Populist anger and a sole resort to push back against philanthropic elites

Mar 2, 2023

Remarks from a panel discussion on populism at the “Foundations on the Hill” event for foundation leaders and officials in Washington, D.C.

Below are remarks, as prepared, delivered by William A. Schambra earlier this week during a panel discussion about populism on the first day of this week’s “Foundations on the Hill” event for foundation leaders and officials in Washington, D.C. The same panel included remarks from the Philanthropy Roundtable’s Elizabeth McGuigan, which are here.


I’ve wrestled with the phenomenon of conservative populism ever since the peculiar events of 2016, and I’m still not entirely clear what it is. But I thought I would share a few observations this afternoon, sketchy as they may be.

It’s true that philanthropy is in fact becoming a target of this populism. But it’s hardly alone. Indeed, it’s by no means the most-prominent target.

Right-wing populism today views virtually all major American institutions with immense distrust. And I do mean all. Some institutions have been in bad odor for quite some time: certainly government; “lamestream media,” as Sarah Palin put it; Hollywood; higher education. But other sectors have only recently come into disrepute: high tech; the security services; and perhaps most notably, the business corporation.

As populists see it, all these sectors—occupying the commanding heights of our society—are controlled by wealthy, powerful, entrenched elites who espouse an ideology that’s deeply hostile to conservative values.  

Populists seek to preserve, or to restore, a nation of strong families, schools that teach the fundamentals, police that enforce the law, neighborhoods that are safe, houses of worship that adhere to orthodoxy.

But all those values are held by elites to be reactionary and oppressive, and those who treasure them are regarded as intellectually and culturally inferior.  

Now, you might say that this has nothing whatsoever to do with foundations. After all, you’re not obnoxious elites, so why would the peasants with pitchforks, as Pat Buchanan described them, come for you? Well, let’s take an honest look at your situation. 

First, you are, in fact, sitting on a pile of money. That has historically attracted populist hostility, especially from populists on the left. You may say it’s a very small pile of money, but viewed by everyday citizens, it doesn’t look all that small. And within reason, you have incredible leeway to do with it as you please.

Most of you have college degrees, graduate degrees in many cases, or professional training of some sort—in other words, the credentials of an elite.

You make pretty good money and have good benefits. You work remotely or in a nice office, probably in a pleasant part of town. 

And you’re not likely to be put out of business or voted out of office by the competition, because … there isn’t any. 

From the viewpoint of a homeowner next to the tracks in East Palestine, Ohio, you look suspiciously like the comfortable, cosseted elites that run the other major American institutions.

Then we add in what you consider to be the purpose of your institution. As far as you’re concerned, it’s to do good things in the world, and who can distrust that? 

And of course, as you speak to your legislators tomorrow, you’re going to emphasize the concrete, manifestly beneficent projects you fund back home: the scholarships for low-income students; the job-development program; the civic-education campaign.

But as history tells us, American philanthropy prides itself on doing so much more than just passively writing checks to decent nonprofits. 

From the first major American foundations in the early 20th Century, that sort of thing was considered to be mere charity—just putting band-aids on problems. The glorious project of American philanthropy was quite different. It was to get to the root causes of problems, in order to solve them once and for all.

Now, the idea of what the root causes actually are changes frequently, as bewildered grantees can attest. But today, many foundations are persuaded that the root cause of our problems is the fundamental structure of our very society. 

We are, as a nation, unjust, inequitable, and tilting toward authoritarian rule. Hence, we’re drastically in need of encompassing, profound, top-to-bottom change.

You see this is in the self-descriptions of our largest foundations. They aren’t content with supporting scholarships for low-income minority students. They plan to end inequity. They aren’t content with job-training programs. They want to reinvent capitalism. They aren’t content to promote civic education. They want to save “Our Democracy” from the looming fascist threat.

However high-minded these goals may be, though, they have dramatic consequences for those humble, traditional values so dear to populists. 

