Contributory or Disruptive: Do New Forms of Philanthropy Erode Democracy

Public contention about philanthropy erupted in the months before and after the recent US elections. At the center of the discussions were two presidential candidates whose foundations became emblematic of the cases that were made against their qualifications. To many, Trump’s foundation, with its slew of legal and ethical controversies including self-dealing and a failure to honor charitable pledges, was demonstrative of the candidate’s avarice and narcissism. Clinton’s foundation, having received large donations from corporations and foreign governments, struck many as evidence of her “crookedness.” The activities of both foundations raised questions about the candidates, but few questioned the unusual historical moment in which both candidates had foundations.

A century ago, Gilded Age philanthropists were treated with great suspicion and castigated by political leaders for trying to influence the public sphere. Today, philanthropists grace the covers of magazines, and are venerated as public leaders and the Samaritans of our time. Our chapter (an excerpt of which is below) sheds light on this remarkable shift. By tracing the evolving relations between philanthropy and government, we examine how ultra-rich philanthropists—once considered a serious threat to democracy—came to be regarded as legitimate players in the provision of public services. Diminished faith in the ability for state bureaucracy to address public needs and expanded faith in entrepreneurialism and markets has given rise to a form of philanthropy that seeks to disrupt public provision. This move toward private determination of the public good raises considerable challenges to the ethos and practice of democracy. Although we wrote our chapter in 2015, our arguments seem even more relevant after recent events. —Aaron Horvath