Philanthropy Can Help Build a Thriving Democracy by Building Up Programs and Places That Fuel Civic Involvement

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Philanthropy Can Help Build a Thriving Democracy by Building Up Programs and Places That Fuel Civic Involvement
By: Stephen Heintz, President & CEO, Rockefeller Brothers Fund. This piece was originally published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy on January 6, 2021.

In an alternate universe, January 6, 2021, might have marked an inflection point in America’s decades-long story of democratic decline — a moment of collective epiphany and the beginning of a mass mobilization to rescue our nearly 250-year-old system of self-government.

Instead, experts in election law are raising the specter of a stolen election in 2024. Journalists are drafting obituaries for the American experiment. And retired U.S. generals are even warning of possible civil war. In the year since the violent insurrection on the Capitol, our democracy has moved closer to the brink of collapse.

Last month, President Biden hosted an international Summit for Democracy that sought to rally support for democratic ideals and human rights against the backdrop of global democratic decline. The summit brought together leaders from more than 100 countries to announce commitments to renewing democracy during a year of action. The United States, Biden promised, “will serve as an example by investing in our own democracy.”

To build a thriving democracy, however, we must address not only the formal institutions and processes of self-government but also the deeper sources of our discontent that fueled the January 6 insurrection: widening polarization, widespread loss of political agency, a broken social contract.

As onerous as this sounds, a critical part of the solution is lying in plain sight — in the local libraries, community centers, mutual-aid networks, parks, and houses of worship that invite people to practice the art of citizenship every day. This so-called civic infrastructure brings together people of different racial, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds to build relationships shaped by common interests and shared challenges.

Communities with strong civic infrastructure engender greater civic engagement and a sense of belonging. In the process, they help inoculate a democratic republic against polarized politics on the national level. Examples of flourishing civic infrastructure across the country are easy to find. They include:

  • A model nonprofit digital platform in Lexington, Ky., that provides information on local issues, public meetings, and elections, making it easier for residents to stay informed and engage with government as local news outlets disappear.
  • An old canal towpath in Akron, Ohio, that was transformed with foundation support into a recreational trail connecting economically and racially disparate neighborhoods and fostering equitable development and environmental sustainability.
  • And an Evangelical church in Spokane, Wash., that converts its church pews into café tables and its pulpit into a barista bar after Sunday services to provide a job-training and community-gathering space for believers and nonbelievers alike.

The U.S. government has long understood the importance of funding civic infrastructure to help democracy flourish abroad. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan pledged to balance America’s Cold War military might with efforts to nourish democratic impulses that would cause authoritarianism to collapse under the weight of its contradictions. The idea, Reagan explained, was “to foster the infrastructure of democracy — the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities — which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”

A year later, Congress passed legislation establishing the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED. In the nearly 40 years since, with strong bipartisan support, NED has sent billions of dollars to countries around the world to shore up their democracies by investing in democratic institutions and civic infrastructure.

Fragility Measures

Were the United States a foreign country, our own struggling democracy today would be an obvious candidate for NED funding. The United States saw the greatest increase in fragility of any democracy in 2020, according to the Fragile States Index, which tracks risk of conflict and vulnerability to government collapse.

And while the United States remains “free,” according to the most recent Freedom House report, the country’s declining score over the past decade now places it alongside countries such as Romania and Croatia — former Warsaw Pact nations whose democratic infrastructure received NED support.

A Role for Foundations

Last year, I co-chaired the American Academy of Arts and Science’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. We produced a report calling for a Trust for Civic Infrastructure to fund projects across the country that would connect people to their neighbors, communities, and government institutions. By partnering with communities to identify existing civic assets, needs, and opportunities, the Trust would help renew local civic life, restore faith in institutions, and “rebuild the bonds of trust essential for a free society,” in the words of conservative scholar and commission member Yuval Levin.

We cannot wait for Congress alone to act. Philanthropy should lead in the great American tradition of experimentation.

Foundations and philanthropists across the ideological spectrum can establish a collaborative basis for partnerships with local governments, community foundations, library systems, and other networks nationwide. They can fund research on the need for civic institutions and projects to help remedy the country’s democracy crisis and make the case for massive public investment in community-led civic initiatives that contribute to the common good. Most importantly, they can move resources to the American communities that need them most to expand their civic infrastructure.

Democracy exists beyond ballot boxes, courthouses, and the halls of Congress. The most transformative action philanthropy can take to breathe new life into our democracy now is to invest in the people, places, and programs that support vibrant civic life in American communities.

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