Shoring Up a Democracy Under Siege

Laleh Ispahani
Sarah R. Knight
July 13, 2018

The US 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.[i] 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, ultimately, he 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.[ii] 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 U.S.-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. These reforms are significantly informed by rights organizations and foundations operating in other countries that are contending with threats to democratic government. 

What is the problem in the US and how big is it?

Imagine the following scenario: Special Counsel Robert Mueller concludes his investigation by returning significant charges against Trump administration officials, including the president. President Trump fires Mueller and issues blanket pardons for all subjects of the investigation, including a self-pardon. The president then goes on Fox News and declares that the investigation was in fact a coup by Hillary Rodham Clinton, and says that people should rise up against the Democratic Party, “fake news,” and all forces that would oppose his attempt to speak and act for real Americans.[iii]

While the notion above remains fictional, it lies within the realm of possibility. In the last year, largely unprecedented actions—and inaction—of the Trump administration have led us to have to contend with the kinds of challenges to democratic norms and practices that presaged a shift toward authoritarianism in other nations. These include: denigration and intimidation of the media; attacks on minorities and scapegoating of immigrants and foreigners; closing space for civil society (through regulation and attacks and limitations on organizations and the right to protest more generally); manipulation of the electoral system to the advantage of one party; stacking the courts with partisan judges and attacking any other institution that might hold the President accountable; silencing and defunding of political opposition; increasing presence of security forces; and conflicts of interest involving financial gain for the first family, as well as widespread cronyism. 

We could draw on a long list of examples from history, but more worrying is the current global spread of right-wing populism that provides context for the events taking place in the US. In democracies old and new, government leaders have rolled back established norms and human rights. Some have used traditional coercive methods such as imprisoning innocent people for dissent or for expressing views freely in news and social media. Others also have subverted democracy by staging “elections” that are rigged, funding news media that are not independent, labeling civil society organizations—and indeed George Soros and the Open Society Foundations—as “foreign agents” or spies, blocking access to the Internet, and other insidious and innovative techniques. These kinds of illiberal activities are occurring to varying degrees, and in vastly different contexts, in Poland, Czech Republic, Turkey, Cambodia, Venezuela, Philippines, Hungary, Azerbaijan, China, and Russia. We appear to be in a period of transnational democratic discontent, where traditional institutions and political parties are no longer able to respond to public need and societal changes, and racism and illiberalism have gained significant ground.[iv]

To date, in the US, the threat of authoritarianism has seemed incremental and remote when compared to other regions in which Open Society Foundations operates, including some on the list above. Because the US is the oldest existing nation with a constitutional and representative government, we viewed it as stable, but our governing document, the Constitution, is also thin on particulars.[v] As a result, we are more reliant than most democracies on norms, which, we are now learning, can be easily rendered powerless. This reliance on unwritten rules may make the US more susceptible to what scholars Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg call “constitutional regression,” that is, a “more subtle, incremental erosion that happens simultaneously to three institutional predicates of democracy: competitive elections; rights of political speech and association; and the administrative and adjudicative rule of law.”[vi] We view regression as the most likely form democratic decline would take in the US, as distinct from a sudden and complete authoritarian takeover. While its impact may not be as sudden as a coup, constitutional regression over time can have similarly deleterious effects: consolidation of power in an individual or single party; silencing of dissent; a crackdown on rights; or a descent into martial law or military rule under certain extreme, but not unthinkable, circumstances. Even as we at OSF think about how best to deploy resources to push back against constitutional regression, we must bear in mind the need to track and defend against the tail risk of more dramatic authoritarian drift.

At the most basic level, knowing where we are on that democratic-to-authoritarian spectrum requires access to accurate information about what is happening in government.[vii] From the earliest days after the election, President Trump made clear his hostility to norms of government transparency and fair dealing, as an unprecedented array of conflicts of interest for Trump personally and for many of his close advisors and family members became daily stories throughout the transition period.[viii] From those early days, it seemed clear to us that we should not assume that the Trump administration would behave like past administrations. While our government accountability and transparency grantees still use tools that have worked to demand accountability from every administration in recent memory, we also began to appreciate the non-negligible risk that those tools would be useless if President Trump decides to flout norms even more aggressively—by refusing to follow a court order to produce documents, for instance. The erosion of norms seems to have extended to Congress as well, which today regularly advances major legislation without so much as a hearing and routinely expresses disappointment with the administration’s transgressions against democratic traditions without actually doing anything about them.[ix] As a result, in addition to helping these organizations to step up the pace of their work, we have also begun to think about what additional types of support might be required should our democratic institutions fail us, including the potential for a constitutional showdown between branches of government.

