Gerald Ford                        Jimmy Carter                    David Mathews

The immediately preceding post in this series, “Playing the Long Game for Democracy,” highlighted the career of one man (David Mathews) who had, for forty years, held the Kettering Foundation on a steady course of research into a single question: “What does it take to make democracy work as it should?”  Today, I’d like to examine more broadly the role that philanthropy is playing and might now more effectively play to support democracy in its hour of need.

First, to keep readers who don’t think of themselves as philanthropists from jumping ship, let me remind you that by far the greatest amount of philanthropic giving in this country is done by individuals (almost certainly including you) through every donation to a worthy cause of any kind.  I will focus here primarily on “organized philanthropy” of the kind that makes grants or conducts research, but a key theme of Citizens Uniting to Restore Our Democracy is the idea of an individual democracy tithe, to which I devoted an earlier blog post.  As I mentioned in the previous “long game” post, there are numerous eminently effective organizations to which we as individuals can contribute in support of the long-term work of restoring democracy.  The same goes for foundations, and I would suggest that, in the current crisis of democracy, any foundation, whatever its substantive mission, might consider hedging its bets with something like a democracy tithe.

It bears noting that the long game of American conservatism to which I alluded in my last post has been crucially supported by philanthropists like the John M. Olin Foundation, the Koch and Scaife family foundations, etc.  Some of the stewards of those deep pockets might now want to examine the extent to which genuine conservatism is itself dependent on viable democratic institutions and practices.  Securing democracy might prove to be conservative philanthropists’ most reliable way to stave off the funeral that David Brooks has proclaimed for their faith.

But let me suggest that the same kind of bet-hedging is in order for liberally inclined philanthropy.  The current sector-wide focus of the liberal philanthropic establishment on “centering equity” reflects an eminently worthy, indeed crucial guide to action.  I would argue, though, that this investment of attention and resources needs to be undergirded with some serious thought about how much sustainable progress can be in terms of greater equity if the practices and culture of self-government continue to decay.  Which leads back to the broader question: How powerful or focused is philanthropy’s democracy lens?

There is no prospect of answering such a question in one blog post, although I hope some readers will offer their own portions of an answer.  For now, I will invite us to spend a few minutes taking a long view of philanthropy and democracy by looking way back in search of resources for the long march into democracy’s future.

As so often happens, the history is reflected in the words. We can trace the linguistic roots of both “philanthropy” and “democracy” to the soil of ancient Greece. We have preserved philo (“love”) for example, in “philosophy” — the love of sophia or wisdom. If we replace sophia with anthropos (humankind) we have philanthropy – the love of humanity.

For the Greeks, and in particular for the Athenians of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E., philanthropia was far more than a word – it was a worldview. It revealed itself in the breathtaking beauty of the sculptor Phidias’ renderings of the human form, in the deathless dramatic portrayals of the human condition by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and not least in Pericles’ ode to democracy in his funeral oration, following an early battle of the Peloponnesian War.

For Athenians, the word “democracy” meant that the people (the demos) were the rulers (kratia). Pericles’ understanding of democracy, though, reached much deeper.  It rested on the same humanistic foundation as the remarkable cultural achievements of Periclean Athens: a sense of wonder at and reverence for human potential. “Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people,” Pericles reminded his neighbors, and then went on to equate this democratic citizenship with being robustly human, declaring “that in my opinion each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility.”

It was this well-rounded, graceful and versatile individual who had enabled Athens to establish what we still celebrate (despite its multiple and manifest shortcomings) as the first serious experiment in democracy.  If democracy inevitably fell short of its ideal, so did the citizen, but it was the deep faith in their potential that gave both rule by the people (democracy) and love of humankind (philanthropy) a lasting place in our vocabulary – and in our own aspirations.  Democracy and philanthropy now once again accompany one another into a perilous passage.

Perhaps nowhere does this humanistic intersection of philanthropy and democracy command our attention more insistently than in the domain of education.  The kinds of citizens that Pericles describes or that we now so desperately need in greater abundance did not then and cannot now appear miraculously on the scene.  This is precisely why the most farsighted democratic theorists, including Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann and John Dewey, have all dwelt so persistently on the fundamental importance of education to any viable system of self-government.  By the same token, if individual philanthropists like you or me or institutional philanthropists of any size or variety could only make one kind of investment in the long game of restoring democracy, I would argue for putting civic education (both in the classroom and through service learning) at the top of that list.

Young business people meeting at office and discussing together a new startup project.

But of course there is not just one option.  Any individual’s or foundation’s democracy tithe can be devoted to a variety of democracy-restoring causes, from advancing equity to electoral reform, from promoting civic engagement to cultivating cross-ideological deliberation.  I am not suggesting that any one kind of investment in the long-term healing of democracy should displace another.  But I would argue that, whatever worthy cause an individual or a foundation might choose to support, growing numbers of us need to be devoting a meaningful portion of our giving to the long game of democratic renewal.

Daniel Kemmis, author of Citizens Uniting to Restore Our Democracy, is a former board member of the Kettering Foundation, the Northwest Area Foundation, and Philanthropy Northwest.