The Madison Initiative director talks about Congress, the initiative’s grantees, and “philanthropic pluralism.”
Daniel Stid directs the Madison Initiative at the $9.8 billion William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif. The Madison Initiative is an eight-year, $150 million grantmaking effort to, as Hewlett itself puts it, “support the key values and institutions of democracy—in particular Congress, the first branch of government—in our polarized age.”
Stid came to Hewlett from Bridgespan, the nonprofit consulting group, before which he worked for the Boston Consulting Group, which serves for-profit clients. Previously, he was a political-science professor at Wabash College.
Stid was an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow, serving on the staff on then-U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey. He is the author of The President as Statesman: Woodrow Wilson and the Constitution.
Below is the second of two parts of an edited transcript of a discussion that Stid was kind enough to have with me in September. The first part, in which he talks about his early career, management consulting, and, philanthropy, is here.
Hartmann: How do you describe the Madison Initiative now? Do you describe it differently than when you initially helped create it, given what’s happened and is happening in politics?
Stid: The Madison Initiative today is an effort to strengthen the values and institutions of American democracy in a time of polarization. We have a particular emphasis on the first branch of our government, Congress, because we feel like that’s the one that is woefully underperforming relative to its constitutional responsibilities, and that underperformance has ripple effects that are creating a broader set of problems elsewhere.
There has been an evolution, which we talk about in our strategy and in what we share with the field. When we started, we were somewhat more narrowly focused on the problem of polarization and on what we then saw as the primary solution to it: improving the capacity and disposition of members of Congress to negotiate and compromise with each other.
That still is a central thrust of what we do. But especially over the past two or three years, we’ve recognized that is insufficient, that there are a range of other democratic values beyond negotiation and compromise that are at stake and we needed to broaden our emphasis. That hasn’t necessarily led to a dramatic difference in the grants we’re making, but it has led us to appreciate more elements of the work of our grantees that are going into upholding these other values—not just bipartisanship, negotiation, and compromise, but also the value of pluralism and the need for us to agree to disagree in a diverse society if we’re going to hang together. Those are some more-recent emphases. We are also recognizing the need to combat the digital disinformation that can now be so readily produced, shared, and consumed via social media in ways that are having pernicious effects in our democracy.
Hartmann: How’s it going? Might one think that polarization has actually increased since the initiative’s creation? Might it need more time?
Stid: We are, from our perspective, making progress. Perhaps not as much as we might like, but probably more than people who were quite skeptical at the outset thought was possible.
One consideration is whether people are recognizing the nature of the problems that we set out to tackle. When we got started in 2013-2014, we were talking about polarization and division as something that could tear the country apart. At the time, somepeople thought we were overreacting, but now there’s more of a recognition that this is a fundamental problem. Now other funders and grantees are aware of this. They don’t necessarily have the same response to it that we do, but the diagnosis is more widely shared.
The same holds for our early emphasis on the underperformance and dysfunction in Congress and how our system of government can only be as healthy as its first branch, the representative body. When we started talking in 2013-2014 about the need to have a robust legislature that could check and balance the executive and the problems of unilateral executive action, people looked at us like, What are you talking about?
This was the heyday of the executive orders that the Obama administration was issuing. If you were a liberal or a progressive philanthropist, those seemed like those were policy wins, right? You could put those in the bank! I remember being in a number of meetings where people were talking about policy wins and I would think to myself, It’s a policy win so long as you assume that the other party doesn’t win the presidency, because what President Obama does with his phone and his pen, the next president can do the exact opposite.
Now people realize it actually matters whether Congress is robust enough to play its role and we’d like checks and balances. It’s not simply people now suddenly on the left discovering this. You see an emergence of a bona fide concern on the part of a number of members of the Republican Party—including, for example, Senator Mike Lee, who has launched an effort inside Congress that actually took its name from an effort that we supported with the Bradley Foundation, the Federalist Society’s Article I project. Senator Lee’s project seeks to reign in excessive delegations of power to the presidency and to re-establish Congress as the first branch of government.
You’re seeing ferment now on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill about the need to reboot the Congressional capacity. People just weren’t focusing on that five or six years ago.
The ultimate measure of success for us, and it’s actually quite practical and concrete, is that something close to a majority of Americans—when they look at Congress, as the warts-and-all institutional that it is—approve of how the institution is performing. Congress is never going to have approval rates consistently north of 50%, because it’s within Congress where all the things that Americans don’t like about politics occur—the endless debate, the arcane procedures, the partisanship, etc. There’s something about Congress that is inherently messy, and the messiness occurs out in the open for everyone to see. We’re not presuming that suddenly this will become an idealistic or idealized institution.
