Daniel Stid Talks about Ways to Strengthen Democracy by Replacing Polarization with Pluralism

 

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Newsletter #167 — October 27, 2023

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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion

by Heidi Burgess 

October 18, 2023

On October 4, 2023, Guy and I had the opportunity to talk with Daniel Stid, who was the founder and first director of the Hewlett Foundation's U.S. Democracy Program. He left Hewlett in 2022 (as Hewlett has term limits for all its program directors) and went on to found an organization called Lyceum Labs to continue his work on strengthening democracy in the U.S. We have been reading Daniel's blog The Art of Association, which we find very insightful, and you may remember, we reposted two of his blog posts here on our Hyper-Polarization Discussion/Substack Newsletter. (These are Newsletter 160 on Citizen's Assemblies and Newsletter 151 entitled Four Ways to Reframe Democracy in America.) You can read or watch our full discussion here

 

The William and Flora Hewlett U.S. Democracy Program

Daniel started out by describing how the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation's U.S. Democracy Program got started and how it developed over the years he was there.  (He emphasized that he is no longer there—Hewlett is one of the few foundations which has mandatory term limits for its program directors. So what he was describing is what happened at Hewlett in the past; it does not necessarily reflect its focus or direction now.)

He credited the start of the program with the current President of the Foundation, Larry Kramer.  When Kramer was at the Stanford Law School, and was interviewing to become President of Hewlett, he was asked what he thought of the then-current Hewlett Programs.  He answered that he thought they should add a program that sought to "shore up" U.S. Democracy.  When Larry was appointed President, he sought to do just that, and soon thereafter brought on Daniel to help plan the program and then run it as its first program director. 

Daniel reported that they first zeroed in on the problem of political polarization which "struck us as starting to generate negative feedback loops that were reverberating and were unlikely to correct themselves." They sought out potential grantee organizations that would be interested at looking at that problem, and coming up with potential solutions to it.  They soon began to focus particularly on Congress, which they felt was "fundamentally broken. We saw Congress as the arena in which the divisions and disputes in our society are meant to be represented, and if not reconciled, at least balanced and traded off against each other." But that clearly wasn't happening.  They also began to focus on electoral reforms, such as ranked-choice voting, that would get more people "with a problem-solving orientation" to come to Washington. At the time, they thought this was a good way to diminish political polarization, and get Congress functioning effectively again.

Heidi observed that Congress is still very much broken, and she asked what solutions did they try and why didn't they work.  Daniel answered that he thinks "the jury is still out." 

When we started making these investments, we told our board that these would pay off over a 10 to 20-year period. So, we weren't expecting near-term results, although now we're at the 10-year mark. I think there has been some real progress--kind of behind the scenes, in the work that Congress does, that is much less polarized. And frankly, that's a good bit of the work that Congress does, that doesn't make the newspapers because there isn't conflict. People aren't at loggerheads. They are negotiating, deliberating, compromising to get things done. That describes a lot of the policy that Congress makes. We just observe when there is a conflict and the partisan excesses that capture the attention of the media, and thus us. 

But what we were endeavoring to do, early on, with Congress was to try to re-establish a concern with the health of the institution as a forum and a body that the country needs to be strong and robust, in which different points of view could be presented, represented, discussed, negotiated, and improved upon.

Ironically, we were having this conversation as the U.S. House of Representatives was non-functional because a few days earlier, the Republican members voted to dismiss the Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, because he compromised with the Democrats on a stop-gap funding bill to keep the government open—an unforgivable sin to a few extreme right members of Congress, who held enough votes, due to the close balance of parties, to deny anyone they didn't like the speakership.  Clearly, we haven't reestablished a concern with the health of the institution or the country yet!  But Daniel did send along a link to a blog post he wrote on January 2, 2023 — long before the Speaker debacle — that illustrated his point that there has been successful behind the scenes work. So maybe, now that Congress does have a speaker again (as of October 25, 2023), they can begin to show us some of this effective governing.

From the beginning, Daniel explained, they were sure to work with other funders and grantees who spanned the political spectrum, but who all shared the goal of strengthening American democracy (though what they meant by that, and how they sought to go about it often differed).  One of the most important things they did, Daniel reflected, was bringing all these folks together in an annual convening, during which they provided

a lot of space and free time for grantees to begin to connect and work together. And we were always surprised and delighted by the collaborations and the joint projects that emerged from those gatherings that we had nothing to do with. It just brought people together. And that made the difference. 

It's funny. It reminds me, and this is not the most flattering metaphor, but when I worked in Congress, I, at one point, was in the back as a staffer in the back of the room. And then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said something to the effect of, "Well, you can't herd cats, but you can move their food." And so, this idea of providing in a nice, open setting where it was easy for grantees to attend something that they would want to come to and just happen to encounter people who they wouldn't otherwise encounter there, I think, really provided the basis for a lot of great relationships. And certainly, we know from the grantee feedback that was something that they greatly appreciated.

Over time, particularly after the 2016 election (in which Donald Trump was elected President) they revised their thinking about the nature of political polarization. 

When we first started, we saw it primarily as a problem of ideological differences over policies. And we came to appreciate, through a number of our grantees, the extent to which it was much more of a kind of an underlying visceral or emotional, a non-rational reaction to disagreement.

We had also seen it as an elite phenomena and came to appreciate that there was a reverberation effect between elites and grassroots voters and that the polarization was kind of rippling through the entire polity. It wasn't just at the elite level.

