With an estimated $6 billion staked on influencing the outcome of the 2016 election, we’re all bracing for the blast of whole and half truths, pants-on-fire lies and head-spinning charges and counter-charges, mostly in TV ads, that the Supreme Court has sent our way, courtesy of the Citizens United decision.
Never in our history has such a volume of motivational manipulation that passes as information been thrust on the public – with the possible exception of Super Bowl advertising, which is another story entirely.
The court’s 5-4 decision, in 2010, opened the floodgates for campaign contributions, notably from aggregations of so-called dark money, unaccountable contributions from the very wealthy. So billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, can summon presidential candidates to their feet seeking the blessing of campaign money.
We might deeply resent this kind of political power that allows a single person to have such influence on the shape of political campaigns, including issues and candidates. So it’s not surprising to me that resentment is likewise building over the same kind of power that, according to recent articles, holds sway over the shape and direction of philanthropy in our country.
Michael Massing, writing in the New York Review of Books, points out that some 80 foundations have assets of $1 billion or more, double the number of 15 years ago. Taxpayers have a stake in how the foundations distribute their largesse since they subsidize it. “Every year, an estimated $40 billion is diverted from the public treasury through charitable donations,” Massing said.
Foundations exert a strong influence on the issues that receive support, including those in education, helping the poor, public health and the environment. They are valued for their ability to take on risky experiments that government might not otherwise tackle. And even their critics acknowledge that they can have a long time horizon to seek solutions as opposed to quick solutions sought by government efforts.
But, as Rob Reich, a Stanford University political scientist, said in a Boston Review article, “Foundations are, virtually by definition, the voice of plutocracy. The assets of a modern philanthropic foundation are set aside in a permanent, donor-directed, tax-advantaged private endowment and distributed for a public purpose. These considerable private assets give it considerable public power. And with growing wealth and income inequality, their apparent tension with democratic principles only intensifies.”
Larissa MacFarquhar wrote this in the New Yorker: “In this, foundations resembled super PACs: in both cases, money gave rich people the means to exercise an outsized and undemocratic influence on American life.”
Massing cites an example of this darker side of foundations – a so-called “philanthrocapitalist” who financed a public television series supportive of his campaign to cut public employees’ retirement benefits. The series was dropped after protests when the foundation’s role was revealed.
Massing, a former executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, also cited the need to examine the money and attendant influence flowing into universities. Wisconsin was among the states cited in his watch list.
He argues for the creation of a website devoted to reporting on philanthropists, one that would pay special attention to the sources of their wealth and the impact their philanthropy has had. Ironically, he admits it would take philanthropy to create such an enterprise. “Is there perhaps a consortium of donors out there willing to fund an operation that would part the curtains on its own world?” he asked.
This concern about the concentration of power in America is an integral part of the issue of inequality that has surfaced as a key issue in the 2016 elections. Although it has been couched in terms of income inequality, the sense of powerlessness in average citizens is likely another fuel for the resentment on both the right and the left – a feeling that there are puppeteers controlling the actors in our American life.