We have long been concerned about the public’s lack of faith in government, and distortions of democracy such as gerrymandered electoral districts, voter suppression, and massive, untraceable political spending. But the raft of contemporary attacks on government institutions, mechanisms and prevailing norms includes:

  • Undermining the rule of law. Attacks on the courts system and on individual judges are a means to an end—to undermine the rule of law. In the last year, these have included remarks denigrating the role of “so-called judges,” as well as the insinuation that judges who strike down unconstitutional anti-immigrant policies will be responsible for any future terrorist attacks.[x] Also part of this trend are President Trump’s pardon of Sheriff Arpaio’s open defiance of courts and their orders against him;[xi] the firing of FBI Director Comey if, as it appears, the firing served the purpose of obstructing an investigation; and President Trump’s improper attempts to direct Department of Justice prosecutions as he sees fit and against his political competitors.[xii] These conditions are exacerbated by the norm-shattering pace of nominations and lack of consultation with home-state senators, the American Bar Association, or the Judiciary Committee as Trump nominates ideological, and sometimes unfit, lawyers to lifetime positions on the federal bench.[xiii]
  • Attacks on the press. We worry that efforts to discredit the media and the elevation of sources friendly to the administration create a situation where misinformation and confusion can flourish and a state media can emerge. The president has denigrated the media, calling it “fake news” and labeled the press the “opposition party”.[xiv] The White House has abandoned the tradition of daily press briefings and excluded news organizations that cover it critically.[xv] Recent news stories about the Trump administration’s pressure on Time Warner to sell off CNN as a condition of its merger with AT&T raise questions about the president’s role in shaping the media landscape that would cover his administration, though we note the president has denied direct involvement in the Department of Justice’s negotiations.[xvi]
  • Attacks on civil society. We are seeing a rash of new state laws that criminalize protest: 48 have been introduced in state legislatures, eight passed, and 25 are still pending, as of November 11, 2017.[xvii] In addition, 150,000 people have signed a White House petition to “immediately declare George Soros and all of his organizations and staff members to be domestic terrorists.”[xviii]
  • Widening divides between the executive and intelligence communities. As President Trump discredits the findings of his intelligence services with respect to possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, we worry that a schism between the president and his intelligence agencies not only signals the president’s unwillingness to deal in facts, but creates destabilizing conditions within the executive branch that could be exploited in a constitutional crisis.[xix]
  • Militarization of the police. President Trump has reauthorized a controversial program that puts surplus combat equipment into the hands of local and state law enforcement officers; this decision, combined with crackdowns on constitutional protests, can create powder keg situations.[xx] At the same time, President Trump is attempting to cultivate the personal loyalty of the police, encouraging them not to “be too nice” to the people they arrest, and suggesting support for rough police tactics.[xxi]
  • The aggregation of power in the executive branch, and the undercutting of constitutional checks and balances. The Trump administration has ridden roughshod over traditional checks—refusing to work, for example, with the Office of Government Ethics and attacking the independence of government inspectors general.[xxii] But the problem also extends to the legislative branch, as evidenced by a Congress that has not yet taken a vigorous approach to oversight. 
  • Trump’s efforts to cultivate a cult of personality. This is evidenced by, inter alia, Trump’s statements that “I’m the only one that matters” when asked about State Department positions that remain vacant and without nominees.[xxiii] Another clue supporting this observation was at an early Cabinet meeting, when Trump’s advisors one by one extolled the “blessings” of working for him.[xxiv]
  • The elevation of nationalism over patriotismby a resurgent and emboldened portion of the US population. Instead of embracing the pluralistic ideals of our constitutional democracy, we now see far-right activism invoking a “blood and soil” nationalism, one intimately tied to racist, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and nativist sentiment—and a President whose words can only have heartened these groups.[xxv]

At the close of this first year of the Trump administration, our system of checks and balances, while sorely tested, has held. We have not reached the nightmare scenario sketched out at the beginning of this section, and we remain optimistic that the constitutional mechanisms for keeping the executive in check will be able to operate as intended so that we never reach it. And there have been some significant rejections of the president's approach, including when his actions led to the disbanding of his own arts and humanities committee and business advisory council; when Senators Corker and Flake made public their grave concerns about the administration’s behavior; and when Virginia voters rejected gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie’s blatantly nativist campaign.[xxvi] To date, courts have continued to serve as an important check on illegal and unconstitutional administration orders, stepping in when they could delay or otherwise avoid decision.[xxvii] But despite these signs of health, we cannot rule out the possibility that we are in the first stage of a more serious assault on our democratic system. A solid 30 percent of the electorate continues to support the president. The president and his loyalists still hold most of the levers of federal power, and, in addition to the attacks above, the administration has had remarkable success in dismantling environmental, workplace, consumer, and financial regulations via executive actions and inaction.[xxviii] Given these trends, we worry that at some point the US could start to tilt from conditions that lay the ground for a “normal” constitutional crisis of the kind our institutions can handle, albeit with strain, toward something that looks like a more lasting authoritarian condition, with institutions that are so hollowed out as to be ineffective and with impacts that last beyond this administration. 

Is American civil society equipped to fight back?

