Putting a Stop to America’s Downward Spiral


Posted in News Story

This opinion piece was written by Tamara Copeland, Visiting Practitioner at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership. Tamara is the former president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. The piece was published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy on October 10, 2019.

As an impeachment inquiry gets underway against President Trump, I fear this action might obscure a deeper reality. For several years now, America has been on a dangerous path, a path that strikingly resembles the emergence of fascism in Europe in the early 20th century. Ultra-nationalism and large-scale suppression of opposing views seem to be gathering momentum.

No part of society has as much clout to make a difference in this situation as philanthropy. I thought this before I retired as president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, but now that I have more time to read and reflect, I feel it even more strongly. 

Joe Goldman, president of the Democracy Fund, was right when he wrote in the Chronicle  last week that “the future will require a still greater level of philanthropic energy and intensity to meet the pressing needs of our country, particularly as we look to repair political norms that have been severely damaged.” 

Philanthropy has repeatedly exhibited its ability to act when the stakes were much lower than they are today.

For example, philanthropy’s leadership played a critical role in calling attention to the health hazards of smoking. Regardless of the growing number of deaths directly attributed to tobacco, Big Tobacco seemed untouchable until the 1990s, when Steven Schroeder, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, launched an intensive public education effort on the dangers of smoking that resulted in a decades-long decline in smoking.

Some people suggest that Andrew Park, then leader of Wellspring Advisors, was the philanthropic visionary who contributed to significant advancement in LGBTQ rights. His investments in the early 2000s helped to connect gay rights and human rights, placing that movement on a distinct upward trajectory.

And many will remember when, in 2017, Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation’s president, called for moral courage in the face of Charlottesville, attacks on Planned Parenthood, vitriol against Muslims, and other societal outrages. He urged leaders to “realize the urgency of now.”

The Country’s Future

Today the urgency goes well beyond “now.” The very future of our country is at stake. While the impeachment investigation is underway, I fear that the enormity of what is happening in America, to America, is getting lost. Before impeachment loomed, there was a pall already hanging over the country, and should impeachment proceedings unfold as they did with Bill Clinton, that dark cloud will remain.

Earlier this year, Freedom House, a U.S.-based, bipartisan think tank that monitors the commitment of countries to political freedom and civil liberties, released its annual “Freedom in the World” report. Chillingly, it said:

“There remains little question that President Trump exerts an influence on American politics that is straining our core values and testing the stability of our constitutional system. No president in living memory has shown less respect for its tenets, norms, and principles. Trump has assailed essential institutions and traditions, including the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections. Congress, a coequal branch of government, has too frequently failed to push back against these attacks with meaningful oversight and other defenses.”

If this observation had come from a Democratic-leaning think tank, it might be dismissed as partisanship, but it did not. In 1941 when the world was fighting fascism, Freedom House was founded through the bipartisan leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie. Some critics say Freedom House, which gets 86 percent of its resources from the U.S. government, is potentially too forgiving of the United States. 

Now it is sounding an alarm about what is happening in America. The “Freedom in the World” assessment of the United States should be treated as a clarion call to philanthropy to act boldly to save America from what seems to be a downward spiral to fascism.  

While some foundations may lean to the right politically and others to the left, they all seem to do so within the broad frame of their commitment to American values: justice, fairness, equality, self-actualization, freedom.  At their core, American foundations want to improve the lives of Americans.  

Today, philanthropy is investing in organizations working to ensure an accurate count in the 2020 census and to encourage and enable more people to register to vote. The requirement for an accounting of the country’s population and the primacy of voting rights are central to the Constitution. As the Freedom House report reflects, both of these core tenets of America, along with so many others, are being threatened. 

With so much at stake, philanthropy must not allow the drama of impeachment to prevent us from seeing that America has been tumbling head-first into a place from which it would be hard to emerge. 

Philanthropy has the resources and the convening power to bring together leaders from across the country and around the world to craft a comprehensive strategy to make America the country of democratic ideals and values that it strives to be. No, America wasn’t perfect before the 2016 election. In fact, it was very flawed.

But never before, in my lifetime, have there been such wholesale affronts to many of the institutions, the norms, the values that make America America. Our country survived the impeachment of Bill Clinton.  But our country was in a different place then. Our democracy was stronger. Our citizenry wasn’t so horribly fractured as it is now. Philanthropy is the only part of our society with the ability to put our country back on track. Philanthropy has no choice but to act boldly.