I think we also had seen this as something of a uniquely American or exceptionally American problem. But as we looked about what was happening in Europe, in the UK, with Brexit and France with the real surge of the Front Nationale in Germany with the emergence of the Alternative for Germany and Italy with the Brothers of Italy, you started to see the emergence of these more nationalist populist parties arising in our sister industrialized post-industrial democracies in ways that were rhyming, if not exactly replicating, each other.

As a result of these realizations, they came to believe that structural changes alone, such as ranked-choice voting were not going to be enough to reduce political polarization.  They needed to influence the social and cultural drivers of these hostile attitudes as well. Here, they focused on social media as being an important part of the problem, as it was driving fear and hatred, and overly simplistic (and polarized) definitions of problems and solutions.  As a result, they added to their portfolio an effort to combat mis- and disinformation.

The initial democracy effort was funded for three years, and then renewed for another 5. But in the spring of 2020, the board decided that the work of the democracy program was so important, that they converted it from a time-limited and budget-limited initiative to a core part of the foundation's work. But Daniel had to leave soon thereafter, as his term as Program Director was limited.

Lyceum Labs

When Daniel left Hewlett in 2022, he explained that he

wanted to continue to work on this problem and just felt that philanthropy, in general, was not sufficiently attentive to the importance of good constructive leaders in a democracy and leaders, in particular, who were appreciative of the pluralism in our democracy and were leading in a way that recognized and reinforced it, versus undermining or seeking to simplify it.

So he formed an organization called Lyceum Labs as an effort to fill that need and to rally other nonprofit organizations, funders, journalists to see the importance of that. He explained that he took the name "Lyceum" from Abraham Lincoln's address to the Yong Men's Lyceum, 

which was the first speech he gave when he was a state legislator in Illinois in the 1830s. And in it, he warned against the dangers of excessive political passions, mob violence, and the imperative for political leaders to help preserve the kind of constitutional governance that a pluralistic society needed.

Hmm, it seems these problems aren't new!

Lyceum Labs, Daniel said, is trying to do two things. First, it is trying to figure out practical ways to make our party system more pluralistic and less polarized. There used to be considerable diversity within both the Democratic and the Republican parties, he explained, but this is no longer the case. He thinks that getting back to that world would go a long way toward remedying our current governance dysfunction.

They are also trying to "rethink that good political leadership looks like and to spur people who would likely make good statesmen (and women) to run for office. Right now, the people who run for office mostly do so because they have strong ideological beliefs or are so alarmed by the other side, that they want to run and "beat them."

Whereas, the people who are much less apt to come forward are the people who are not necessarily centrist in the policy sense, but are more pragmatic and problem-solving in their orientation, who see [current] politics as a den of polarization and gridlock and corruption. And this is especially true among rising generations of Americans, millennials and Gen Z’s particularly. There's a lot of great social science on this, too.

They [Lyceum Labs] are working particularly at the state and local level, because they think that there already are more good leaders at that level, and there are opportunities to develop even more. And then those people tend to move on up to the national level. But the national level, Daniel observed, is not ripe for such interventions right now--it is too polarized and very unlikely to change over the short run.

Daniel also stressed the value of broadening our notion of "democracy," because people are defining democracy differently and are talking past each other.

People on the progressive left are, I think, rightly alarmed by what they see as a subset of Republicans, although they tend to paint with a broad brush, undermining some of the most common and sacrosanct institutions of democracy, of which the events of January 6th stirred up by the then sitting president of the United States is exhibit one.  They say, "Whatever it takes, we have to stop that--our democracy is under attack."

I think if you define democracy as strictly about the control of our political and governing institutions, then you can say, "There's one group threatening democracy. It is this leader and this party, and we need to pull out all the stops to confront them."

I view democracy as much more holistic. It involves not simply our government and politics, but our society, our economy. It covers the geography of the country. And it covers our cultural institutions. And I think the blind spot of the social justice people dedicated to social justice and racial justice at institutions and  in the foundation world, in the media world, in the cultural world, and certainly in higher education, is they really have a lock on the commanding heights of that part of our society. And they are shaping and constraining the legitimate realms of discourse within it in ways that are really pernicious for democracy and disrespectful of roughly the two-thirds of the country that isn't college, hyper-educated, and participating in that. And there is a dismissal and a contempt that is not always, but sometimes, and I think increasingly articulated outright in those circles, which is also, I think, a direct assault on our democracy and certainly on the kind of the pluralistic, multi-ethnic democratic patterns that we need to see

So, I think I see the point in logic about the alarm bells being expressed on each side. I continue to think there is potential to reclaim, to both recognize and see the considerable common ground that exists. But I understand the forces that are working to undermine it. So, I'm kind of an ally with you in trying to hold space for something other than these intemperate and completely unpluralistic attempts to render the other side into submission. But that is a growing problem.

As Always, There's Much More!

We also talked about what philanthropy can and cannot do in this space, and the debate over whether philanthropy should be pluralistic (and honor pluralism as opposed to one side or the other) or not. We talked about the importance of local news, and how it needs to be reinvigorated if we are to reinvigorate democracy at the local level. Daniel shared information about other notable organizations (on both the right and the left) which are doing good work on democracy,  And we talked about what are the norms and practices that define democracy and how they differ in homogeneous and heterogeneous countries.  It was a wonderful conversation—I encourage our readers to watch it or read it in full!

 

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