America’s founders developed a constitutional system they thought would constrain the election of extreme candidates.[xxix] As noted above, American constitutional democracy is heavily reliant on norms and practices.[xxx] The tools civil society has developed to deal with democratic pressures reflect a shared sense that the “normal” baseline of US governance—its constitution, norms, and practices—was to a substantial extent stable and likely to improve, with occasional setbacks. Many in the civil society sectors OSF supports have relied on strong institutions and institutionally-based tactics, such as litigation, to achieve gains. These organizations have much experience passing, opposing, challenging, and enforcing laws, but their connections to grassroots activists have not been as strong as they will need to be now. In addition, they—and we—have taken norms for granted.

How is civil society evolving?

In the wake of the election, we witnessed an outpouring of grassroots activity seeking to defend against damaging administration policies. These organizations are leveraging technology in distinct ways in order to engage greater numbers of people in holding elected officials accountable. As a result, a new civil society landscape has emerged. Over 300 new organizations sprang up, many with 501(c)(4) lobbying capacity in order to channel the energy of an electorate—sometimes termed “the resistance”—that is newly motivated to engage its representatives. While some of these entities inevitably failed, others with savvy, often digitally native leadership and networks behind them, are playing key roles, alongside older organizations, to push back against democratic decline and demand government accountability. OSF is actively encouraging and supporting old and new organizations to build trust and collaborate. 

In this last year, challenges this sector has had to grapple with include:

  • The need to join forces, consolidate efforts, and create new structures. Established organizations that corral elite influence and newer, movement organizations that activate the grassroots must come together, so that policy experts in Washington are working hand in hand with activists on the ground. This also means bridging the gulfs between more traditional organizations that have formal structures, missions, and tactics, and newer social movements like Black Lives Matter, Women’s March, and other instruments of emerging activism.
  • Dealing with a resurgent white supremacist movement. Following the 2016 election, we have witnessed a rise in hate crimes, racist marches, and more. While OSF-supported work over the last few decades has addressed structural and institutional racism, we may have underestimated the ways in which a nativist and nationalist movement could be reactivated to quasi-authoritarian ends, or that norms of behavior would erode so quickly that open displays of racial, religious, and ethnic animosity could become normalized by the president himself. We also underestimated the backlash that would come against the nation’s first black president. Organizations are struggling to promote more inclusive narratives that elevate facts and truth, an unfortunately difficult task amid the din of false and misleading information prevalent in our lives today. 
  • Understanding how to operate in a new and shifting communications landscape. The public's online experience is now shaped by a handful of dominant companies that engineer and control the major platforms. Google, Facebook, and Apple now mediate the Internet for billions of people, Americans included, and play a globally unprecedented role in shaping what people all over the world learn, believe, and do. These dynamics are key contributors to ongoing debates about "filter bubbles" and online hyper-partisanship, harassment and trolling, and media manipulation. The rise of an algorithmically-mediated media environment has created new opportunities for the manipulation of public discourse by state and non-state actors in a range of political environments, including even the manipulation of elections. This evolving news and information ecosystem has new vulnerabilities that can be exploited, creating real risks to the future of US democracy and open society.[xxxi]
  • Addressing daily challenges and distractions posed by this administration, while managing the personal and organizational threats due to the rise in hate and new communication challenges. Our granteesbattle both personally and on behalf of populations they represent on a daily basis. We see assaults on immigrants and civil rights violations, as well as daily instances of government corruption, misinformation, and malfeasance, to which these organizations must respond. The last year’s constant onslaught has also taken a toll on individuals who staff these organizations. They find themselves subject to physical threats made after TV appearances, cyberthreats for speaking freely, or threats related to their immigration status. This harassment, and these threats and abuse, exact both psychological and financial costs from individuals and their organizations.[xxxii]
  • The decimation of the regulatory state. The Trump administration has worked aggressively to dismantle or deprioritize critical federal protections for vulnerable populations, the environment, and our education and financial systems.[xxxiii] Civil society has a role to play in resisting and/or conceiving other means to provide those services—sometimes in concert with state and local governments. 

The experience of civil society organizations in other countries grappling with similar trends can be instructive, but there have been few connections made between domestic and international rights organizations.[xxxiv] Germany, France and the Netherlands have refused to yield government control to right-wing populists despite the success of ethno-nationalist insurgencies in all three countries, while Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary are all currently swerving to the far right.[xxxv] In Germany, where all parties except the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland agreed to stop using bots in campaign advertising, the 2015 hacking of the German parliament helped the public and political parties understand and inoculate against the risk that the election might be manipulated.[xxxvi] In France, President Emmanuel Macron won his election against Marine Le Pen, surviving a last-minute hacking effort with little impact, in part because his campaign anticipated that it might be targeted and planted demonstrably false information that proved malicious emails were fake and had been stolen.[xxxvii] While we would not pretend to have a full analysis of what differentiates the countries that were able to stave off control of government by right-wing populists, at least one element seems to be an overt and communal attempt to take seriously and counter efforts to manipulate the electorate in ways that would make it susceptible to a right-wing takeover. Facing stakes and threats like these, philanthropy needs to do its part to help US civil society grantees learn from international partner organizations how to stop efforts to close civic space and operate effectively in authoritarian contexts and conditions of democratic decline. 

