Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Shoring Up a Democracy under Siege

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Shoring Up a Democracy under Siege

Article excerpt

The United States is experiencing an unprecedented erosion of democratic institutions and norms under the Trump administration. While constitutional checks and balances are holding for now, we are seeing the kinds of challenges that have presaged a shift toward authoritarianism in other countries. If not countered, this kind of "constitutional regression" can develop into something that looks like a more lasting authoritarian condition, with institutions that are so hollowed out as to be ineffective, and with impact that outlives the Trump administration. Since November 2016, American civil society's reform sector has adjusted, adapted, and innovated to meet these challenges. To facilitate their success, the philanthropic sector must likewise adapt.

The Open Society Foundations (OSF) are a global philanthropy whose mission is to foster open societies in place of authoritarian ones. (2) Our founder George Soros was born in Hungary and lived through the Nazi occupation of 1944 to 1945, which resulted in the murder of over 500,000 Hungarian Jews. In 1947, as Communists consolidated power in Hungary, Mr. Soros left for London where he ultimately studied philosophy with Karl Popper, author of The Open Society and Its Discontents, at The London School of Economics and Political Science. In 1956, he emigrated to the US, where he worked in the worlds of finance and investment. He has used the fortune he amassed to support philanthropy that reflects Popper's philosophy--that no ideology is the final arbiter of truth, and societies can only flourish when they allow for democratic governance, freedom of expression, and respect for individual rights. (3) Mr. Soros began his philanthropy in 1979, giving scholarships to black South Africans under apartheid who might lead their country out of closed and authoritarian conditions, and into ones governed by democratic principles, respect for the rule of law, protection of the rights of minorities, and civil and political liberties. In the 1980s, he applied the same principles to help promote the open exchange of ideas in Communist Hungary, and across Eastern and Central Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. While the Foundations started as an effort to help those in countries emerging from more closed or authoritarian conditions, in 1996, OSF launched its first US-based programs; as Mr. Soros wrote in 2006, "America was an essentially open society [but] even open societies are open to improvement." Since then, OSF and leaders of civil society have worked to protect democratic society and its institutions in the US and in over 140 countries around the world.

At OSF, our guiding principle is that the world is imperfect, but that what is imperfect can be improved. With that comes a commitment to examining our own role in the world, a constant questioning as to whether our philanthropy--what we fund, and how we fund it--is responsive to the most pressing issues facing the world as it really is, and not as we perceive it to be. Still, even though we have spent the last two decades supporting US-based efforts to counter what we view as threats to the American democratic project (e.g. the influence of big, secret money on politics, restrictions on the right to vote, the criminalization of poverty, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, a bipartisan tendency toward government secrecy), to date, we viewed that work as part of a project to ensure that a largely sound framework was improved so that it lived up to its promise. As we reflect on conditions a year after President Donald Trump's election, however, we think that the US is experiencing an unprecedented erosion and hollowing out of democratic institutions and norms, and could be derailed from this course of improvement. This prompts us to consider how OSF might work differently in order to allow our civil society grantee institutions to more assiduously protect against further decline.

Together, these shifts in civil society and philanthropy could erect the bulwark needed to counter both the threat of constitutional regression and the more remote risk of a total constitutional breakdown. …

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