But currently, only about one in five Americans approves of the way that the institution is working. If you look back over the past 40 years, when Congress has been carrying out its basic functions and reaching bipartisan compromises on the pressing issues of the day—whether it was Social Security reform and tax reform in the 1980s, or welfare reform and balancing the budget in the 1990s—you see those approval rates in the 40% range, and that’s what we’d be shooting for.
Obviously, this is a complex, multivariate measure, and ultimately, it’s a proxy, but it’s a proxy that we think is important—because in a representative system of government, if only one in five people have confidence in the core representativeinstitution, that is not a recipe for legitimacy. There’s a need to improve that.
In the immediate term, things we’re looking for with respect to tracking whether we’re making progress is whether our grantees are getting traction in their work. Are they coalescing and working collectively to tackle problems? Are they able to attract investments from other funders, so that they’re scaling up their work and having more impact through their growth? On that front, acrossmultiple lines of grantmaking, definitely that’s occurring.
We’re also starting to see near-term, smaller-bore wins. For example, for several years now, we’ve supported efforts to advance ranked-choice voting as a mechanism for elections, because we think it leads to more choices for voters and gives candidates and parties incentives to court people from the other side versus appealing only to their base. That reform has been around for many years at the municipal level. Last year in Maine was the first time it was used to elect members of Congress. Several other states are ripening up for that reform. That’s an example of some near-term progress.
Or to take another example, one of the best-kept secrets in Washington is working within the House right now. It’scalled the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. It’s a bipartisan committee that is working in a scrupulously bipartisan way to develop recommendations that have bipartisan appeal in terms of augmenting the staff capacity of Congress and enabling it to function in a more effective way, in a more institutional way. Should some of those things become enacted and shape how the institution operates, that will be another set of wins. We see these developments as harbingers of progress.
To be clear, this is still a close-run thing and it may not work. We said when we started that the odds of succeeding were long, but the payoff if it did succeed was such that we should do it anyway. I don’t think our assessment has materially changed, but we have more confidence that the work we’re supporting and that our grantees are doing is making a difference.
Hartmann: Is there a determined endpoint, or might it be renewed beyond whatever the endpoint is now?
Stid: In late 2016, we requested and our board authorized a five-year, $100 million renewal of the initiative, which basically provided funding from 2017 through 2021.
At some point over the next two years, our board will decide whether and if so, how, to renew the initiative again. You can imagine the things that they’ll weigh. One is whether this problem continues to be salient for the foundation. Are we reasonably optimistic, based on observed results, that progress is possible? Then, of course, there’s the opportunity cost: whatever money the foundation puts in to support the Madison initiative is not available to support other priorities across the foundation.
In short, it’s TBD and something our board will decide.
Grantees and (dis)agreements
Hartmann: Who have been some of the initiative’s grantees?
Stid: They include some of the more venerable Washington think tanks like the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Brookings Institution’s Governance and Economic Studies programs. They’ve been longstanding grantees. We also support, on the right, the governance project at the R Street Institute and, on the left, the political reform program at New America. Both of these were programs that we provided seed funding for and have helped develop.
Another example is the Article I Initiative, as it’s now called at the Federalist Society, because Mike Lee took the Article I Project name for the work he’s doing in Congress! The Article I Initiative will run for a few more years, to try and lift up the importance of Congress and the need to restore its functioning for conservatives and libertarians. On the left, the Brennan Center has also done great work on the problem of excessive delegation from Congress to the executive, particularly in the area of emergency powers and the potential for their abuse, and what can be done to rein those in.
In addition to strengthening Congress, we try and improve campaigns and elections, with an eye to having people who are more apt to work productively in Congress make it through the electoral gauntlet, if you will. We do that obviously without supporting or opposing any parties and candidates. We’re trying to improve the system. We’ve been longstanding backers of ranked-choice voting, as I mentioned. Fair Vote has been an anchor grantee here.
In the campaign-finance area, we recognize this as a big problem, though we aren’t quite sure what the practical solutions are. The one thing we’re convinced of is the need to ensure that the public has visibility into how money is flowing in our politics. We have for a number of years supported the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute for Money in State Politics, which are working to assemble the data and make it publicly available to disclose who’s funding whom in this area.