What does civil society need from its philanthropic partners?

Our foundation and our partners in philanthropy must try to: 

  • Better inform people and challenge our “filter bubbles.” With credible reporting and fake news competing for our attention through social media pipelines that do little to help us distinguish between the two, we need to redouble efforts to separate fact from fiction. We also need to seek out and understand communities whose worldview and ideological orientation are different from our own. 
  • Support work in different venues and the development of new capacities. We have to expand our work in states and localities, both to help curb excesses at the federal level and promote affirmative progress at levels of government where positive change is possible. We also must step up and fill gaps left by sudden shifts in the work of federal agencies we once relied on to protect the public interest. For example, the Trump administration has not only eviscerated the Department of Justice’s commitment to properly address civil rights, but also—and more troublingly over the long run—undermined local law enforcement support that DOJ historically provided. Civil society needs to help compensate for these changes.[xxxviii]
  • Help organizations prepare for more extreme assaults on democratic institutions. These include refusal to follow a court order, the pretextual use of national security emergency to crack down on civil rights, the criminalization of protest, and voter suppression through, inter alia, the work of the sham Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (Editor's note: As of 3 January 2018, the committee has been permanently terminated by President Trump)Among the lessons of 2016 is the collective need to plan for major unexpected crises. Experts are working with organizations to discuss a range of risk scenarios and how to respond to them by developing strategies and tactics to address plausible threats, while building and testing collaborative alliances and filling gaps in readiness. Civil society organizations need in turn to help inoculate the public against fear-mongering that can set the stage for a consolidation of power and suspension of rights.
  • Ensure broader and deeper engagement with the young, immigrants, and people of color. This means developing and disseminating a compelling vision of what democracy is and does. It has to be powerful enough to get a wide cross-section of Americans to stand up for democracy, repeatedly if need be. It must include finding bridges across divides of race and region or between legacy groups, social movements, and new activism. We need to work to ensure the leadership of civil society and philanthropy is as diverse as the country it seeks to change.
  • Anticipate crackdowns on foundations and civil society, such as those seen in Turkey and Hungary. We need to connect US civil society with international partners who have experienced, and sometimes prevailed over similar challenges. Within our own institution, we’ve watched, and fought back, as the Hungarian government tries to vilify our founder, shutter our Hungarian Foundation, use the Hungarian secret service to investigate a supposed Soros network,and close the prestigious Central European University, founded by Mr. Soros, on the ostensible grounds that it is chartered abroad.[xxxix] That existential battle is still being waged, and is instructive for trials we may face here. 

It is important to acknowledge that one of the difficulties of the time is that the reform community does not have a fully shared analysis of what needs to be done. In philanthropy, many people we talked to have been uncomfortable even hearing the term “authoritarianism” in the context of our inquiries about how to analyze the condition of American democracy post-Trump, while others believe that it is the proper framework by which to judge our current condition. We also see divergent calculations about the correct approach to the rapidly unfolding political situation. Some are focused on Trump’s removal from office, but others are unconvinced that course is right or feasible at this time.[xl] Some politicians of the president’s own party like Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker have decried the debasement of our government and political dialogue, and sounded alarm bells as they announced they will not run for reelection.[xli] Their colleagues in the Senate are not following suit, though, making what conservative radio host Charlie Sykes calls a “Faustian bargain,” in which the policy gains they can achieve holding Congress and the White House will be worth losing the country’s moral compass, and perhaps its democracy.[xlii] While we see some left-right common cause, mostly among the elite, on the separation of powers, conflicts of interest, accountability, and other questions that have arisen so far in the Trump administration, we are nowhere near the kind of broad-based bipartisan consensus that would be necessary in order to significantly constrain the President’s actions.[xliii] Even as we think the risk of decline into a full-blown authoritarian state is relatively low, we see growing consensus, in philanthropy and more broadly, that dangerous and possible proto-authoritarian, seeds are being planted in our democracy that cannot be allowed to grow.

What should philanthropy do?

If we are going to combat constitutional regression and win, it is not just civil society that needs to adjust its methods. Philanthropy needs to do its work differently, too. Some of the needed adjustments are small; others require more fundamental changes in a sector not known for its flexibility. 