Family, school, church, local community—they are drastically in need of overhaul, because they’re the wretched nurseries of parochial, narrow-minded beliefs protecting an unjust system. Those who “bitterly cling” to these beliefs, as President Barack Obama put it, are not just wrong, but contemptible, even deplorable.

I think you see, by now, that populists are not entirely unreasonable to include foundations among the other major institutions they’ve come to distrust.

This won’t prevent philanthropy from pursuing grand agendas, of course. To repeat: you sit on a pile of money, with incredible discretion to do with it as you please. 

But foundations need to be aware that their ambitions are deeply, politically fraught. They cannot feign surprise when people conclude that foundations have an agenda seriously at odds with their values. 

Now, to this point, the intellectual leadership of the conservative movement—the anti-populist conservative establishment—has been remarkably successful at keeping populist anger at bay. 

Groups like the Philanthropy Roundtable are doing philanthropy a huge service by arguing that it’s still possible, even necessary, to work within the system. If you’re upset about progressive foundations, they maintain, just establish one that isn’t. But leave the fundamental prerogatives of foundations intact.

Recently, though, we see a growing impatience with restraint from some major political figures on the right. 

The sentiment is this: when hostile progressive elites control virtually all of the major institutional sectors of our society, there’s only one resort: win elections, where everyday citizens still have a voice, and then use the instruments of government to push back against the elites. 

Even many conservative analysts object that this resort to government activism is distinctly non-conservative. But populists see no reason why the left should be allowed free use of government when in power, while the right binds itself to passivity.

That’s what’s going on right now in the Free State of Florida. As you probably know, Gov. Ron DeSantis is wielding state powers in non-conventionally conservative ways. He’s using legislative and executive powers to take on the universities, K-12 education, the criminal-justice system—and even the House of Mouse. 

As far as he’s concerned, they’ve all proven to be so thoroughly riddled with progressive ideology that they’re immune from modest suggestions for internal reform. He was elected on a platform to “fight woke,” as he puts it, and the only way to do that is through government push-back.

He has yet to turn his attention to foundations. But I strongly suspect they’re on his agenda, first at the state level, and then perhaps nationally. Given his track record, the restraintist argument that the best answer to a progressive foundation is a conservative foundation isn’t likely to be persuasive.

Consider also J. D. Vance. He was still in single digits in the opinion polls in 2021 when he launched a blistering attack on foundation and university endowments. He called them a “trillion-dollar war chest” funding “a massive left-wing bias at the heart of our society.”

His remedy was a mandatory 20% pay-out each year for the largest foundations, at the risk of losing their (c)(3) status … which would reduce the war chest considerably. As you may have noticed, he’s now a sitting United States Senator. 

Clearly, his view is that philanthropy is so lopsidedly progressive that it’s now necessary to resort to major legislation to trim back the prerogatives of the entire sector.

Now, this latest rendition of populism may just peter out once it arrives in D.C., after Foundations on the Hill works its p.r. magic. It’s been 50 years since this didn’t happen.

Or the conservative populist strain may find common cause with the progressive populist strain. After all, as in the past, they share a distrust of concentrated power in the hands of the wealthy, which foundations embody. If that happens, American foundations may be in for a rough ride.

1 comment

  1. Thank you for this..
    As a low income family with two out of the three having disabilities and very close to being homeless. I have tears coming down my cheeks because there actually IS a few people with power on our side pushing for the real immediate issues that need to be addressed, first. I emphasize IS because at this point in my life having to struggle even harder ever since Hurricane Ian I thought we forsure, we have no hope. None at all. Theres so much corruption and greed. Im so tired of crying myself to sleep just about every night because Im so incredibly scared of tomorrow and how were going to survive. My son comes home crying from school because its to hard for him and he gets bullied because we cant afford to put him in a school for children that are severely developmentally delayed due to a rare brain defect. Now that’s a heartbreaking problem. This is not the American Dream but for some ironic reason I came upon this article and it gave me some much, much needed hope. This hit the nail on the head in everyway. Again thank you, thank you for sharing this and thank you for all those who care about the “peasant’s” who just need some help to get a start on a better, stable, habitable, healthy, happy life.

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