Robert Kaiser at the Washington Post and Alana Semuels at The Atlantic recently reviewed David Callahan’s new book, The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age. Both reviewers treat the book fairly, giving a charitable and generous expose of its main ideas, and keeping criticism to a minimum. Sadly, they both also take their reviews as an opportunity to offer trite political commentary.
Callahan’s book makes the (not so new) argument that wealthy philanthropists pose a threat to democracy. With the ability to throw billions of dollars at their favorite causes, they have the opportunity to disproportionately influence public policy and thereby change communities without input from the people being affected. The reviews site examples from the book, such as the attempts of the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation to increase the percentage of Los Angeles students attending charter schools and the tax-advantaged support of the Kochs and George Soros for blatantly political organizations.
These arguments are almost too obvious. Kaiser and Semuels both seize on them, lamenting that billionaires like Michael Bloomberg can buy their way into political office through philanthropy and that more foundations don’t listen to the populations they claim to serve. These are fair points, but one gets the sense that it is disingenuous to be outraged about the influence of wealthy philanthropists while ignoring the obvious impact of other sources of cultural and political influence, such as The Washington Post and The Atlantic.
Philanthropists undoubtedly use their money to try to influence policy. But philanthropy remains a small percentage of GDP, and a sector that gets short shrift in national headlines, except when we are making allegations of “dark money.” If we wish to be honest about our outrage over the philanthropic threat to democracy, we should be honest about the fact that the media, government, and even the private sector have all become part of an ideological arms race. What we are outraged about usually depends simply on which side we fall on.