Since the election, we and our colleague funders have tried to do a number of things that civil society cannot do on its own, some of which begin to address the field's needs we outlined above. Immediately following the election, OSF made a substantial investment in efforts to reinforce executive branch ethics, transparency, and accountability. Knowing that many organizations faced a critical need to increase their capacities to understand and respond to shifts in government processes and policy, we also enabled OSF grantees to hire policy experts leaving government and whose experience that could help these organizations work in the new policy landscape. And anticipating the immediate challenge to the social safety net, we made a sizable investment to some organizations to assist in its defense. Since the election, several funders have used rapid response funds to move bursts of money, as OSF did with Communities against Hate, a $10 million rapid response program to stem the tide of hate incidents nationwide.[xliv] Other funders, like the Democracy Fund and First Look Media, have announced significant infusions of additional money to strengthen independent journalism and government accountability.[xlv] But collectively, we need to do still more to raise our game, even as we try to grapple with and understand this new reality. 

Like civil society, foundations have to collaborate far more, and that seems to be happening. Two examples from our own experience are demonstrative. First, in response to the surge of white supremacist activity and the debate over the nation’s Confederate heritage, three large foundations have partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to launch a fund to preserve and promote the important and unrecognized places and stories of African American activism and achievement.[xlvi] This investment will expand our view of history and help reconstruct our national identity, inspiring a new generation of activists to advocate for our diverse historic places. Second, responding to the devastation of Puerto Rico, and its relatively low salience to DC policymakers, three foundations are committing to work together to aid and accelerate Puerto Rico’s recovery and rebuilding as a more resilient, economically sound island that advances principles of equity, justice, and full participation for its residents.[xlvii]

Philanthropy’s internal culture also needs to change, including by:

  • Prioritizing flexibility. At OSF, we are reevaluating our grantmaking and related strategies, we recognize that to support grantees in their adaptations, we have to adapt too. At a minimum, this means more expeditiously disbursing grants, providing flexible support whenever we can, and making longer-term grants. 
  • Funding work that sees beyond immediate threats. There is an undeniable need to resource the defensive work that staves off daily assaults on democracy. Nevertheless, if we are not careful, the need to support rearguard work could starve fields of the resources, time, and mental space required to plan for a future opportunity to rebuild. We have to give groups the ability to build common strategies and resources so they are able to work short-term, while also planning for the long-term.
  • Viewing our convening function as paramount.  Connecting old and new allies within and across fields and approaches. We need to do more to connect them to one another, because a big tent is the only way forward. 
  • Being open to new kinds of organizations and investments. We have traditionally invested in 501(c)(3) institutions as the most effective way to achieve our goals. Increasingly, civil society and social change organizations are taking on a variety of forms. Many of the savviest new organizations referred to above, for example, are not only 501(c)(3) entities, and they think and operate in more iterative, evolutionary ways. When resourcing these organizations, we have to be led by them and cannot expect the kinds of benchmarks that some of us use and are familiar with. We have to find ways to identify the most promising among them and not rely only on track records.[xlviii]
  • Providing funding that addresses the human toll on grantees and their staff members. While we try to help with emergency planning for the worst policy outcomes, we are also trying to determine how best to help grantees survive a fraught day-to-day existence. It is important to acknowledge the toll this takes on people, and to support grantee efforts to (a) secure their digital and personal security protocols, (b) address the real impact an embattled state has on staff physical and mental health, and (c) provide access to the safe spaces activists need to meet in person and online without fear of monitoring, harassment, or physical threat.  
  • Telling our story and unapologetically stating what we are for. The enemies of civil society are increasingly attacking donors themselves, seeking to drive a wedge between funders and the organizations they support. We must guard against the ill effects of these initiatives by affirming our values, and the value of the work we do, and standing with our grantees, especially in a time of challenge.  At the same time, we have to acknowledge that there are times when our funding carries with it its own challenges. OSF and some of its grant recipients in Russia, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Israel, and elsewhere have been singled out as “undesirable” elements, and we know that our funding can bring with it unfair and unwanted criticism that can distract from the work an organization needs to do.[xlix] We have also found anti-Soros social media content in Italy, Germany, and France, not to mention Fox News, Breitbart, and others in the US, where the center-right media environment is increasingly impoverished.[l] The founders of a new organization, Indivisible, addressed this head on in a recent blog post where they explained their decision to accept OSF funding, noting their concern that “[e]ven baseless smears can still do a lot of damage to the local, amazing efforts of organizers around the country.”[li] In the words of OSF Vice President Leonard Benardo, we have decided that“[w]here the political scene has become most debased—in Hungary and Poland in the first instance—we are committed to working with our partners to ensure they have capacity to hold the state to the fire,” but we also know that in some places the attacks against our founder and our foundation will be too much for some prospective partners to bear.[lii] George Soros and OSF have begun to tell the story of what we stand for, and to push back against lies about our work, much more directly.[liii] Others in civil society and philanthropy need to prepare to do so as well. 

