November’s presidential election results will have pulled the United States back from the brink of authoritarianism. After we’ve taken a moment to celebrate our achievement and rejuvenate, there comes the challenge of plotting a course forward. Because, there’s no going back to some imagined normalcy. Many consequences of Trump’s presidency – cult of strongman personality, capture and erosion of the courts and other democratic institutions, normalization of misogyny and white nationalism, consolidation of Christian Right power, mobilization of vigilantes, enrichment of oligarchs, rise of a media disinformation infrastructure – will not be so easily undone. The toothpaste, as they say, doesn’t go back in the tube. And while elections most definitely matter, the underlying forces driving us towards authoritarianism are strong, ongoing, and global. With weakened democratic institutions and an energized far right, a democratic future for the United States is by no means inevitable. It rather depends on the decisions we make now.
Change on this scale – the kind of change that can avert authoritarianism and build genuine, multiracial, feminist democracy – requires powerful social movements that can leverage culture change into governing power. Meanwhile, we’re almost certain to face a reenergized Right Wing. In what has become a pattern, the Right tends to become militant when shut out of governing power. Consider the 1990s militia movement and Oklahoma City bombing under Clinton. During Obama’s tenure we saw birtherism, Tea Party nationalism, and the founding of militia groups like the Oath Keepers and III%. Sustained right wing militancy is likely to assail both the new administration and the social justice movements currently leading us towards a more just democracy.
What role can philanthropy now play to restore some guardrails and resource these movements? We offer some reflections on the current moment as well as a few recommendations to guide social justice, human rights, and democracy funders.
Given these conditions, here are five ways philanthropy can support:
1. Break the cycle of defunding justice movements during Democratic presidencies. A massive reallocation of resources away from field building toward public policy advocacy often follows the election of Democrats to the White House. This time around, progressive philanthropy must break that pattern and continue to resource the very movements that have pulled us back from the brink. Right-wing gains will limit the incoming administration. The Senate remains divided, and five seats were flipped in the House. At the state level, Republicans will hold at least 60% of state legislatures in 2021. The 2022 midterms will leave 35 state governor seats up for election. The sustained work of movement organizations Fair Fight in Georgia and LUCHA Arizona amongst so many others made record voter engagement possible. Fortify voter mobilization and voter education efforts with resources to build infrastructure and long-term power as advocates face legislative battles beginning in 2021 and build momentum to gain ground in 2022.
2. Fund base-building, strategy development, and infrastructure for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other communities of color. The THRIVE Agenda for just, healthy, and equitable society was introduced by a broad coalition of social and economic justice organizations working in partnership with legislators. Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project brought forward the Breathe Act, that invests in new, non-punitive, non-carceral approaches to community safety, allocates new money to build healthy, sustainable and equitable communities and holds political leaders to their promises. We also witnessed the launch and growth this year of the Frontline - a collaborative united front campaign that seeks to advance a progressive roadmap through the current anti-democratic crisis. Make direct, unapologetic, multi-year investments in the new generation of anti-racist leaders and movement-led initiatives building durable power.
3. Move money to the powerful ecosystem of Black-led social change organizations around the country. White supremacist groups remain an active threat to communities across the country. Through the Black Liberation Pooled Fund, Solidaire is making urgent movement protection grants and multi-year commitments to movement infrastructure, Black resistance and Black futures. The Black Liberation Pooled Fund was launched in June 2020 as a critical opportunity for donors and foundations to step up in defense of Black lives. In August, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation pledged $20 million over the next two years to the fund as part of its commitment to improving grantmaking to support justice and equity. Movement leaders and grassroots organizers from targeted communities deserve resources quickly to ensure their digital and physical safety in the face of increasing threats from a militant, hard-Right resistance movement.
4. Support intersectional social justice feminism to fight patriarchy and White supremacy. Aleyamma Mathew and Nicolette Naylor make the case that anti-blackness is global and gendered, and philanthropy’s response must be too. Invest in visionary women’s leadership and focus on intersectional reproductive justice issues like the care economy and transforming the carceral system. But, we must also contest the Right’s seeming monopoly on religious morality and activism. Emboldened Christian nationalists, with an increasingly militant evangelical branch, are successfully building alliances across far-right sectors to impose patriarchal order. The conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court (and entire federal bench) will likely threaten the durability of Roe v. Wade and LGBTQI civil rights. Yet, the vast majority of the religious community does not espouse these values. Bridging secular and religious movements led by people of color intent on securing reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy could produce a seismic power shift in the country. Fund innovative feminist leadership and strategies because defeating White supremacist patriarchy is essential to securing democracy, and because of the proven effectiveness of these movements.
5. Fund narrative strategies that build solidarity while confronting White supremacy head on. Perhaps the most potent threat to building multiracial, pluralistic democracy is the resurrection of Reconstruction-era narratives of division across racial lines. The driving theory and fear is that a diminishing White population faces an existential threat from Black resistance, immigrant replacement, and minorities who gain power. Today, White supremacist violence is directed against Jews, Muslims, Black and Latinx people, as well as Asian Americans. Funders are supporting pop culture campaigns and narrative messaging to strengthen voting rights, increase media representation, and flip the script on stereotypes and negative depictions of people of color. Yet, without a clear framework and counter-narrative, efforts to “unify Americans” risk diluting anti-racist strategies into messages and policies that appeal to an imagined center. Intersectional movements want resources to popularize pro-racial justice, pro-Black messaging that counters White nationalist narratives designed to pit communities against each other, while unapologetically advancing racial justice and a vision of multiracial democracy in which everyone can thrive.
There is no future for U.S. democracy that isn’t multiracial, feminist, and pluralistic. It’s not enough to reject bigoted and exclusionary ideas about who is a real American, deserving of recognition, rights, and representation. We must invest in the transformational power of social movements that are modeling, mobilizing, and calling into being a democracy worthy of the name. Philanthropy must follow the courage of our movements and align our practices and processes to resource the dreams and plans of our movements at scale and in better coordination as a whole. Our democracy and our lives depend on it.