The challenge before civil society institutions is not solely how to bridge civic division, but also how to ensure civic institutions enable the societal conditions that nurture the kind of citizens that self-government requires. Bridge building is bigger than any academic term or definition—it is about people, and the importance of our relationships to each other so that we can live in the authentic communities a healthy democracy requires.  Today, our sector has a distinct opportunity to transform the isolation within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole by building the social fabric of our civic spaces, both by moderating discussions in the public square, and by convening spaces for citizens to come together and engage across divisions to strengthen the heart of our democracy.

This political moment has created a key opportunity for philanthropy to help transform the tensions that continue to hinder our democratic process. This can happen by shifting the context by which people gather from fear- or problem-based towards one that centers common humanity and shared goals, and by helping uncover and articulate the underlying values that may be shared between those who are different or do not agree on specific issues.

Norms that Build Trust

Philanthropy often serves as a civic and cultural neutral party, and that is a key role in today’s contentious political moment.  Leveraging this leadership role, and using this objectivity to elicit trust and, when necessary, play a normative and mediating role in the most pressing and sometimes contentious debates will be key in bridging the divisions at the heart of democracy’s most difficult debates. Philanthropy can inspire a new civic conversation by affirming new ways of framing the most pressing debates from conversations of fear, mistakes, and self-interest towards possibility, generosity, and gifts.  

Our democracy is not only a form of representative government; it also embodies certain ideals that are strongly tied to America’s perceived self identity, such as rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality. In today’s current climate, where bad faith actors continue to influence civic discourse and public policy, our established rules and norms have become warped, along with the values and ideals implicit in democratic society. 

When established rules of governance are flouted or circumvented or when norms are disregarded for self-interested purposes, this undermines our ability to trust civic discourse. The importance of these rules and norms is that they generate trust in the viability of our public policy, processes, and systems that are shaped by our discourse. Once distrust has been sowed into our discourse—and the structures impacted by that discourse—participants might not believe they can fairly engage, or even worse, might subject themselves to ill-motivated rhetoric or actions that value power and resource consolidation over the health of our political/legal systems. 

Today, we are witnessing the erosion of trust in civic discourse and its associated institutions at an alarming rate, and bad faith actors have played a role toward disincentivizing participation and breeding distrust, which will have long-term negative impact on our civic lives.   

Therefore, before seeking “balanced” political debate, it is worth asking whether the various perspectives under consideration understand the terms of the debate and approach their engagement with the same understanding of the values and ethics guiding democratic discourse. This also requires that those acting against democratic values and norms be held accountable so that we can restore trust in the discourse itself as a foundational civic exercise. To call for civility without leveraging influence to define the rules of civil debate (and push back against bad-faith actors) is counterproductive. 

And here, the danger is not merely metaphorical. As we discuss and decide on consequential issues that affect our shared quality of life, literal lives can be on the line. Thus, it is incumbent on those with power, reach, and ability to do something about the problem to assume some responsibility and risk in civil engagement and problem solving. This means institutions cannot solely focus their work on funding citizen-based initiatives—they also have a responsibility to act at their level of influence. In other words, institutions must also do the hard work and model the engagement that we ask and expect of citizens.

Unfortunately, for all the ways that democratic participation is made more available and accessible by new ways to enter and maintain civic discourse (e.g. social media and the internet), it has also proved challenging to maintain a moderating force.  But this role is ever more important today. The philanthropic sector can leverage its collective leadership to allow for good faith debate by helping distinguish between good faith actors with different but principled perspective—and bad faith or self-interested actors whose values are not rooted in core democratic principles, such as equality, liberty, and opportunity for all. 

These bad faith actors are willing to deny the humanity or experience of others to serve their self-interested agendas, particularly if their agendas involve the exploitation of vulnerable people and vulnerability of systems. In this way, bad faith actors poison the well of civic discourse and need to be witnessed and held to account by those who are able to be in democratic stewardship roles as moderators. This moderating role is not intended to be punitive, rather by naming and upholding the norms of debate, we are able to create a container for dialogue and connection to re-establish trust in democratic discourse, and make a thriving democracy possible.  