Another important component of our response, from our perspective, is philanthropy’s collective need to view the US as part of the larger world, susceptible to some of the same shifts, influences, and dangers as its colleague nations. American exceptionalism has been endemic to many, if not most, foundations’ structures, including ours, where US and international grantmaking operations and strategies are often siloed. Those of us in the US have sometimes held out US democratic practice as a positive example for the world. We should more humbly grapple with the trends and similarities with what is taking place in Russia, Hungary, Venezuela, or post-Brexit UK, and, where appropriate, take lessons from our global colleagues—especially since the Trump administration’s international policies are likely to have disastrous implications for OSF’s work in other parts of the globe.[liv] Within OSF itself, we now collaborate more closely with colleagues working in other issue areas and geographies who face similar challenges. For instance, with colleagues in our European foundation, the Open Society Initiative for Europe, US-based grantmakers sponsored a meeting that brought together Muslim and South Asian advocates from the US and Europe to strategize around the common and collective challenges their communities face. We will also jointly convene grantees soon to discuss concerns and engagement of working class communities. 

We are not so naïve as to think that the problems we have discussed will end once Donald Trump is no longer president. We need to attend to these issues, both short- and long-term, in part because Trump has activated a substantial nativist, populist strain of the US population that is unlikely to disband when he leaves office. We have to more vigorously tackle underlying issues—including racial and economic inequality and economic stagnation; voter suppression and other roadblocks to fair,competitive elections, such as the role of big, secret money in politics; and a justice system that routinely yields worse results for poor people and people of color—lest they become permanent features of a severely degraded democracy and a less open society.


In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, we along with many of our grantees and fellow Americans read and took heed of Masha Gessen’s “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,”[lv] which influenced our understanding of this as an unusual, dangerous time that has introduced new requirements for civil society and philanthropy alike. On this first anniversary of Trump’s election, we take seriously her follow-up warning that we not become so focused on the president himself and the petty outrages of his administration that we fail to protect the core, and sometimes unseen, norms and institutions that make our democracy work.[lvi]

Thus far, our institutions have maintained themselves, as the American founders intended, but the pressure on them continues to mount. Philanthropy has a role and responsibility, alongside its civil society grantees, in defending our democracy against further erosion. Providing better, more effective support to a civil society that is operating under strain will require that we change how we work and how we approach problems. If we fail, we may all find ourselves in a post-Trump future with our thin Constitution and a Bill of Rights that has lost its meaning, hollowed out democratic institutions, a polarized population, decimated federal agencies, a resurgence of naked and violent racism, and a frayed judiciary stacked with partisan and, in some cases, unqualified appointees, that will be very difficult to rehabilitate.[lvii] With lessons from our partners across the globe, we hope to stave off that future for America, and get back to the sufficiently hard work of improving upon the democracy we had on 8 November 2016.

Laleh Ispahani is Acting Deputy Director for US Programs at the Open Society Foundations, where she also directs US Programs’ work on democratic practice. Before joining the Open Society Foundations in 2008, Ms. Ispahani, a lawyer and advocate specializing in democracy and human rights issues, spent six years as senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union working on racial justice and human rights. She sought to reverse felony disenfranchisement policies, and worked with allies on a national campaign of public education and advocacy, litigation, and federal and state executive and legislative reform. As part of that work, she produced a documentary film, Democracy’s Ghosts, and published in popular as well as academic journals. Prior to joining the ACLU, Ms. Ispahani litigated campaign finance reform issues at the Brennan Center for Justice. Ms. Ispahani received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard College and her law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center.

Sarah R. Knight is a Program Officer at Open Society Foundations, focusing on rule of law and government accountability in the US. Prior to joining Open Society in 2014, Ms. Knight served as vice president of network advancement at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, with responsibility for the organization’s national network of lawyer and student chapters, professional development activities, and its special projects in the states, working on issues including immigration, fair courts, and judicial nominations. From 2000 to 2006, she was an attorney with Perkins Coie LLP’s Seattle and Chicago offices, with a wide-ranging array of commercial and pro bono clients. Sarah Knight is a graduate of Williams College and New York University School of Law, where she served as co-editor-in-chief of the New York University Review of Law & Social Change.



[i]Open Society Foundations, “About Us: History,”

[ii]Open Society Foundations, “Staff: George Soros, Founder/Chairman,” November 13, 2017).

[iii]This scenario draws from one used by Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute at a November 6, 2017, event titled “Democratic Deterioration at Home and Abroad,” co-hosted by New America, the American Constitution Society for Law & Policy, and the Brennan Center for Justice. Video is available here:

[iv]Jack Purcell, “What the Rise of Populism Reveals: An Interview with Sheri Berman,” EuropeNow Daily, 11 November 2016,

[v]Jamal Greene, “Trump as a Constitutional Failure,” Indiana Law Journal 92 (forthcoming).

[vi]Aziz Z. Huq and Tom Ginsburg, “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy,” UCLA Law Review65 (2018), or

[vii]See the weekly column “Norms Watch” ( a project of Just Security for a full sense of the norms violations—large and small—observed in this administration. Bright Line Watch ( undertakes an analysis of the health of American democracy, its norms and institutions, periodically surveying political scientists and observing trends in their responses.

