And what can be done about it, including by philanthropy.
Recently, my Giving Review colleague Mike Hartmann and I sat down virtually with Michael Lind for a conversation that included talk about his newest book, The New Class War: Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite. In the book, Lind argues that Western democracies must somehow better incorporate working-class majorities of all races, ethnicities, and creeds into decision-making in politics, the economy, and culture. Only this class compromise can avert a continuing cycle of clashes between oligarchs and populists. It’s a compromise that must be made to save liberal democracy.
The managerial elite increasingly dominates government, the economy, and the culture—as well as philanthropy, which Lind explicitly includes as within it. During the past 50 years, he points out in both the book and our conversation, the intermediate institutions that respected, accepted, and empowered the working class have seriously declined. In the wake of this shift, around the world, populist movements have appeared, only seemingly suddenly. Among other things, these movements are an expression of mistrust in existing elite political, economic, and cultural institutions.
“Overall, the shift of the center of gravity,” according to Lind in The New Class War, “from local chapter-based member associations and church congregations to foundations, foundation-funded nonprofits, and universities represents a transfer of civic and cultural influence away from ordinary people upward to the managerial elite.”
Over time, and actually not that much time, the politicization of philanthropy has resulted.
Over time, moving to the short-term
Conservative philanthropy from the ’60s until the turn of the century “flew the flag” in elite institutions with its grantmaking. Over time, however, conservative donors began to gravitate toward short-term agenda-promoting. In the independent-thinking Lind’s view, political parties are the institutions that should be playing this short-term game.
Donors should take the long view, he thinks. They should support membership organizations and “extra-parliamentary institutions” that help mobilize citizens in opposition to or support of public and social ideals. The restoration of the public’s trust in elites, and its acceptance the elite’s legitimacy, rests on the renewal of intermediate organizations like churches, trade unions, and any groups trying to solve problems at the city and neighborhood levels.
It’s a convincing case, made better and more pointedly by Lind than many others.
Different and more-dangerous outcome, same underlying impulse
Martin Gurri—in his compelling The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, first published in 2014, and elsewhere since—makes a case, conceptually consistent with Lind’s, about decreasing public confidence in and continued willingness to trust elite institutions.
Gurri’s many years as a geopolitical analyst and authority on the impact of new media and information technology at the Central Intelligence Agency give him unique insight into how democratized information is transforming society. Democratized information, in his opinion, poses a dangerous dilemma for modern society.
If the public loses patience with and respect for the elite institutions, the result is defiance, hostility, and finally disintegration. If the elites choose to “make a stand,” they become required to resort to repression of the non-elite. A different and potentially more-dangerous outcome than politicized philanthropy, of course, but driven by the same underlying populist impulse.
And a case with decidedly disheartening implications for the future of liberal democracy—also pointedly well-made.
A recommended reorientation
How to narrow the trust gap between the public—the people—and elites? Gurri does not offer counsel to philanthropists. What he does offer, however, implicitly is worthwhile for any philanthropists, whether liberal and conservative, who increasingly are taken with short-termism to consider.
First, Gurri does not think we need to transform our democracy, but rather to reorient it. The reorientation, according to Gurri, should be a “turn in direction away from top-down control, bureaucratic power and the high valuation of distance as a reward for political success.”
That distance requires some select number of the elite to abandon the sickly duet of utopian expectations and rediscover the virtues of humility and honesty. These are apolitical virtues that were once accepted, Gurri writes, as the “living spirit behind the machinery of the democratic republic, though now almost lost from sight.” Perhaps especially in philanthropy.
“Honesty means that the relationship to truth, as truth is perceived, matters more than ambition or partisan advantage,” according to his piercing description of it. “Humility means that the top of the pyramid looks to the public as a home it will return to rather than a carnivorous species from which to hide.”
Reshaping and reflection
Both Lind’s and Gurri’s excellent examinations of the dramatic political, socio-economic, and cultural trends reshaping American life offer foundations, other types of givers, and nonprofit grant recipients all an opportunity to reflect on their missions and the manner and methods they apply to accomplish them.