The airwaves and websites are full of questions and predictions about the US election. Will Clinton win in a landslide? Can Trump find a path to the presidency? Will the Republicans hold the Senate? Can Democrats gain seats in the House? Can we have any faith in the polls in this remarkably unpredictable election?
Despite this uncertainty, we’ll offer the terribly bold prediction that on November 9th, neither party will control the federal government. While the electoral vote for president may not end up being close, the popular vote will be. One party or the other will control the Senate by one to two votes, the GOP will maintain control of the House, and headlines will all scream “GRIDLOCK!”
There is little question that our nation is polarized. Rather than waxing nostalgic about “gentler times,” our collective challenge is to govern in spite of these divisions. The good news is that our system of government was designed for this very purpose and is up to the task if we devote some time and resources to nurturing realistic collaboration.
So how does philanthropy figure into this conversation? Over the past decade, foundations across the political spectrum have embraced the notion of “strategic philanthropy,” tying funding to specific societal goals. It is of course logical to devote resources toward desired outcomes. However, by adding oxygen to both sides of these polarized debates, organized philanthropy can magnify and sustain societal divisions. While many organizations espouse a bipartisan ideal, most institutions approach bipartisanship as either a separate project disconnected from their policy priorities or as a tactic of last resort designed to increase support for their desired positions.
We think the time is ripe for some intense experimentation to challenge the structures of division. As with most social pursuits, the essence of American democracy is relationships. For most of our nation’s history, personal connections have been the ballast that enabled civil society to overcome the divisions inherent in a pluralistic nation. At a time when members of Congress, Congressional staff, advocacy organizations, and much of civic life are sorted by political preference, organized philanthropy has a unique opportunity to bring people together. As the saying goes, “You can’t herd cats, but you can move the food.”
We are not suggesting that funders walk away from strategic commitments or exchange ideological clarity for moral relativism. We are also not suggesting a significant shift in funding strategy. What we are suggesting is that foundation leaders direct some additional resources toward organizations and policy approaches that make them uncomfortable. Here at the Bipartisan Policy Center, we bring together deeply interested and opposing parties to develop and negotiate shared policy agreements. For us, success is a detailed proposal that breaks through gridlock, advances the national interest, and makes everyone equally uncomfortable. This approach can be criticized as incremental, and there are always gladiators who will argue that collaboration is a sign of weakness that undermines their political leverage. These concerns should not be dismissed, but in a divided system, “all or nothing politics” have a predictable outcome—and it’s not “all.”
We recognize that generic appeals for collaboration are easy to dismiss. It is also true that these opportunities are impossible to explore absent resources. In broad form, here are examples of a few collaborative opportunities that deserve consideration.
In energy and climate policy, there is an opportunity to build a coalition that both embraces America’s oil and gas abundance and adopts mandatory policies to significantly reduce climate pollution. Most progressive philanthropies fund analysis and campaigns that promote renewable resources and energy efficiency while opposing traditional energy production and associated infrastructure. Conservative philanthropies generally support advocacy challenging the efficacy of obligatory clean energy investments, and some continue to question climate change all together. The idea of investing in efforts that recognize the critical role of oil and gas production and the imperative to accelerate climate action will strike some as a contradiction, but there are strategies that achieve both ends and create opportunities for real Congressional movement.
The 2016 budget agreement demonstrates this potential. In late 2015, Congress was once again facing the challenge of developing a bipartisan budget agreement or shutting down the government. Key energy provisions were among the myriad of issues in the complex negotiation. Climate and renewable advocates were deeply concerned by the expiration of the production tax credits that are essential to the growth of renewable resources, but they had little leverage to sustain the multi-billion dollar annual subsidy. Meanwhile, domestic oil producers were deeply concerned that the unique US ban on exporting oil, adopted in the early 1970’s, was an arbitrary market barrier that reduced the value of US oil production compared with production in the rest of the world. While enjoying considerable conservative support, these big oil companies saw little opportunity to convince progressives to vote to increase their profits.
Guess what—after dozens of meetings, multiple op-eds, strategic political contributions, “not to be repeated” conversations among oil and renewable interests, and considerable shuttle diplomacy, the eventual budget agreement contained both provisions and passed with significant bipartisan support. It was not a perfect deal and there is no guarantee that traditional and renewable energy interests will coordinate in the future. However, philanthropic efforts that encourage politicians to both embrace abundance and accelerate clean energy investments in this way can open space for a host of energy policy improvements.
In the immigration debate, it is possible for philanthropy to help build a political coalition around legislation that legalizes the undocumented population in concert with measurable improvements in border security and enforcement. The current mistrust hindering immigration reform has some historical basis. The 1986 immigration amnesty supported by President Reagan created a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents while promising in exchange to secure the border and enhance interior enforcement. However, the opportunity for citizenship yielded far greater results than the aspirations for improved enforcement, a legacy often cited by those opposing legalization. Meanwhile, immigration reform advocates understandably fear that implementation of new enforcement systems like E-Verify could negatively impact immigrants and families during this transition. However, failure to address this mutual mistrust, along with increased concerns around terrorism, will perpetuate the unacceptable status quo for the foreseeable future. The good news is that our borders are now far more secure than many politicians and voters realize, and there are means to sequence the steps toward legalization with progress toward more effective and predicabtle enforcement. It will not be easy to build consensus on how to link enhanced enforcement with legalization, but it is the right challenge to restart a productive immigration reform debate.
In the debate over economic opportunity and inequality, there is a considerable overlap in the concerns articulated by political leaders such as Paul Ryan and Bernie Sanders. However, there is little investment or infrastructure to fan the embers of collaboration. In the field of criminal justice reform, philanthropy has been at the forefront in identifying common interests from across the ideological spectrum. There is a great opportunity and a critical need for the charitable sector to help build more such bridges to creating a bipartisan agenda for economic empowerment.
Even when these efforts do not achieve breakthroughs, they are building a factual base upon which people can have productive disagreements and relationships that can enable future accomplishment. While funders understandably support proposals that claim to be transformational, most policy revolutions would never have occurred were it not for a series of small steps and critical relationships that built a foundation for more dramatic accomplishments.
It is fashionable to call upon members of Congress to be leaders, demonstrate political courage, and work together to get things done. Professional strategists often counter that collaborative behavior is a political liability for Congress members, given the threat of being challenged in a primary by an ideologically rigid member of their own party. In contrast, philanthropy is uniquely able to take risks and support fresh approaches. At a time of great social unrest and tribal political divisions, we ask that philanthropists take a hard look at advocacy campaigns that reinforce political divisions and seek out what Peter Sims calls “little bets” that are designed to build true bridges with “the other side”—whomever that may be. An added benefit of this approach is that the public would be reminded that philanthropy’s over-arching goal is to improve our society, enhance civility, and confront rancor.
These will be risky propositions. Traditional allies will question these investments and claim vindication if they fail. But there is no better return on philanthropy than the alchemy of new collaborations. These are the efforts that offer the hope of real progress in a diverse and divided country.