David Callahan wrote an insightful article in “Inside Philanthropy” about something that most of us have noticed: the growing power of foundations that use their money to impose their ideas and bypass democratic institutions. In effect, mega-foundations like Gates and Walton use their vast wealth to short circuit democracy.
Callahan identifies five scary trends but they all boil down to the same principle: Unaccountable power is supplanting democracy.
“1. The growing push to convert wealth into power through philanthropy
“Look at nearly any sector of U.S. society, and you’ll find private funders wielding growing power. Most dramatic has been the reshaping of public education by philanthropists like Gates and the Waltons, but the footprint of private money has also grown when it comes to healthcare, the environment, the economy, social policy, science, and the arts.
“Whether you agree or disagree with the specific views pushed by private funders, you’ve got to be disturbed by how a growing army of hands-on mega donors and foundations seem to get more clever every year about converting their money into societal influence. Love it or hate it, the Common Core is a great example: In effect, private funders are helping determine how tens of millions of kids will be educated for years to come. And to think that we once saw public education as America’s most democratic institution!
“Inevitably, the upshot of all this is a weaker voice for ordinary folks over the direction of American life. The veteran funder Gara LaMarche has a recent piece in Democracy that crystallizes the worries that many people have that philanthropy has become a powerful agent of civic inequality.
“2. How philanthropic dollars have become another form of political money
“Zeroing in on politics, we see philanthropic money increasingly shaping public policy and legislative outcomes. This trend isn’t new, of course, and along with Sally Covington, I wrote in the 1990s about the huge influence that conservative foundations like Bradley and Olin had over policy debates of that era by funding a network of think tanks and legal groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. Perhaps the greatest achievement of these funders was knocking off the federal welfare entitlement, after investing millions in work by Charles Murray and others.
“What’s different today is that many more funders, with much more money, are playing the policy game.”
The money quote: “And to think that we once saw public education as America’s most democratic institution!”
In city after city, state after state, wealthy funders are underwriting charter schools to replace democratically controlled public schools, school closings, mayoral control, state takeovers, and other means of removing democratic institutions. These funders have no compunction about privatizing “America’smost democratic institution.” They think they are acting in the public interest by removing the public from public education. Their wealth leads them to exercise power recklessly. They think they know everything because they are richer than almost everyone else. They are wrong. And their arrogance is dangerous.