Another grantee in the space that might be of interest is an organization called Take Back our Republic, which is led by John Pudner, a longtime grassroots political operative who worked for the Bush campaigns and a number of Tea Party candidates. Over the years, John just came to feel like one of the things holding back grassroots conservatives were the machinations of big donors and the way that party elites are gaming the electoral system. He launched this organization Take Back our Republic to engage grassroots activists on the right around questions of electoral reform. He’s doing great work there.
Another area of our work is around combating digital disinformation. One of the first grantees in that area was an organization called the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which was founded by a bipartisan duo—Jamie Fly, who’d worked for Marco Rubio, and Laura Rosenberger, who had worked for the Obama administration and then Hillary Clinton. What they’ve done is come together to try and counter the work that authoritarian regimes like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are doing to try and undermine Western democracies not only through digital means, but through illicit finance and other mechanisms.
We’ve also supported a number of academic-research centers that are trying to understand the causes and effects of digital disinformation—at places like UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Washington, and New York University.
That’s a quick Cook’s tour of a sample of grantees.
Hartmann: Let me ask you about The Bulwark. Did you realize you’d be getting into intra-conservative disputes as part of this?
Stid: What’s funny is, we don’t see this as that different from many of the areas where we fund, where there are quite-pointed disputes among the players involved about how to proceed. Oftentimes, we’ll get these letters saying, You’re funding X nonprofit and they’re doing Y. How can you possibly do that? You thus support Y and typically, Y is something that the letter-writers don’t like.
We’re not funding X because the group does Y, but that also doesn’t mean that we are viscerally opposed to Y, even though we might well be funding other nonprofits that are. We always say, Look, we make funding decisions based on our holistic assessment of the organization and their potential for impact and we don’t have a litmus test. Well, we have one, which I can talk about. But the way we fund is not to insist that every grantee agree with us systematically on each issue, not least because on a lot of issues, we don’t really know what the answer is.
With The Bulwark, we had been impressed with an idea that Sarah Longwell, who’s with a public-affairs firm, had when she and others started the nonprofit Defending Democracy Together Institute, which is a (c)(3), with Bill Kristol. They also have a (c)(4). One of the things that they were trying to do on the (c)(3) side was lift up opinion and commentary on the center-right, because there had been a little bit of a flight from supporting views that were not proactively advocating for the President among right of center funders.
When we initially decided to support them, it was to support an aggregator that Sarah envisioned operating from a decidedly conservative perspective. We thought that sounded like a good idea. We’ve done similar efforts on different parts of the spectrum.
Then, of course, when The Weekly Standard went kaput because of the backer’s decision to pull out and a group of people from there came over to The Bulwark, we had made a two-year commitment to Sarah to help her and we weren’t going to go back on that commitment because of the change. In fact, I admired the determination with which she and her colleagues at The Bulwark were leaning into it.
Now, do we agree with everything that The Bulwark is doing? Not necessarily. In fact, Sarah will be the first to tell you that. But there are a lot of things that we do like. Our view is that we’re supporting a marketplace of ideas. When we think organizations are adding something to the debate that is helpful and useful and missing, we’ll support them. At times, that brings us into conflict with people who don’t happen to like the particular organization or what someone is saying, and that comes with the territory.
Hartmann: Are there other magazines within the grantmaking portfolio?
Stid: Another magazine on the right which we’ve supported for some time is National Affairs, which Yuval Levin is editing. We think very highly of the way he is marshalling thinkers on the right to consider how best to refine and develop our institutions. We support the Washington Monthly, too, which plays a similar role on the center-left.
We also support The Fulcrum, which is a new nonprofit media outlet that’s focused on the field of democracy reform. That’s another great example of how people can get riled up by work we have decided to fund. The Fulcrum is doing actual journalism and independent reporting and hosting editorials on both sides of controversial issues in the democracy field. Not surprisingly, people disagree about what’s the best way to reform our democracy. People have read something they didn’t like in The Fulcrum, then approached us saying, Hey, why are they criticizing this idea? It’s one we have worked on for 20 years! We say it’s because we are not the boss of The Fulcrum. Raise your complaint with them!
When we support these journalism outlets, we’re not endorsing everything that they’re putting out. Rather, we just conclude that this is a place where it would be helpful to have more focused media and support, so we’re happy to step into the breach.
Hartmann: You mentioned that you might have one litmus test. What is that?
Stid: We do have one litmus test, and because of it, there’s been probably one organization on the right and a couple on the left that have approached us for funding over the years, or that we’ve talked with, where we said, This may not be the right fit.
