Donors who want social change should do more to fix democracy

This op-ed originally appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

For every generation of Americans there arises a critical and often unexpected challenge that demands thoughtful, effective, and cooperative action in the public interest.

For Americans today, the most vital possible cause is at stake. That is the issue that contains and defines all other issues in our civic life: the integrity of our experiment in self-government.

The election system today is, in the broadest and most fundamental sense of the word, corrupt. It is being manipulated against the welfare of the American people by narrow interests motivated by financial greed or the pursuit of power or both.

That’s why this challenge deserves to be made an urgent priority by every one of us who cares about the future of our country and our children, and by every organization and every philanthropist concerned with the public good, no matter what the rest of their agenda may look like. Indeed, this needs to happen precisely to enable them to pursue the rest of their agenda.

Vast numbers of Americans have lost faith in their democracy, their government, and the political processes that lie at the center of both. In fact, seven in 10 believe our democracy is at risk if we do not reduce the influence of money in our politics, according to a recent Issue One-Ipsos Poll.

Our allies and friends around the world no longer admire our system of government. They worry that we are falling apart and have become unprincipled and undependable.

Crisis in Governance

America’s governmental system used to be what set us apart, what made us most proud. Today we are in a full-fledged crisis in governance, caused by the influence of money in our politics, partisan gerrymandering, and creeping restrictions on voting rights in states across the country.

American democracy and the system of self-government envisioned by our founders are in danger. Yet very few philanthropic dollars are going to groups trying to remedy the failures of our democracy.

In 2013, less than fifteen thousandths of 1 percent of charitable giving in America was donated to groups seeking to overhaul the political system. So the task before us is clear.

We need to reduce the influence of money in our elections. We need to support groups working to roll back gerrymandering. And we must aid organizations fighting efforts to reintroduce racially based restrictions on voting registration.

Our democratic machinery is broken and needs to be fixed. That is the most important task facing us now. Until that is fixed, it will by definition be difficult or impossible to deal with the many serious problems that demand our attention.

Two years ago Francis Fukuyama — known for his 1989 essay, “The End of History?”— revisited that landmark work and changed his mind. “No one living in established democracy,” he wrote, “should be complacent about its survival.”

We are far from complacent. We are rising to the challenge of our time to preserve our founders’ vision and investing more in democracy for “we, the people.”

Peter C. Goldmark Jr. is former president of the Rockefeller Foundation. David Rockefeller Jr. has served as chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. They are both active members of Issue One, a nonprofit advocacy organization seeking to reduce the power of money in politics.