NY Times opinion: Maybe the Democratic party's problem is the foundations

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

The Times published an opinion piece today by Thomas Edsall which offers an interesting take on why Democrats seem to be tripping all over themselves with extreme proposals like “defund the police.” Edsall suggests it’s not the party’s fault entirely because a lot of these ideas aren’t coming from within the party so much as from the various philanthropic foundations that fund the professional left. A group called Candid which tracks the grants given by these foundations found, not surprisingly, that in the wake of George Floyd’s death donations to a racial equity groups grew substantially.


Before Floyd’s death, Candid found that philanthropies provided “$3.3 billion in racial equity funding” for the nine years from 2011 to 2019. Since then, Candid calculations revealed much higher totals for both 2020 and 2021: “50,887 grants valued at $12.7 billion” and “177 pledges valued at $11.6 billion.”

Among the top funders, according to Candid’s calculations, are the Ford Foundation, at $3 billion; Mackenzie Scott, at $2.9 billion; JPMorgan Chase & Co. Contributions Program, at $2.1 billion; W.K. Kellogg Foundation, $1.2 billion; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $1.1 billion; Silicon Valley Community Foundation, $1 billion; Walton Family Foundation, $689 million; The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, $438 million; and the Foundation to Promote Open Society, $350.5 million.

Pouring all of this money into the coffers of far left activists had some unexpected consequences. Suddenly the fringe idea “defund the police” and the even fringier idea “abolish the police” were taken seriously by a lot of people. And as we all know in hindsight, that hasn’t worked out too well for Democrats. Nearly all of the cities which got on the defund bandwagon have come to regret it and most have refunded the police and mayors and city councils are talking more about public safety rather than reimagining public safety. Democrats also struggled in 2020 House races and were swept out of office in Virginia partly thanks to a set of equally daft ideas related to education also promoted by lefty activists.


Officially, the foundations aren’t involved in politics. The president of the Ford Foundation told Edsall, “We make no calculations about how our grantees give credibility or not to the Democratic Party. That is of no concern to the Ford Foundation, or to me personally.” I guess they sort of have to say that for tax purposes but I don’t think anyone really believes it.

Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic, wrote at the end of November, “It’s an undeniable fact that Democratic Party elites, progressive activists, foundation and think-tank officials, and most opinion journalists are well to the left of the party’s rank and file.”

It’s possible, Tomasky continued, “that certain issues, or ways of talking about certain issues, will be established as litmus tests within the party that could be quite problematic for Democrats trying to run in purple districts.”

As Edsall sees it, these foundations pouring money into the coffers of far-left activists creates a real problem because it saddles elected Democrats with policy demands they can’t realistically meet but since the money and the push is coming from outside the party, they also can’t turn it off, not even when it’s obviously creating a problem:

For leaders of the Democratic Party, these developments pose a particularly frustrating problem because they pay an electoral price for policy proposals and rhetoric that are outside party control.


I’m not suggesting we should feel sorry for Democrats who I’m sure have been happy to accept the energy and organization generated by all of this foundation money. But it does help explain why the party often seems so at odds with itself over the past several years. You literally have a very well-funded fringe of activists demanding things happen now and they often seem disconnected from the realities of things like divided government and winning elections. And the result is even more extreme ideas like packing the Supreme Court and ending the filibuster as a way to make an end-run around those realities.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with progressive foundations giving their money to progressive activists. It’s their money to give. My problem is more with the media because when the inevitable backlash to these extreme ideas starts, the media most often jumps in on the side of the activists rather than acting like neutral observers. We saw this all last year when every news outlet eagerly ran pieces about why “defund the police” didn’t mean what it sounded like and might even be a good idea. Those were followed by a whole raft of pieces about how rising crime murder rates weren’t as bad as they appeared or not as bad as they once were in the early 90s. And gradually, after an untold number of violent deaths, we get some grudging admissions that maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all and, oh by the way, black people in particular don’t support defunding and never really did.


It shouldn’t have taken 6-12 months and a body count for the media to back away from these bad ideas and stop giving cover to the elected officials who were supporting them. It did take that long because the media is reflexively on the side of the left-wing activists, eager to repeat whatever fresh idea they are pushing no matter how stupid they obviously are. On that point, here’s the first line of the top comment to the Times piece:

“Defund the police” has to win a prize for the stupidest motto ever both from a political and practical perspective.

But my favorite comment is this one from Susan which manages to meld all of the left’s current enthusiasms and demands into one blob of ideological extremism:

People want order. People want to be safe. Effectively, all people want this. We are at a weird political inflection point where the Democratic Party has become an unwitting host to an alien force that preoccupies itself exclusively with the perceived needs of narrowly identified subsets of individuals as opposed to the broader needs of society as a whole, effectively erasing the concept of a broad society that has needs, paramount among them safety and order, that may in fact need to be mediated against the needs of subsets and that setting baselines is a thing that is discussable. This willful ignorance of society’s broad needs is absolutist and bled into the pandemic with an unwillingness to put on the table kids’ need to get educated, families’ need to draw a paycheck etc. It’s a repudiation of pragmatism and it does not sell.


Well said.

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David Strom 5:20 PM | April 15, 2024