How to cure philanthropy’s big “blind spot for democracy”

The one area—and it’s actually the most important—that no one’s funding is election integrity.


Issue #27, Winter 2013
Curing Philanthropy’s Blind Spot: One Percent for Democracy
Nick Penniman & Ian Simmons

Early in 2009, in the heat of the battle on Capitol Hill over financial reform, Senator Dick Durbin was interviewed by a Chicago radio host about how the negotiations were going. Durbin lamented, “The banks—hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created—are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.”

They frankly own the place. This is not what anyone wants to hear a U.S. senator say. And most people know who basically won that policy battle. Headlines may have painted the financial reform that passed Congress as a significant step forward, but it was, at best, a partial victory, watered down considerably by the industry it was supposed to regulate. As renowned New York Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson said when asked by Bill Moyers if the financial crisis could happen again, “It will happen again. And the unfortunate fact is we did not fix the problem.” The reason, she said: “The big powered, moneyed institutions are in control in Washington…. You and I don’t have a lobbyist and so we are not represented.”

Sadly, this is not a startling insight. And, more sadly, the finance industry isn’t the only big problem we can’t seem to truly fix. From public health to the environment to education to wasteful government spending, we are in a state of national paralysis. Before the election, Congress’s approval ratings were at an all-time low, and the public’s cynicism about the country’s future was at an all-time high.

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