[viii]As a result, one of our earliest actions post-election was to reinforce support to government ethics, accountability, and transparency watchdog organizations so they would have the support and resources they would need to assess and address the issues as they arose. 

[ix]John McCain, “It’s Time Congress Returns to Regular Order,” Washington Post, 31 August 2017,

[x]Dahlia Lithwick, “Why Trump Has Declared War on the Judiciary,” Slate, 10 February 2017,

[xi]Jonathan Blitzer, “Why Trump’s Arpaio Pardon Is a Nationwide Call to Political Arms,” New Yorker,26 August 2017,

[xii]Philip Rucker and Matt Zapotosky, “Trump breaches boundaries by saying DOJ should be ‘going after’ Democrats,” Washington Post, 3 November 2017,

[xiii]Charlie Savage, “Trump Is Rapidly Reshaping the Judiciary. Here’s How.” New York Times,12 November 2017,; Christopher Kang, “Rubber Stamping the Rubber Stamps: Republican Senate Packs the Courts with Trump Judges Next Week,” Huffington Post,27 October 2017,

[xiv]Jordan Fabian, “Trump blasts media as ‘opposition party’,” The Hill, 27 January 2017,

[xv]David Z. Morris, “Press Excluded from White House Briefing Have Been Harshest Critics on Trump’s Alleged Russia Ties,” Fortune, 25 February 2017,

[xvi]David Z. Morris, “Trump Denies Pressing for CNN Sale in AT&T-Time Warner Merger Review,” Fortune, 11 November 2017,

[xvii]The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, US Protest Law Tracker, November 10, 2017).

[xviii]White House, “Declare George Soros a terrorist and seize all of his related organizations' assets under RICO and NDAA law,” November 10, 2017).

[xix]Joshua Rovner, “Intelligence, Politicization, and the Russia Probe,” Lawfare, 27 September 2017,

[xx]Adam Goldman, “Trump Reverses Restrictions on Military Hardware for Policy,” New York Times, 28 August 2017,

[xxi]Juana Summers, “Why Trump discouraging officers from being 'too nice' matters in Baltimore,” CNN, 29 July 2017,

[xxii]“Mr. Trump Goes After the Inspectors,” New York Times, 12 June 2017,,

Nicholas Fandos, “Government Ethics Chief Resigns, Casting Uncertainty Over Agency,” New York Times, 6 July 2017,

[xxiii]Elliot Hannon, “Trump on Core State Department Vacancies: ‘I’m the Only One That Matters’,” Slate, 3 November 2017,

[xxiv]Julie Hirschfield Davis, “Trump’s Cabinet, With a Prod, Extols the ‘Blessings’ of Serving Him,” New York Times, 12 June 2017,

[xxv]Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman, “Trump Defends Initial Remarks on Charlottesville; Again Blames ‘Both Sides’,” New York Times, 15 August 2017,,

Yascha Mounk, “Trump and the Alt-Right Are Not the Real America,” Slate, 17 August 2017,

[xxvi]Evan McMullin, “Ed Gillespie transformed for the worse in Virginia race,” The Hill, 8 November 2017,

 Ed O’Keefe, “Members of White House presidential arts committee resigning to protest Trump’s comments,” Washington Post, 18 August 2017,

Jena McGregor and Damian Paletta, “Trump’s business advisory councils disband as CEOs abandon president over Charlottesville views,” Washington Post, 16 August 2017,

Amber Phillips, “‘I will not be complicit.’ Jeff Flake’s retirement speech, annotated,” Washington Post, 24 October 2017,

[xxvii]Nancy Gertner, “The Supreme Court Is Not the Only Court,” ACSBlog, 10 April 2017,

[xxviii]Michael D. Shear, “Trump Discards Obama Legacy, One Rule at a Time,” New York Times, 1 May 2017,

[xxix]For example, the Electoral College was intended to moderate the extreme impulses of direct democracy, providing a safety valve for elites to replace candidates chosen by the people at large with a candidate of the Electoral College’s selection. Peter Beinart, “The Electoral College Was Meant to Stop Men Like Trump From Being President,” Atlantic, 26 November 2016,

[xxx]Brendan Nyhan, “Norms Matter,” Politico, September/October 2017,

[xxxi]David Robinson Upturn, forthcoming paper,

[xxxii]Deepak Bhargava, “As Attacks on Social Justice Groups Rise in the Trump Era, Foundations Must Show Courage,” Opinion, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, November 8, 2017.

[xxxiii]Jeremi Suri, “The Trump Administration's zeal to pull back regulations is leading us to another era of robber barons,” Business Insider(Oct. 14, 2017)

[xxxiv]There are exceptions, and civil liberties organizations began coming together some years ago.

