, but in the absence of something better, people are drifting toward ethnonationalism as a way to explain what seems wrong about the world to them.”

Instead of looking for a knockout punch, Kramer argued, “with neoliberalism dead, something will replace it. The challenge is to find something better than ethnonationalism — a way to think about the relationship of government and markets to people that is better suited to a 21st century economy and society.”

Jonathan Chait, a columnist for New York magazine, wrote an essay in late November on the dilemmas of the Biden presidency, “Joe Biden’s Big Squeeze,” in which he argued that progressive foundations

Nonprofits on the left, Chait argued, “set out to build a new Democratic majority. When the underpinnings of its theory collapsed, the movement it built simply continued onward, having persuaded itself that its ideas constituted an absolute moral imperative.”

Chait went on:

The defeat of Democratic candidates up and down the ticket in the 2021 Virginia election renewed the intraparty debate.

ALG Research, the major polling firm in the Joe Biden campaign, conducted, along with Third Way, a postelection study of the 2021 Virginia governor’s race, in which Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, defeated Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee. The ALG study of swing voters, which I have reported on in past columns, found, for example, that Republican highlighting of critical race theory had a subtle effect on voters:

While the voters ALG studied knew that critical race theory had not been formally adopted as part of Virginia’s curriculum, the report continued,

As my colleague Jeremy W. Peters wrote in a postelection analysis last year, critics

But, Peters continued,

For leaders of the Democratic Party, these developments pose a particularly frustrating problem because they pay an electoral price for policy proposals and rhetoric that are outside party control.

Some might argue that Republicans have the same problem in reverse, but that is not the case. The Republican Party cannot rein in its radical wing and has shown no real inclination to do so. Worse, to succeed in 2022 and 2024, it may not need to.

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