We are facing a moment of reckoning in US politics. Since our nation’s founding, elites have regularly reinforced their wealth and power by stripping it from others, capturing the country’s institutions. In recent decades, conservatives, under the guise of neoliberalism, have skewed US politics—and policymaking—in ways that benefit a small minority of people.
Progressives are hardly innocent of concentrating power among their own elite, of course. But a key difference is that conservatives have built a multigenerational pipeline of talent coupled with powerful ideology, one that progressives, at least until recently, have struggled to match. The long conservative “bench” available to fill US Supreme Court vacancies is just one of many obvious signs of this disparity.
By failing to address the underlying systemic power imbalance built into this country, progressives, ironically, have perhaps unwittingly helped to enable the level of corruption and consolidation of power we’re seeing at this moment. We believe, however, that progressive philanthropy could help rectify this.
At its heart, progressivism is about, or is supposed to be about, forward motion. And so is democracy—the process and system by which a society strives for equitable governance of the people, by the people, for the people—all people. Student movements and young folks are key to this; historically, youth have often pushed society forward. But progressive philanthropy has failed to make them central to their strategy, and that often shows up in a lack of movement cohesion.
Conservative philanthropy does not take the value of its youth for granted. The right’s successful campaign to undermine our democracy has been decades long, and youth engagement is at its foundation. Conservatives have funded paid fellowships, stipends, and grants to ensure their movement’s longevity and its future.
It is notable that Brett Kavanaugh joined the Federalist Society during his time in law school, while still in his twenties, as did Neil Gorsuch. In fact, all five conservatives currently serving on the Supreme Court are current or former Federalist Society members. The initial investment in Kavanaugh thirty years ago is paying off now with his lifetime appointment, clinching a conservative majority that could shape our society for generations. Just one well-funded conservative organization, the Federalist Society, had $22.7 million in revenue according to its most recent Form 990 filing and has been able to wield this immense power. Where is the parallel example on the left?
The Current Reality
Progressive groups have been trying to break down structural barriers to political participation and strengthen democracy, but they have far fewer resources. For example, the annual budget for the Roosevelt Network is about $1.6 million. By contrast, based on Form 990 filings, Turning Point USA’s budget is $10.6 million and Young Americans for Freedom’s budget is $24.9 million. Both of these conservative groups are also standalone organizations, whereas the Roosevelt Network, like many progressive youth and student organizations, is housed within a larger institution. The Roosevelt Network is a program of the Roosevelt Institute (where we both work), Generation Progress is part of the Center for American Progress, Planned Parenthood Generation Action is part of Planned Parenthood, and the NAACP Youth and College Division is part of the NAACP.
There are benefits to having support from a parent organization that can keep programming running. However, the pervasion of “housed” student and youth programs belies a hard truth: youth engagement is treated as a “nice to have” add-on rather than a priority in and of itself. While younger Americans skew ideologically progressive, large and consistent levels of investment on the right have ensured that conservative youth organizations continue to flourish.
When progressive funders do invest in youth, they’ve often done so in reactionary ways, creating an unsustainable boom-and-bust cycle. Youth grants often focus on advocating around a single issue or, every two to four years, on voter registration or get-out-the-vote efforts. This helps with immediate mobilization, but it atrophies the longer term development of a truly engaged citizenry. When the philanthropic flavor-of the-month inevitably changes, that shift hinders momentum and harms longevity.
Whether we admit it or not, money drives outcomes. As it stands, progressive groups have to focus more on short-term survival and electoral cycles than competing groups on the right. This leaves many progressive groups unable to focus on a long-term strategy to address the political, economic, and social structures that breed systemic oppression. Sadly, while many envision a more inclusive country, the funding reality often reinforces the kind of structural exclusion we seek to end.
The Future of Democracy is at Stake
By not prioritizing support for the progressive talent pipeline, we not only miss out on helping young people develop a progressive worldview, but also reinforce the work of conservatives. Younger Americans tend to believe that democracy can and should work, but they know that it’s not working right now—and, as we all know, the problems are far deeper than the outcomes of any single election.
Today’s youth, living in a flawed system, struggle to hold onto civic ideals. The Pew Research Center estimates that only 17 percent of Americans trust government. That number, by the way, had consistently been above 60 percent under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson.
Yet despite this, 70 percent of today’s youth favor an increased use of public power to solve societal problems. Why would young people be distrusting of government, yet so eager to increase its power? It helps to understand that youth today increasingly question private business leaders and companies as well, a reality likely influenced by growing up during and after the Great Recession, and living with the reality of today’s climate emergency.
Present-day ambiguity presents an opportunity for influence. As we know all too well, simply believing in democracy cannot defend against its corrosion.
