Rachel Kleinfeld and Shamil Idriss on Polarization, Philanthropic Plurality, Social Justice, and Democracy

Newsletter 127 - Monday June 26, 2023


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by Heidi Burgess for Rachel Kleinfeld and Shamil Idriss

Newsletter 126 was the first of two newsletters (this is the second) that focus on a debate within and about the philanthropic community regarding their role in helping to strengthen democracy and enable it to live up to its ideals.  We started out discussing two articles by former director of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation's Democracy Program, Daniel Stid, together with two more related articles from six foundation leaders and a fourth article written by a critic of the third. Together these articles generated an animated email discussion among a number of our colleagues. 

Rachel Kleinfeld, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was one of the people who contributed to that email discussion, and we asked Rachel if we could post her thoughts on our blog/newsletter.  She asked us to delay, as she was in the process of incorporating those thoughts into a larger piece co-authored with Shamil Idriss, CEO of Search for Common Ground. That piece just came out in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and it is excellent.  We cannot repost it here because of copyright restrictions, but we agreed with Rachel to post her original contribution to the email discussion now, and then supplement that with a few of the additional ideas from the Chronicle article.  

Rachel's Original Response1

I'd like to suggest a slightly different framing for this. [Different from the framing presented in the articles we discussed in Newsletter 125 and the previous emails in the earlier private email discussion.]

To me, the two arguments I often hear about polarization are both missing the point. On the one hand, we have these rather anodyne claims such as those made by the article we're discussing, that incivility is so great we must focus on depolarization.  Pieces such as the article in question seem to suggest that just ignoring our differences will get us to where we need to go.

No surprise that bothers people working for inclusion and equity, who fear they will be thrown under the bus for a "white peace" as it was called following the civil war. Some claim that polarization is the necessary cost of social progress.

But both these arguments ignore what I've found in my studies of social change in polarized democracies, and what the research on contact theory really says, as well as the latest research in affective polarization at home.

The research on affective polarization blows the civility argument out of the water. We CAN reduce affective polarization in lab experiments at least - and it has zero effect on anti-democratic attitudes, voting, political violence, etc.  So focusing on reducing it misses the entire point.

But my own research suggests that polarized societies don't move forward linearly.  Backlash is inevitable and must be planned for.  Reconstruction was followed by "redemption" and Jim Crow - a century of backlash.  Acting in ways that are highly likely to generate such backlash is also not progress, in any sense that I believe in it.  So the second argument to ignore polarization and go all in on justice and inclusion as if we can win those arguments in a durable way, ignoring the number of trifectas and triplexes in control of various states also doesn't strike me as morally appealing or practically effective.

My sense is that motivated cognition means partisans see and hear what they want to, and only listen to the messengers they want. That means possible supporters of democracy who are on the other side of the partisan divide actually will not hear progressive messages or messengers. We can only reach them by reaching out to the other side.

But we don't reach out to the other side to simply understand them or accept all they want. We reach out to find what we both can agree we desire - like ECA Reform [ECA = Electoral Count Act]- and get things done we both agree will advance a more inclusive democracy.  Durable change requires alliances across difference because each side will only listen to its own, so that's how change must happen.

In nearly every foreign democracy I study, authoritarian forces win because the opposition is too splintered to fight back effectively.  Venezuela, Turkey, Nicaragua, India - it doesn't matter whether the ideology of authoritarianism is left or right, the problem is that opponents fighting for more democracy fight among themselves about means, and it lets the authoritarians win. And win. And win.  This can happen here, and sometimes I worry that people making arguments about authoritarianism are using that as a rhetorical device, but don't really believe it —because if they did, they would do all they could to find ways we can stitch our coalition together.

So I hope we can find a way to not hold hands and sing kumbaya across difference, nor go all in on highly adversarial change models in which one side wins and the other loses, generating backlash that might last through the lifetimes of our children and even our grandchildren.  There is a third path, which is used by Search for Common Ground and other peacebuilding groups around the world, where transformative social change is achieved by finding a small piece of common ground and working together across difference for practical, inclusive change that helps everyone. That muscle memory allows for more small wins, and eventually, bigger ones. If that's possible in Kenya or Colombia, it's possible here.

Additional Thoughts from the Chronicle of Philanthropy Article 

This article, entitled "No One Is Right in the Debate for and Against Philanthropic Pluralism," co-authored by Shamil Idriss and Rachel Kleinfeld expanded upon these points.  They start out explaining their title:

Alarmed by the faltering state of American democracy, the philanthropic world is divided between those focused on reducing polarization and those embracing adversarial advocacy. Unfortunately, neither approach will yield what’s needed: significant progress toward a more just American society rooted in strengthened democratic systems and norms.

They say that because they see one side as trying to bridge divides merely for the sake of civility and mutual respect, without taking the next step and working to get the adversarial parties actually working together to solve problems as Rachel called for in her earlier email. The other side then gets frustrated about this "kumbaya approach"  and asserts that polarization is necessary to attain justice, which ignores or diminishes the concern about backlash or retribution.  They go on to assert that

The debate between civility and adversarial advocacy ignores the power of collaborative action to transform conflict, restore democracy, and promote peace. Such collaborative approaches yield a dual benefit: meaningful progress toward social justice and improved trust between otherwise opposing groups. Activists who facilitate collaborative action do not treat justice and peace as a tradeoff but integrate the principles of both in their activism.

We honor bridge builders for not viewing differences as existential fights between good and evil. And yet we are most supportive of those who use dialogue to turn adversaries into allies in the fight against political and social problems. Indeed, years of research and practice show that even when dialogue improves understanding or reduces stereotypes, it won’t result in actual change if those improved relationships aren’t paired with collaborative action. Dialogue for the sake of dialogue gets us nowhere. …

We also honor social-justice advocates for amplifying the voices of those experiencing persistent injustice and insisting on change. At the same time, we know that in polarized societies, change only endures when championed by diverse coalitions, while adversarial advocacy yields victories that last just long enough for opponents to organize and generate backlash.

Given this, they advise that those seeking to improve democracy should hold themselves "accountable for advancing both peace and justice" and assess their program's effectiveness using tools that measure both.  One such tool they recommend is ConnexUs's Peace Impact Framework which "lays out the vital signs for a healthy society. These include trust in people and governing institutions, citizens’ sense of agency, low levels of physical violence, and commitment to sustained peace." 

They also say that people working to strengthen democracy should draw inspiration from historical figures such as Nelson Mandel, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King all of whom focused on seeking justice and peace together.  

They end by warning that "America does not have much time to get this right." But, they conclude:

[T]he situation is far from hopeless. The country’s many assets include a tradition of civic activism and generous philanthropic support for that activism. Debating which approaches will yield the best results is natural. But those debates will serve the nation best if we learn the lessons of the past and embrace the value of justice and pluralism equally.

They also say at the end that they welcome thoughts and questions about their article. We (Guy and Heidi) have several thoughts, which we will include in another newsletter/blog post soon. For the moment, we will end by saying that we think Rachel's email and even more the Chronicle of Philanthropy article Rachel co-authored with Shamil are "right on" and extremely important. 

And we, too, (Guy and I) welcome more contributions on this topic to this discussion.


1This is verbatim from Rachel's private email sent on May 11, 2023, reprinted here with her permission.

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