Why Participation Matters:
Bill Moyers is well known for his popular television shows on PBS. Less well known is his work in the philanthropic sector, as president of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation. Colin Greer, president of the New World Foundation and former co-chair of the Funders' Committee for Citizen Participation, talks with Moyers about participation and the role foundations can play.
Colin Greer: In our ten years of existence, the Funders' Committee has been very troubled by the downward trend in voter turnout rates in US elections. We've brought foundations together to think about barriers to electoral participation, with special concern for poor people and people of color, who are so often underrepresented in the electorate. And, over the years, we recognized a relationship between electoral participation and a wider sense of civic participation -- this wider sense of participation, we became convinced, is a necessary context for citizens to feel motivated to vote. What is your feeling?
Bill Moyers: I think recognizing that relationship is vitally important. Too often, political participation is understood to mean just voting. That's much too narrow. Active citizens are the sine qua non of democracy. We have to promote and support that kind of activism in communities all over the country. But at the same time, we shouldn't underrate the critical significance of voting.
Elections are the process through which the national community has been and continues to be widened. Our diverse nation can only work with this shared participation in the public sphere. The issues we struggle with -- education, environment, health care -- all depend on elections. If the political class owes its allegiance to very narrow interests, then the public interest in all these issues cannot be advanced.
Greer: What do you mean by the political class?
Moyers: I mean the elite class of professional politicians and staff, lobbyists, political consultants, campaign contributors, think tank staff, media pundits, all of whom together dominate our government. They give us the illusion of dialogue and debate, but they close off conversation for most of the public. Money makes the pot boil. There is a wall of cash that is as surely a barrier to democracy as the Berlin Wall was. Ironically, the Berlin Wall is down, but the cash wall in democracy keeps getting higher and stronger. We've got to tame the influence of money in politics. Money directly affects who competes in and wins elections, how elected officials behave in office, how new policies are advanced or ignored, how the political culture sets priorities, who gets heard. Almost every issue foundations care about hits the same obstacle -- an electoral system controlled by and mainly benefiting the interests who can and do fund it. Do you know that every single member of the House of Representatives who voted against legislation to cut the sugar subsidy received more than $15,000 from sugar interests? That the nuclear industry spent $13 million on campaign funding, while environmental groups spent $1.5 million? The Wall Street Journal recently reported that one senator has to raise the equivalent of $22,000 a day in the final year of office to be ready for re-election campaigning. This is not how politicians should be spending their time. Our taxes are paying them to pander to donors.
Greer: Are you saying that the campaign finance question should be the focus of activists and funders interested in expanding the electorate?
Moyers: I think it should be a high priority, not an exclusive priority. What I said about citizen participation is equally relevant to this issue. Citizens concerned about their community have to recognize how their issues are diminished by the force of money in politics. But, that means we have to support citizen activism on the issue as well as research and public education. Electoral reform is too important to be left just to the lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians- -- he insider traders whose interest it is to rig the rules in their own favor.
Greer: By the electoral question you mean once again campaign finance reform?
Moyers: Yes and no. Obviously, I think that's crucial. What we've done by allowing the cash wall to be built -- and the Supreme Court legitimated this in its ruling that money is speech -- is to say that people with little money have no voice. So the public sphere is robbed of strong debate, and we live with the illusion of competition in politics as the media and politicians present the questions of the day as though they were answered once raised. In a more democratic society, money would not be the arbiter of choice.
Greer: What other barriers to the breadth of national debate and political participation do you see?
Moyers: I see two kinds of barriers beyond money and politics. For the longest time people didn't vote because it's been so hard for them to do it. You know, registration laws, intimidating locations, complex procedures, outright harassment -- all meant that voting was out of the reach of many. This continues to be too much the case today. It's true that technical barriers to voting are coming down. Motor Voter is a real triumph. Foundations that worked on this are to be congratulated, but they must not become complacent. That work is not over. The actual implementation of Motor Voter and public registration is running into trouble where poor people are involved because the participation of public agencies as registration sites is still to be achieved in many parts of the country. So there are the technical conditions, and there are the conditions of life that make voting difficult when there isn't a strong motivation to get out there and vote. And there won't be strong motivation when over and over it seems that the narrow, two-party system and the political class fail to solve problems and continue with business as usual.
The media, too, have turned elections into entertainment. It's a spectator's sport. So you can watch discussions, interviews, commentary, and returns without doing anything yourself to participate. The educator Herb Kohl has said that we are fast becoming a nation that knows how to choose between different brands of toilet paper but has no idea how to make informed choices on the public issues of our day, much less how to deal with the major social and economic problems that are tearing America apart.
Greer: And that other kind of barrier you wanted to identify?
Moyers: There's both an indifference to and a cynicism about our political culture that leads even active citizens, those engaged in community organizing and advocacy, not to vote. They've given up on a process they see as rigged by the two-party system and by candidates' frittering away their stewardship for calculations of monetary support. People feel impotent, therefore, they don't vote, and because they don't vote, the status quo gets more and more rigid.
Greer: Are you inclined toward third parties? There are now several being organized?
Moyers: I'm for many parties, not third parties. I'd like to see proportional representation and a lot of new options. I'm for opening up the process as much as we can. The closed process we have is so detrimental we have to risk testing some alternatives. It has been said that to govern a democracy you require constant vibrations from the population. We will suffocate from narrow options. You know, the US has always come reluctantly to greater electoral democracy: women in 1928, the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Some will argue that we suffer from too much democracy now. Baloney! These are the people who preach power, not participation. They preach control, not contribution. It's ironic to hear people who believe in the marketplace for our economy argue that competition should be limited in politics. Our challenge is to keep the gates of citizenship open and the playing field as level as possible and to trust in the collective decisions that then prevail. I don't know any other way to find common ground on which to build a shared moral view.
Greer: You place a lot of faith in wide participation -- what you call expanding the conversation.
Moyers: Absolutely. The heart and soul of democracy is civilized conflict. That's where we test our ideas and methods face to face, find out what's really important and what we can agree on, advance intellectually, and forge our national identity. Environmentalists talk about the commons as public space for community life. Well, this is what the greening of politics should be about -- a public sphere where democratic principles play themselves out.
Greer: What would you like to see foundations do?
Moyers: I would like to see foundations continue to fund the removing of barriers, to help expand the electorate, particularly to include the excluded parts of our population. I'd like to see foundations fund community organizing and advocacy, so that where Americans are involved in lively and committed participation, they are encouraged to continue in that direction. And, I'd like to see a new and strong emphasis on democratically financed election campaigns. The Kettering Foundation has done yeoman work in helping us to identify a breakdown in public discourse. V.S. Pritchett warns that America today is being turned into a vast crowd, a permanent audience waiting to be amused. Pritchett said we look on more and more and join in less and less. It is critically important for foundations to support Americans' joining in more and more, especially but not only at election time.
Greer: I expect you know how difficult it is to get foundations to make grants together. Do you imagine more of this kind of shared grantmaking?
Moyers: I understand that foundations cherish their autonomy and independence and that each one has a peculiar mandate growing from its own origins. And I value the benefits of that. There are areas, such as the environment, where foundations have done pooled grantmaking. But of course, pooled grantmaking is not the only way for funders to work together. Groups like the Funders' Committee, to name one example, have been important in providing a way for foundations to share what they do and to bring important opportunities to the attention of colleagues without giving up their individual autonomy. I know at Schumann we find these kinds of collaborations very valuable.