Building Just Democracies, Not Simply Just Programs

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 - 21:30

Have you ever been clacking away at your computer, putting together an appeal for grant funds to a foundation, when you’re hit by a flash of insight: what if the foundation was writing to you, asking for your privileged insights, graciously knocking at your door to solicit your good ideas about how to best invest dollars that will help lift folks up – and without all the usual proposal rigamarole?

What you’re experiencing is the dissonance present in America’s community life where, as Stanford University political scientist Robert Reich attests, certain elements of organized philanthropy – heavily tax-advantaged and endowed of stature and prestige – exercises power over people and society by converting private assets into public influence.

Reich’s book “Just Giving” explores why philanthropy is failing democracy and how it can do better. Reich keeps intellectual company with Anand Giridharadas, a New York Times columnist, whose “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World” seeks to illuminate “a new gilded age, where the rich and powerful fight for equality and justice any way they can…except ways that threaten the social order and their position atop it” as the book’s Amazon blurb summarizes.

How do the arguments in these two books – and a widening public debate today about the wealth-privileged exercising outsized influence over public policy – square with your humble grant proposal writing efforts? Well, at one level you’re dealing with a somewhat perverse competition with a whole bunch of other grantseekers, most of whom will get turned down, as might you. Hopefully, you’re not in the unenviable position of appealing to the very people and sources whose private fortunes may have – or currently are – compromising public institutions beyond recognition.

Look at Purdue Pharmaceuticals, controlled by the Sackler family, which makes and markets worldwide the powerfully addictive opioid OxyContin. Much has been alleged against the Sacklers about the role they played in encouraging company executives to downplay the drug’s addictive properties. And any New Yorker will tell you how the Sacklers have good-washed the family name for decades by making gigantic philanthropic gifts to build museum wings, endowments and edifices.

But it doesn’t take a genius to tote up the carnage within democratic institutions the pharmaceutical source of Sackler family wealth has left in its wake. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, responsible for approving OxyContin in the first place, comes out looking like a big fat public sector sap jerked off its moorings by just one of the thousands of companies whose products it’s supposed to regulate. Public hospitals, health departments and social welfare agencies, particularly at the local level and often in some of the nation’s poorest communities, disproportionately bear the first-line weight of receiving, treating and stabilizing addicts trying to cope with the drug’s consequences. Police agencies get shackled with rooting out criminal OxyContin dealers while both cops and fire department personnel often end up as the first on-scene responders who can make the difference in whether an OxyContin overdose victim goes to the hospital or winds up on a slab at the morgue.

And this says not a word about the price we all pay in throngs of bereaved and aggrieved families, friends and neighbors, in communities shorn of conviviality and a sense of security as places to thrive, and in the hopelessness that can overtake any place where addiction is epidemic.

Public institutions lobbied into passivity by the influence of great wealth go to the dogs. Elected officials also succumb, often purchased into slavish submission with campaign contributions and blandishments conferred upon them by the privileged. No one but those content with the civic status quo wants to align with any societal effort that adds up to an elite charade.

And what about that proposal of yours? It may be hopeful; you might succeed in getting it funded. But don’t let it be hapless. Every cent of it spent fighting back at the cleaving of such democratic ideals as fairness, equity and inclusion for all from the institutions of government represents another cent spent on bringing those ideals to civic life. Don’t believe for a minute that niche nonprofit efforts alone can stand in completely for robust democratic governmental institutions of the highest caliber, the greatest accessibility and the soundest character.