The 2018 election offered hope, but it also illustrated the effectiveness of conservative strategy, even in the face of a progressive wave election. Widespread voter suppression robbed key Southern state-level victories from progressive candidates of color. In Georgia, the public official tasked with overseeing the fairness of the election was the conservative candidate in the election and was charged with purging voters from the rolls based on race. Voter ID laws are increasingly common and even more broadly discriminatory: In the aftermath of one amazing ballot initiative victory—the re-enfranchisement of 1.4 million Floridians with prior felony convictions, a measure that obtained 64.5 percent of the vote—the state legislature voted for legislative provisions restricting anyone with outstanding legal fines from actually being able to vote. Fortunately, it seems that courts will strike down this attempted poll tax, an important reminder of how courts play a critical role in balancing power in our system.
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Nonetheless, the huge surge in voter turnout among young voters was heartening. According to the Census Bureau, roughly 36 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds reported voting in the 2018 midterms, a 79-percent jump from the nearly 20 percent who said they voted in 2014—and the highest level of youth participating in a midterm cycle in at least the last 25 years.
But if votes don’t translate into change—if government doesn’t respond to younger voters’ demands on such matters as climate action, immigration reform, gun control—disillusionment may return. Electoral victories are important, but insufficient. Elected officials in office without a movement behind them are just in office—not in power. Their ability to govern, to push forward the progressive ideas and policies people on the ground champion and need, is dependent on the longevity and the power of the movements backing them.
As we head toward another presidential election, we cannot afford to only think of young people in the context of one election. Across the board, we need avenues in place for young people’s demands to be heard in 2020 and beyond.
It’s Time to Turn the Tide
The time to ask for a seat at the table is long gone. We need to construct an entirely new table together. Young people have the blueprints and the equipment, but they need philanthropy to provide the lumber.
With increased support, philanthropy can help progressive institutions move from piecemeal wins to promoting bold, transformative change. We shouldn’t have to choose between demanding a Green New Deal, or expanding voting rights, or protecting reproductive rights—we need all of it, and more. And thankfully, there is a singular solution for tackling all of these seemingly disparate issues: a rebalance of power. To break the stranglehold on our democracy, we have to leverage the power of the purse and the power of the people.
That all starts with progressive funders actually investing in young people to ensure they have pathways for political engagement, broadly and constantly. Students and youth have more to bring to the table than just votes; look no further than the survivors of the Parkland shooting in Florida to see how young people were able to channel their lived experience into a national advocacy movement through March for Our Lives. Or how young Black activists have built movements that have responded to the trauma of police brutality.
But we are failing today’s youth if it takes massacres to prompt political activity or to provide support. Actively preparing people to be politically engaged as a matter of course—as opposed to an emergency response—is key to democratic progress.
To do so, philanthropy must step up and change how it operates. Funders and grantees alike need to learn to be comfortable with the ebb and flow and subtlety of progress in the service of long-term, lasting change—and work together to find new ways to measure what matters.
There are many examples of foundations who have fundamentally changed how they work, making unrestricted big bets, connecting grantees with one another to maximize impact, and supporting organizations while taking care to not get in their way. But this should be the rule, not the exception. More of progressive philanthropy needs to provide multi-year, general operating support to organizations whose missions and leaders they believe in, enabling groups to work toward achieving those missions in the way that they feel is best.
And there needs to be a true investment in developing people. This means organizations, their staff, and the constituencies they work with. This means reaching out to young people in communities that need to be mobilized. This means compensating youth for their work and their time.
Expecting young people and students to take on an unpaid internship or volunteer for a program reinforces power and privilege dynamics and prevents meaningful and real inclusion. Funders must encourage organizations to provide stipends for their participants—and invest in those that do.
Organizations also need to ensure they provide their staff members with competitive wages, benefits like health care, and work-life balance. Funders are often loath to pay “overhead costs,” but funding personnel (not just program staff) and operational infrastructure is essential—plus it’s critical to the diversity and inclusion of organizations themselves.
Most importantly, we must unite around our values. This requires building coalitions across issue areas and identities, breaking down silos and barriers in the process. Conservatives have built power by coalescing around fundamental beliefs rather than issues. They weave unifying narratives and purposely gloss over the details to create buy-in. “It’s not about reproductive health, it’s about the sanctity of life,” they say. “It’s not about guns, it’s about freedom.”
So, what are progressives fighting for? The survival of our democracy. The survival of our humanity. For community rooted in notions of belonging, economic justice, and racial equity.
It is important to reinforce these messages and narratives in all of our work—and for philanthropic institutions committed to progressive values to make their funding decisions accordingly. Indeed, we should act like our future depends on it. Because it does.