Our special projects to defend democracy

March 27, 2018

Democracy Fund is committed to supporting a resilient, diverse, democratic society that respects the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of each individual, and empowers us all to pursue and achieve the common good. We envision a country in which Americans actively participate in our democracy and have the information needed to hold our leaders accountable. And in which Americans are confident that their voices are heard and that democratic institutions are faithfully and effectively serving the nation’s best interests.

Since our creation in 2011, we have pursued this vision by investing in people and organizations across the political spectrum who are working to ensure we have modern elections, effective governance, and a vibrant public square. We remain deeply committed to these long-term efforts as essential parts of a healthy, responsive democracy.

However, like many who care about the health of our political system, we at Democracy Fund have been increasingly alarmed as the divisive tone and tenor of the 2016 election cycle has continued to fester—suffocating civil dialogue, endangering the rights and lives of minority communities, and threatening some of the most fundamental principles and institutions of our democracy. The new President’s track record of questioning and dismissing our essential norms and institutions has put tremendous stress on our political system—especially on our freedoms of the press and the checks and balances that prevent abuses of powers.

These challenges pose a threat to our vision of a resilient, diverse, democracy — and we believe that when forces threaten the health of American democracy, we must stand up.

In response, we have launched four special projects over the last two years — committing $24 million in grantmaking for 2017-2018 — to defend and strengthen democracy. Following Democracy Fund’s established grantmaking criteria, these four new special projects focus on supporting people and institutions under attack, and helping our civic and political leaders to better understand the long-standing trends in public opinion that have produced today’s politics.

The Special Project on Investigative Journalism supports and defends the role of a robust, free press in our public square. Launched last March with an initial set of grants made in partnership with our colleagues at First Look Media, these grantees have produced hard-hitting public interest reporting on issues related to technology, education, the environment, immigration changes, and more. In the face of mounting attacks on the press, they have aggressively stood up against threats to the fourth estate, reporting on the issues that matter deeply to our nation right now. Examples of their fearless journalism include:

  • ProPublica’s ongoing reporting on dark ads and Facebook targeting (see “Facebook Moves to Prevent Advertisers From Targeting Haters”) revealed that advertisers could use Facebook to reach self-identified anti-Semites as well as enabling discriminatory job ads. The company removed those ads, as well as ads of other categories that could be used to target hate.
  • Reporting on how our government works is critical and the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting are partnering to create a searchable, sortable database of Trump administration financial disclosures, and engaging readers as “citizen sleuths” to help follow the money.
  • ProPublica has also set up a project, Documenting Hate, to document hate crimes and bias incidents for which there has previously been limited data available to journalists, researchers, and advocates.
  • The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Heroin(e), which was picked up by Netflix and nominated for an Oscar, documents the effects of the opioid epidemic in West Virginia.

The Special Project on Fostering a Just and Inclusive Society seeks to protect those whose civil rights and safety appear to be endangered in this emerging landscape. It supports work that serves multiple communities vulnerable to threats in our volatile political environment, and — based on public opinion including that of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group — this project has a particular focus on the risks to Muslim, Arab, and South Asian (MASA) communities. These grants have centered around four main objectives:

  • Supporting honest and positive communications efforts that support the American Muslim community.
  • Supporting Muslim, Arab and South Asian Community Organizations
  • Creating bipartisan community networks that can support MASA communities if threatened.
  • Challenging curbs on civil rights through litigation, legal services, and legal education

Since we began supporting these fields, our grantees have made significant progress, building relationships across the field and providing legal support. For example:

The Special Project on Government Accountability, Transparency, and Oversight strengthens the checks and balances that help Americans hold their leaders and government accountable. This project bolsters the existing structural safeguards in our system by, for example, rebuilding congressional capacity to conduct oversight, protecting potential whistleblowers, and fighting for more transparency around government actions. Our grantees also prepare for anticipated threats to the rule of law that could put our democracy at risk.

To date, Democracy Fund has provided support to a number of organizations strengthening government accountability, shining a light on government actions, and safeguarding our institutions. Some examples of our partners’ work include:

  • The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has pushed to enforce government ethics rules, improve whistleblower protection policies, and strengthen bipartisan congressional oversight efforts.
  • A FOIA lawsuit filed by Lawfare and Protect Democracy Project helped secure the release of more than 100 FBI emails that contradicted the White House narrative that Director James Comey had lost Bureau support before his firing.
  • The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has worked to defend the Congressional Budget Office from attacks on its credibility.

The Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, our fourth special project, is a research collaboration of more than two dozen analysts and scholars from across the political spectrum examining and delivering insights on the evolving views of American voters. As the 2016 presidential campaign unfolded, it became increasingly clear that the underlying values and beliefs driving voter decisions need to be better understood. To that end, Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, John Sides of The George Washington University, and Joe Goldman of Democracy Fund convened a politically diverse group of conservative, progressive, and independent public opinion experts to study the electorate together. The group seeks not to achieve consensus, but to engage in discussion about how the views of the electorate are evolving and what the implications of those changes may be.

The Voter Study Group’s unique longitudinal surveys are translating into a richer understanding of the public’s views and concerns. For example:

  • Emily Ekins’ Five Types of Trump Voters illustrates the breadth of the President’s supporters’ views on a variety of issues including immigration, race, American identity, moral traditionalism, trade, and economics.
  • Robert Griffin’s Party Hoppers shows how a majority of the key Obama-to-Trump voters now identify as Republicans.
  • Most recently, Follow the Leader, by Lee Drutman, Larry Diamond, and Joe Goldman, reveals that while a majority of Americans still support democracy, more than one in four express some support for authoritarian politics.

In the coming weeks, Democracy Fund will publish blogs describing the progress of these projects. We are inspired and encouraged by the hard work and commitment of the bipartisan coalition of leaders and allies with whom we stand to ensure our political system is healthy and responsive to the needs of the American people. We look forward to continuing to work with these voices and leaders in defense of our common democratic ideals.

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