Donors in Hell to Pay
Michael Lind’s new book about the working class and labor unions adds to his thought about what big givers are doing in both politics and philanthropy, whom they’re ignoring, and the results.
In politics, “[a]long with upscale, educated, hyper-ideological primary voters, the selectorate of each party includes affluent party donors,” according to Michael Lind in his important new book Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages is Destroying America.
In establishment philanthropy, as Lind intimates in Hell to Pay and has made clear elsewhere, upscale and educated members of the “managerial elite” also exercise an inordinate and unearned power, and with an arrogance very much recognized by those subject to it. In the book, he specifically notes that some of the country’s most-powerful political “selectors”—Big Tech tycoons from Silicon Valley—have created tax-subsidized private foundations to help “impose their personal policy preferences on society.”
Previously, in his 2020 book The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite, Lind criticizes the “shift of the center of gravity from local chapter-based member associations and church congregations to foundations, foundation-funded nonprofits, and universities” that “represents a transfer of civic and cultural influence away from ordinary people upward to the managerial elite.” He specifically lists the Ford, Rockefeller, and Gates Foundations, along with Bloomberg Philanthropies.
In Hell to Pay, Lind characterizes this progressive elite’s (downward-looking) worldview a bit more colorfully. “The local mass-membership organizations that flourished in the middle of the twentieth century, like the Shriners and Jaycees, have been displaced by a new kind of nonprofit organization, funded by the rich or by small donations and employing a college-educated overclass staff,” as he tells it:
The professional staff of these “astroturf” organizations tend to view local working-class populations rather as nineteenth-century European and American missionaries viewed non-Western “natives”—as primitives in need of rescue from barbarism by enlightened saviors, not as neighbors and peers whose major problem is a lack of economic and political power.
In a 2021 conversation with The Giving Review, Lind called for conservative philanthropists to support real-life, city- and neighborhood-based nonprofits that would revitalize civil society.
Lind is a fellow at New America, which he co-founded in 1999, and a columnist at Tablet magazine. Hell to Pay grew out of his 2021 Tablet article “The Five Crises of the American Regime.” He also writes for American Affairs and American Compass, where parts of the book first appeared.
In Hell to Pay, Lind argues that the economic and political power of rich elites could and should be checked by strengthened labor unions—also traditionally understood as a unit of civil society, after all—the power of which has declined during the past half century.
In much of his previous work, including The New Class War, he posits that the managerial elite’s philanthropic power should also be checked. In “Why There is No Economic Conservatism in America,” his contribution to The Giving Review’s symposium on conservatism and the future of tax-incentivized Big Philanthropy, he contends that there’s an (albeit-smaller) conservative philanthropic elite in particular that needs to be checked, or at least disregarded, too.
“Perhaps someday, wealthy communitarian conservative philanthropists who do not seek to repeal the New Deal, crush organized labor, eliminate the minimum wage and Social Security and Medicare, and create a free-market, open-borders global economy may appear,” Lind concludes his symposium contribution. “Until then, genuine conservatives in the U.S. should minimize their reliance on conservative, or rather libertarian, philanthropy.”
Lind’s critiques of politics and philanthropy, and the need to check power in both contexts, are linked.
In the (Now-Same) Arena
Politically, Lind notes in Hell to Pay—citing a 2014 study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page—that “elected officials of both parties tend to side with the donors against the voters in the party, on issues where the two groups have opposing views.”
Philanthropically, of course—if even only as a logically, and perhaps understandably, tautological matter—donors side with themselves. Too many take the risk of not even really being aware of the concerns of others. In the context of conservative philanthropy in particular, foundations were caught embarrassingly flat-footed by that which gave rise to the ascendance of a working-class populism in 2016.
“As a whole, the American donor class forms a relatively homogeneous bipartisan establishment whose members have more in common with each other than with most Democrats or Republicans,” according to Lind. There is, he believes, an:
otherwise puzzling gap between the policy preferences of Democratic and Republican voters and the actions of their elected representatives. Elected officials in both national parties respond chiefly to their elite selectorates—affluent primary or caucus voters and donors—not the party electorates made up of ordinary, mostly working-class voters of diverse backgrounds.
Among many other things, Lind thinks, this gap accounts for the declining power of organized labor. “As the influence of the organized working class diminishes, and as politics becomes a game for college-credentialed professional elites and the wealthy,” he writes, “representative democracy becomes an arena for the rule-or-ruin feuds of ambitious oligarchs and their retainers.”
Policy-oriented philanthropy has also become such a game, such an arena. Unfortunately, in fact, even worse, it’s really now part of the same game, the same arena.
Appallingly and Alarmingly Yoked to Activists and Academic Leftism
By 2000, “the rapidly shrinking American labor movement, including the dominant public sector unions and the vestigial private sector unions, was wholly subordinated to the Democratic Party,” according to Lind. “The Democratic Party, in turn, was dominated by affluent white progressives and rich donors from Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Hollywood”—with the help of politicized philanthropy:
who were often anti-union. What survives of traditional organized labor in the United States is dominated by public sector workers like unionized schoolteachers and civil servants, not private sector workers.
Traditional working-class concerns have been yoked to those of college-educated progressive activists in various single-issue movements based in the nonprofit sector and academic leftism: sexual and reproductive rights, environmentalism, racial identity politics.
American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers would not much have liked such politicized Big Labor, Lind observes in Hell to Pay.
Gompers would have been appalled and alarmed by the assertion that collective bargaining should include left-wing nonprofits like ‘environmental justice groups’ that are answerable not to workers but to their funders, like progressive foundations and rich individual donors,” Lind writes.
In fact, the newly elected reform president of the United Auto Workers, Shawn Fain, reportedly wrote in a recent memo to the union’s members that it is planning to withhold its endorsement of Joe Biden in the early stages of the 2024 presidential campaign because of his administration’s pursuit of a nationwide transition to elective vehicles.
“The politicization of the U.S. labor movement repels many American workers who might otherwise support it,” according to Lind. “Along with his fear of the capture of organized labor by political parties, the preference of Gompers for collective bargaining over top-down government legislation made sense in his time and makes sense in ours.”
Indeed, an American Compass survey of 3,000 part- or full-time, non-supervisory employees who work 30 or more hours per week at private, for-profit companies—potential union members all—released last September found that 74% of them “would prefer a worker organization that focuses only on workplace issues to one that is also engaged in national political issues.”
Bigness and the Price of Inaction Against It
Given politicized Big Labor’s consonance with politicized Big Philanthropy, both demand a reaction—from “the small,” through whatever various avenues might be available. In the case of labor, there are millions of discontent existing union members to whom one can look for such a reaction. There are also millions of would-be union members who could perhaps help effect such a reaction, maybe through policy change that would encourage them to drop that modifying adjective on their membership. All of these millions should be encouraged to react, as Lind and others are admirably trying to do.
In the case of philanthropy, there are really no equivalent card-carrying “members” with standing to object and cause change from within. There are some populist progressive and conservative grantmakers that are unhappy with the politicization of nonprofitdom. It seems, however, as if there may be many more that value their comfortably exercised “donor freedom” too highly to urge any policy reform that would be considered by colleagues, plausibly or not, to infringe upon it.
In either context, whether it’s the “hell” that Lind contemplates or not, there will be a price to pay for inaction.
This article first appeared in The Giving Review on May 8, 2023.