Today, philanthropy has a critical opportunity to model the strategies it ultimately asks communities to take up in building bridges across difference, by first affirming a culture of complexity in the most pressing issues in our public debates, and by holding accountable those who do not practice the values and principles of democracy.

The national and local discussions around civic division are a renewed opportunity to think individually and collectively about the necessary conditions for healthy civic discourse.  More than any specific solution, communities are looking for leaders and institutions to use their platforms to model and highlight healthy civic discourse that embraces the complexity of perspectives in our democracy, rather than the all-too-common climate of “us vs them” squabbling.

Facilitating Conversations

At a time when political arguments are often contentious and counterproductive, it can be difficult to imagine a reasoned public debate about controversial moral questions, such as whether the second amendment is sovereign or if healthcare is a human right. But healthy civic debate is possible and would actually invigorate our public life – and Americans need to see it as a possibility. Philanthropy can create spaces for those conversations to happen in the communities they support.

This exploration has made clear that a central question before our sector is: How do we create spaces for people to better understand themselves and each other, where they can share authentically, and where genuine connection is possible?  Beyond the grand debates in the public square, what does it look like to bring individual Americans together to connect with and learn from one another and themselves?

The culture of these conversations must lead with questions in order to provide spaces where Americans of all walks of life can ask them…and where the answers are as important as the questions themselves.  Today, the increasingly segmented makeup of our public square means that outside of intentional spaces where dialogue and engagement across difference is encouraged in this way, there is very little room for everyday people to encounter people who are different than them and ask the questions that can elicit the information they need to evolve their perspectives.  Further, often we need to complicate the narrative to understand the true issues; the work of Solutions Journalism Network provides an example of orienting critical inquiries with questions that lead to greater understanding.

There are many great models for community conversations around tough issues, however, above the individual level, there are few institutions and spaces where authentic debate and disagreement are thoughtfully curated so that a baseline of rules and norms exist, which enable meaningful participation and healthy rigorous discussion. Creating the human conditions for Americans to connect authentically is a technical process, and also a personal one. One of the most powerful visions for facilitating open and fair dialogues come from adrienne maree brown and the principles outlined in Emergent Strategy. Within this framework, the following are examples of key elements for improving the health of democratic discourse: 

  • Intentional facilitation that enables all participants to be their full selves, to share truthfully and meaningfully, so that they become co-creators in the outcomes; 
  • An awareness that bridging difference is complex, non-linear, and sometimes messy, and creating the container to hold this process intentionally;
  • Conditions that enable participants to be wrong, hold each other accountable, and learn from one another; 
  • An openness to possibility, which is the fundamental source of brilliance within a group. In other words, create the conditions for people to build trust with one another.  Then, trust the people. 

The current structure of our public square is often a barrier to human connection, but it is through these human connections that we are able to build the strong associational life at the heart of our democracy.  

Philanthropy’s Role

Philanthropy can be an anchor, convener, and beacon—leading our communities by modeling the way through rancorous times.  In that spirit, this process of reflection and observation is not just for citizens at community gatherings discussing their differences and shared aspirations; it is also a necessary institutional strategy. 

It will be important for institutions to complement community-based building activities with strategies that address systemic barriers to healthy civic discourse.  As David Brooks recently suggested, “Relationships do not scale. But norms scale. If you can change the culture, you can change behavior on a large scale. If you can change the lens through which people see the world you can change the way people want to be in the world and act in the world.”  Philanthropy can play a critical role in shifting these norms—by shaping public discourse, and also by shifting focus internally, to ensure that their own practices—internal values, relationships with staff and grantee partners and community members—are in line with the values we expect of one another in the public square.