Philanthropy and Democracy

By Stephen Heintz

This excerpt originally appeared in Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission. Copyright © 2020 by David W. Orr.

The crisis of democracy is described in the language of our age—numbers. But at the heart of the crisis is something numbers cannot capture. Democracy is about more than just rules that can be followed or violated, institutions that are broken or intact. Writing after the Civil War, Walt Whitman put it well: “At the core of Democracy, finally, is the Religious element.” In the first half of the twentieth century, American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey, too, considered democracy a “civic faith.” Democracy has always been an ethical and spiritual ideal. The crisis of democracy today is first and foremost an ethical and spiritual crisis.

The world of philanthropy is a reflection of economic inequality. There would be no billion-dollar donations without billionaires. Are those who have profited from our current economic system in a position to challenge its fundamental, undemocratic premises? Faced with the injustices of a second Gilded Age, are the legacy foundations of the first able to untether themselves from the conditions that created them? Can institutional philanthropy respond to the crisis of democracy with more than just “market-friendly, winner-safe social change?”

My thesis is that it can. The paradox of institutional philanthropy is that it is in a special position to address the crisis of democracy that, in some respects, it reflects. The tragedy of institutional philanthropy is that it isn’t yet doing so in a meaningful way.

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