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May 23, 2014 1:22 PM Coping With Polarization When You Just Want Good Policy

By Ed Kilgore

So let’s say you’re not a Political Animal, but instead a wonk or a philanthropist interested in good public policy wherever it comes from. How do you cope with this era of partisan and ideological polarization?

A very rich essay at the Stanford Social Innovation Review, written by three frequent contributors to the Washington Monthly, Steve Teles, Heather Hurlburt, and Mark Schmitt, offers some answers, along with an excellent analysis on the impact of polarization on the public policy foundation world.

On the latter front, the authors note that the once-normal world of neutral fact-finding and idea-generating that once dominated the foundation landscape has taken a sustained beating, going back to the 1960s:

[T]he places where both citizens and officials sought information underwent a momentous shift. The authority of scientific, journalistic, and other establishment institutions took crushing blows from left-leaning forces in the 1960s and from right-leaning forces starting in the 1970s. The country lost the mediating power that these institutions had over public discourse, and in particular their ability to certify basic claims of fact. In their place came media outlets that reinforce polarization in order to profit from it.5 The center of gravity in the think-tank world shifted from the Brookings Institution—which prided itself on being a “university without students,” with deep roots in academia and with friends in Congress from both parties—to the Heritage Foundation, which was most closely affiliated with conservative social movements and the House Republican caucus. Liberals responded by building more assertively partisan organizations of their own, such as the Center for American Progress. These changes, combined with a broader segmentation of the American media landscape, have resulted in the creation of largely separate, partisan worlds of information.
The most mobilized and most attentive citizens now distrust the model of cross-party negotiation. In many cases, they perceive the party opposite their own as extreme, untrustworthy, and even a threat to constitutional government. In the late 1970s, nearly half of all citizens who identified with one party had relatively warm feelings about the other party; today, by contrast, that number stands at less than 20 percent.6 And it is the citizens with the most extreme views who are most likely to vote, to contribute money to candidates (especially in primary elections), and to participate in grassroots party politics.
No issue is immune from partisan fever. Many traditionally nonpartisan issues (agriculture policy, infrastructure spending) have become more polarized, and issues that once had small but vital groups of centrist backers (the environment, nuclear disarmament, programs for low-income working families) have lost that support.7 In short, although political leaders and activists have creatively exploited political polarization, the fundamental causes of that development reflect deep, structural forces in American society.

Teles, Hurlburt and Schmitt discuss but express limited confidence in two ways for the philanthropic world to deal with this new environment: pushing back against polarization by relying on non-partisan validators, or seeking to address the systemic causes of polarization itself. They argue, however, the most immediately fruitful way to find and promote fresh and viable policy ideas is to stop looking for them in the shrinking world of nonpartisans, but instead build “transpartisan” alliances among those committed to the opposing world views. They cite the new wave of conservative-and-progressive interest in criminal justice reform as a leading example, and suggest a similar convergence could occur via efforts to question chronically high levels of U.S. defense spending. But they also point to climate change as an issue where initially promising efforts at “transpartisanship” have largely failed.

In the end, the authors say, philanthropists who care about good public policy sometimes just have to take sides, hard as that may be for them from the perspective of temperament and tradition.

In an environment marked by polarization, philanthropists will need to develop and draw on deep reserves of cultural and political capital. In some cases, they can help forge new and previously unimaginable coalitions. But at least as often, they will have to pick a side—or, in any event, accept that other influential players have already picked sides. Partisan conflict is not an external factor that advocates can work around. It is the defining axis of American politics today, and funders must be unafraid to reckon with it.

I encourage you to read it all over the holiday weekend.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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