We support people on both sides of the spectrum, including those that are supported by the Koch brothers’ seminar network on the right or the Democracy Alliance on the left. We aren’t funding only centrists. But whenever we fund someone on one side of the spectrum, the presumption is that they do not think that their side has a monopoly on truth, and that they would be prepared to engage, in good faith and with civility, with people from the other side.
The core value of the Madison Initiative is the belief that in a diverse society, we’re not all going to agree, but we need to figure out a way to work together that isn’t fundamentally combative, or rancorous, or that sees politics as a matter of friends and enemies. There’s been a couple of times where nonprofits who approached us didn’t share that philosophy. That’s their prerogative, and some of them are certainly doing well without our funding. But in those cases, we decided not to pursue a grant.
Hartmann: If that’s the litmus test, an increasing number of would-be grantees are excluding themselves from Hewlett support, no? How much of a problem is this?
Stid: It’s a good question. To be honest with you, we have not seen at the grantee level a flight to the poles. Now, obviously, there’s a big intervening variable, which is our funding. We clearly communicate this expectation, so among organizations that are working with us, there may already be incentives keeping them in dialogue with groups across the spectrum.
What’s interesting is, the place I’ve seen it most is in the funding community.
Hartmann: How much of a problem is this among funders?
Stid: It is a bigger problem with funders, and you’re seeing it on the left and the right. Whatever one thinks of President Trump, he does have a genius for dividing people into those who support him and those who oppose him. A lot of funders have fallen on both sides of this trap.
When we started, there were maybe a few more institutions like ours that were prepared to work in the center and fund grantees on both sides of the spectrum. There’s an older crop that is no longer there, although there’s a new crop that’s emerging that we could talk about.
This conclusion is based in part on the new determination that I certainly see funders on the progressive side bringing to bear in their work. But I also see it, albeit second-hand, on the right with grantees who are undeniably conservative and libertarian in their principles, and who have held these views for some time, but who are actively opposing the president. In other instances, they are simply not openly and consistently supporting him. Either way, they’re seeing their funding much harder to come by. I sense there has been a flight on the right toward funding organizations that are unabashedly in the camp of the President.
Whether it is on the right or the left, I just think this is a miscast role for philanthropy. By law and by spirit, our work should not be about reinforcing our political divisions. We absolutely need political parties and candidates to fight it out. That’s why we have elections and politics. That’s not a bad thing. But if philanthropy finds itself pulled and locked into those camps, then we become a support function for politics instead of serving as entities that are supporting the broader health of our society for the longer term.
Hartmann: What could be done about this?
Stid: I’d be wary of calling it a prevailing trend or pattern, but we’re seeing the emergence both of staffed foundations and individual philanthropists who are recognizing that the polarized trajectory that some philanthropies are on is not conducive to doing the work that they set out to do.
The Einhorn Trust is a very interesting body that over the next year or two is going to be doing some very interesting things in this area, along with the Fetzer Institute and individual donors like Rachel Pritzker. These are people who are committing to this idea that philanthropy has a different role to play and that if there’s no difference between what philanthropy is doing from what political donors are doing, then that’s probably a sign that that philanthropy may have gotten on the wrong path.
Having said that, there are also a lot of new philanthropists who are coming in and getting involved precisely because they want to try and put their thumb on the scale of these broader political debates. One pitfall that philanthropy repeatedly falls into is overestimating how much difference it can make in the next one or two or three years and underestimating the difference it can make in three to five to 10 years.
That longer-term time horizon and the more politically measured and balanced approach is something that we’re trying to bring to our work, and that’s something that these other folks that I’ve mentioned are also trying to do.
Hartmann: Thanks so much for your time. Anything you’d want to add that I didn’t ask about or we didn’t cover?
Stid: Here’s one other thing I would say, which is something that we’re committed to: be open to working with people who see things differently, even if you see things differently on nine out of 10 issues. If we can agree on even one issue, let’s join forces and make progress together on that.
We like to think of this as pluralism. Pluralism assumes that that in a diverse society, there’s going to be a constant shifting of coalitions and groups working for social change. From issue to issue, the coalitions will shift, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.
Where you’ve seen philanthropy make a difference in the country in recent years—criminal-justice reform is probably the best example—it has been where funders who disagree on a range of principles have decided work together towards one goal they happen to share. That’s something that we and I know several other philanthropies are trying to do. We need to avoid having people and institutions retreating to their respective corners the way we are seeing in our political life.