Philanthropy, Grassroots Activism, and Politics in In Defense of Populism

“[T]oday’s politics of the street,” according to political historian Donald T. Critchlow, “resembles that of the late Roman Republic, when oligarchs, such as Caesar, Sulla, and Catiline, organized mobs to serve their factional interests.”

By its own terms, Donald T. Critchlow’s In Defense of Populism: Protest and American Democracy generally “provides less a taxonomy of populists grassroots movements,” though it does do that, “than an argument for the importance of grassroots activism, as disquieting as it is to its critics, as essential to democratic reform in the American political tradition.” (Emphasis in original.)

By 2016 in America, according to Critchlow in a later part of that book-length argument, which is very well-made, “[r]ight and left shared little—except on a single point: government should not be trusted. And for grassroots activists, left and right, the only solution to government controlled by elites, special interests, and inside politicians lay in a popular insurgency—at the polls or in the streets.”

Specifically, this century’s social protests have included “the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Antifa, and others,” he continues. “These organizations and groupings have failed, however, to coalesce.”

Many of them “are less grassroots organizations than ‘astro-turf’ groupings funded and sometimes created by special interests aligned with partisan factions within the Republican and Democratic parties, notes Critchlow, an Arizona State University professor who specializes in political history. As examples, he cites billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch as funders of FreedomWorks on the right and billionaire George Soros and his Open Society Foundations as “major funders of many left-wing activist groups.”

Critchlow then observes:

As a consequence, grassroots social protest takes on a different meaning in a world of wealthy benefactors with their own social and political agendas. Movements in the past often attracted wealthy benefactors, frequently local or state figures. Today, however, multibillionaires and well-endowed philanthropic foundations have poured unprecedented amounts into supporting grassroots activism as well as partisan political campaigns. Indeed, today’s politics of the street appears closer to that of the late Roman Republic when oligarchs, such as Caesar, Sulla, and Catiline, organized mobs to serve their factional interests.


One of the past movements that In Defense of Populism covers is anti-communism. “Although many leading anti-communist organizations and leaders received support from big donors and conservative foundations, the anti-communist crusade struck a chord with the larger public,” according to Critchlow. “Many average Americans did not need advertisers or corporations to convince them to be anti-communist or Christian.” Or, or course, oligarchic organizers.

Donald T. Critchlow. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Critchlow also addresses more-recent conservatism, and its funding. “The differences between Koch libertarianism and Tea Party conservatism signaled the first signs of fissure between the Koch brothers and Republican conservatism, which ruptured when Donald Trump won the White House in 2016,” he writes, after having issue-specifically summarized some of these differences. “By then, many conservatives in the Republican base were attacking the Kochs as globalists out for their own interests.”

There was a tension, exacerbated by the wealth, and its philanthropic expression.

Tension Again

Elsewhere, Critchlow references the Borealis Philanthropy’s 2019 partnership with Black Lives Matter to fund the Black-Led Movement Fund. “The Borealis Philanthropy was created in 2014 in Minneapolis to serve as an intermediary between philanthropic foundations and social activist organizations,” he writes, and it “played a critical role in securing a six-year commitment from the Ford Foundation to Black Lives Matter.” Prior to the Ford commitment, he reports, the Black-Led Movement Fund had received funding from six other large grantmakers that he lists.

“The foundations supporting Black Lives Matter express genuine concerns about justice in America, and their support of activists involved in a movement for racial justice is intended to strengthen participation with American democracy,” Critchlow writes. “In a polarized political environment, however, funding support from foundations and private donors with deep pockets reinforces the belief among right-wing voters that an insidious axis of elites has been created.”

There is already and may be a growing resentful tension between grassroots grant recipients pursuing social justice as they see it and those progressive elites pursuing “strategic philanthropy” and paying the grassroots groups’ bills, moreover.

Tension again, and again heightened—and not necessarily unhealthily—because of the relevant riches being disbursed and dispersed.

Democracy and Disquiet

Critchlow’s historically informed survey and wise insights in In Defense of Populism show that populism hasn’t always been and still isn’t so easily purchasable—which is good for the people, and for politics. Thankfully for democracy, though disquietingly to some, people and their populism aren’t so easily sullied by a Sulla and his specie.


This article originally appeared in the Giving Review on September 22, 2021.

Michael E. Hartmann

Michael E. Hartmann is CRC’s senior fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Giving, providing analysis of and commentary about philanthropy and giving. He…
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