Chronicle of Philanthropy

Is the Philanthropic Elite a Scourge of Democracy or Its Guarantor?

Senior Fellow Emeritus

American philanthropy is thoroughly, fundamentally elitist. In the Trump era, it will be tempted to pursue political activity that will only make that fact painfully apparent to the American people, thereby endangering the very grounds of its legitimacy.

For more than a century now, the largest American foundations have staked out a right to play a substantial role in our national life. Given their financial autonomy, they are able to resist fickle and dangerous political and economic trends.

But more important, they have been instrumental in the rise of the meritocracy, helping to elevate intellectual elites to a pre-eminent place in our nation’s leadership. Armed with scientific and management expertise, foundations and their grantees claim to be uniquely equipped to solve major public problems once and for all by getting to their root causes.

Mere charity, reflecting the benighted views of everyday people unable to ascend to this larger, detached, objective perspective, only puts Band-Aids on those problems. The unmistakable message from philanthropy: Thanks for your suggestions, but our professionals know what’s best for you.

In recent decades, the pursuit of root-cause solutions has carried the largest American foundations deeply into politics. Isolated problems, it seems, cannot be solved without attacking their underlying sources in society’s fundamental structures.

This requires a continuous questioning of established social and cultural arrangements. As a result, foundations have staked out cutting-edge positions on issues like immigration, the environment, gender justice, and the global economy. Those positions have also been adopted, often with foundation support, by the progressive movement and the Democratic Party.

Leaving aside the question of the ultimate worthiness of such undertakings, one of the lessons of the 2016 presidential election is that the American people — at least as reflected in the Electoral College — do not fully share those priorities or are not prepared to move as fast or as far as philanthropy on them.

Given its elitist "we know best" outlook, philanthropy will be tempted to dismiss this as small-minded parochialism, and to throw itself instead into the fast-growing resistance movement against the new administration’s perceived illiberality.

In the past year, however, one institution after another — beginning with the conservative intellectual establishment and continuing through the Democratic party, Hollywood, and mainstream media — has similarly committed itself to high-minded ideals in the face of what they regarded as ignorance and prejudice, only to find their own, unselfconsciously elitist sensibilities painfully and publicly unveiled and their democratic credentials questioned.

If politically adept institutions have so readily fallen prey to this dynamic, then notoriously insulated and doctrinaire foundations are even less likely to understand or avoid it. In this populist moment, when people are sick and tired of being told to defer to their betters, philanthropy may be on the verge of making its deep-seated elitism vividly apparent, and bringing into question its claims to play a unique role in our democracy.