[xxxv] Sarah Wildman, “Angela Merkel wins 4th term as chancellor of Germany,” Vox, 24 September 2017,; Michael Birnbaum and Anthony Faiola, “With Le Pen defeat, Europe’s far-right surge stalls,” Washington Post, 7 May 2017,,

Melissa Eddy, “Austria Shifts Right as Refashioned Conservatives Win,” New York Times, 15 October 2017,; Palko Karasz, “Leaders of Hungary and Poland Chafe at E.U., but How Do Their People Feel?” New York Times, 6 September 2017,; Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka, “Far-right scores surprise success in Czech election,” Reuters, 21 October 2017,; “Hungarian opposition bill seeks to loosen Orban's grip but likely to fail,” Reuters, 17 October 2017,

[xxxvi]Kai Kupferschmidt, “Social media ‘bots’ tried to influence the US election. Germany may be next,” Science, 13 September 2017,

[xxxvii]Rachel Donadio, “Why the Macron Hacking Landed with a Thud in France,” New York Times, 8 May 2017,

[xxxviii]Jessica Huseman and Annie Waldman, “Trump Administration Quietly Rolls Back Civil Rights Efforts Across Federal Government,” Pro Publica, 15 June 2017,

[xxxix]Andrew Byrne, “George Soros attacks ‘hate-mongering’ of Viktor Orban’s Hungary,” Financial Times, 20 November 2017,,

Palko Karasz, “At Hungary’s Soros-backed University, Scholars Feel a Chill,” New York Times, 24 April 2017,

[xl]Gabriel Debenedetti, “Steyer to drop another $10M on Trump impeachment ads,” Politico, 9 November 2017, Steyer believes Trump has brought us to the brink of nuclear war, obstructed justice at the FBI, and taken money from foreign governments and threatened to shut down news organizations that report truth.

[xli]Amber Phillips, “‘I will not be complicit.’ Jeff Flake’s retirement speech, annotated.”,

Sheryl Gaye Stolberg, “Tennessee’s Bob Corker Announces Retirement from Senate,” New York Times, 26 September 2017,

[xlii]Charles J. Sykes, “Year One: The Mad King,” New York Review of Books, 10 November 2017,

[xliii]Ryan Lizza, “The Limits of the Flake-Corker-McCain Rebellion Against Trump,” New Yorker, 25 October 2017,

[xliv]Eric Lichtblau, “George Soros Pledges $10 Million to Fight Hate Crimes,” New York Times, 22 November 2017,

[xlv]Democracy Fund, “Democracy Fund & First Look Media Announce $12M+ in New Grants to Support Free Press,” 25 March 2017,

[xlvi]Jesse J. Holland, “Fund set up to preserve African-American historical sites,” San Francisco Chronicle, 15 November 2017,

[xlvii]“US foundations pledge initial $5M for battered Puerto Rico,” New York Times, 15 November 2017,

[xlviii]We also have to accept and encourage our existing grantees in their attempts to use their power in new ways, for example, Color of Change’s successful boycott campaigns targeted at Glenn Beck and others. Jeff Green, Jennifer Surane, and Laura Colby, “Hashtag Activism Brings Trump Allies to Heel,” Bloomberg, 18 August 2017,

[xlix]Andrew Byrne, “Soros’ $18bn gift adds weight to charity and cuts tax bill,” Financial Times, 19 October 2017,

[l]Wil S. Hylton, “Down the Breitbart Hole,” New York Times Magazine, 16 August 2017,

[li]Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, “A Note from Leah and Ezra on a New Funder,” Indivisible Blog, 12 October 2017,

[lii]Andrew Byrne, “Soros’ $18bn gift adds weight to charity and cuts tax bill,” Financial Times, 19 October 2017,

[liii]Andrew Byrne, “George Soros attacks ‘hate-mongering’ of Viktor Orban’s Hungary,” Financial Times, 20 November 2017,

[liv]For example, President Trump’s friendly overtures to Philippine President Duterte, who has prosecuted a campaign of extrajudicial killings of people who use drugs and people who are suspected of doing so.Emily Rauhala, “As Trump arrives in Manila, a young victim of Duterte’s devastating ‘drug war’ is mourned,” Washington Post, 12 November 2017, Duterte’s continued human rights violations, now with the imprimatur of US approval, undermine OSF’s longstanding work on drug policy, which supports science-based efforts that reduce the criminalization of production, possession, use, and dependence (which has fueled violence, instability, human rights violations, and health crises) in favor of drug policies rooted in human rights, social justice, and public health.

[lv]Masha Gessen, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” New York Review of Books, 10 November 2016,

[lvi]Masha Gessen, “One Year After Trump’s Election, Revisiting “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” New Yorker, 8 November 2017,

[lvii]Charlie Savage, “Trump Is Rapidly Reshaping the Judiciary. Here’s How.” With 145 current and projected vacancies on the federal bench (, and a majority in the Senate, President Trump is likely to have the opportunity to substantially remake the judiciary during his term in office.