This Group Has $100 Million and a Big Goal: To Fix America

in 2020 In February, amid a vitriolic presidential election, an idealistic group of donors from across the ideological spectrum met to plan an ambitious new project. They called themselves the New Pluralists and pledged to spend a whopping $100 million over the next decade to fight polarization by funding direct communication between Americans across political, racial and religious divides.

They argued that fixing what’s broken in American democracy requires more than changing voter ID laws or the shape of our congressional districts. It requires making deep personal connections that will change hearts and minds and ultimately American culture itself.

Their experiment hinges on a central idea: Too many Americans lack the skills, the ability, and even the desire to work together toward a common goal. Part of the solution, according to these donors, is a very old idea that has fallen out of fashion: pluralism.

The term “cultural pluralism” was coined in the 20th century. originally coined by Horace Kallen, a Jewish philosopher, who proposed it to the great wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. He argued that instead of trying to eliminate their Polishness, Italianness, or Jewishness, as many white Anglo-Saxon Protestants wanted, America should be a “nation of nations” where people learn to work together despite their differences. He argued that the freedom to be different but still participate in political life as a vital part of the whole is the essential genius of the country. Mr. Kallen thought of the American people not as a melting pot in which everyone turns into the same bland stew, but as an orchestra in which bright sounds come together in harmony.

This idea also motivates the new pluralists. Although it is difficult to find two people who describe the project in the same way, the most important thing is to respect the difference and not to label it.

In his era, Mr. Kallen drew fierce criticism from those who accused him of promoting the balkanization of the country. in 1924 A scathing review of his book in The New York Times argued that the nation faced a stark choice: “To remain one in spirit, tradition, and language, or to become a lodge for alien groups?” It was not until the 1980s, when the idea of ​​multiculturalism emerged, that his ideas were widely accepted.

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Today, the New Pluralists project is grappling with similar challenges that Mr. Kallen wrote about more than a century ago. The influx of immigrants is once again challenging prevailing notions of who Americans are and what it takes to keep the country cohesive and whole. At the same time, the country does indeed feel divided by many fault lines: rural vs. urban, young vs. old, religious vs. secular, and of course red vs. blue.

However, the criticism that pluralism faces today is different. In an era of rebellion and potential coups, pluralism is far from being considered too radical. For some activists, pluralism sounds like a two-way approach or a call to meet in the dark middle. And yet pluralism is more important than ever. Our multiracial democracy cannot survive without it.

I discovered the New Pluralists this summer after attending a webinar on depolarization hosted by one of its recipients, the Brave Angels group. I found the group online because at a time when there is so much focus on toxic politics, I wanted to learn more about groups that spoke out against it.

Founded by Bill Doherty, a Minneapolis-based marriage counselor, Braver Angels is a low-key organization with chapters across the country that teaches conservatives and liberals to break down lazy stereotypes and resolve disagreements without yelling. In a workshop I attended, the reds and blues were struggling with how they spelled the other side. Almost all participants were white and appeared to be over 40 years of age. They were generally open to seeking to cross the partisan divide. In other words, they were low-hanging fruit. Still, I left feeling more hopeful about the country.

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Then I realized there was an entire ecosystem of groups created in the Trump years to bridge the divide: The People’s Dinner, which helps communities host potlucks and other events promoting racial and political reconciliation; StoryCorps’ One Small Step project, which brings together strangers for recorded conversations about their lives; More in Common, which researches public opinion and publishes an influential paper on the country’s “exploited majority”. The new pluralists help fund them all.

The idea of ​​the new pluralists arose after the election of Donald Trump. Jennifer Hoos Rothberg, executive director of the New York-based Einhorn Collaborative, a fund founded by the Wisconsin-raised hedge fund manager, said she gets regular calls from people who are alarmed by the level of polarization and think they can help address it. . One call went to Melissa Weintraub, a longtime conflict resolution professional who has worked with Israelis and Palestinians.

“You know that tool kit I use in the Middle East? I want to take it to Wisconsin and Iowa,’” Ms. Rothberg recalled Ms. Weintraub saying.

Right then and there, Ms. Rothberg told me, “We’ve created a rapid response organization to transcend differences.” The Einhorn Collaborative gave away $6 million in one-time funding, but wanted to do something bigger. In 2019, Rothberg invited other donors involved in similar work to a meeting in New York to see if they could pool their funds to finance these projects on a larger scale. It purposefully invited donors from across the political spectrum. The Stand Together Trust, formerly the Charles Koch Institute, which funds social enterprises to solve common problems, has agreed to join. But it made some social justice advocates on the left balk because they didn’t want to be in the same room, Fay Twersky, who attended that meeting as a representative of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, told me.

In the end, about a dozen donors stuck around. They were called the New Pluralists in part because pluralism was neutral in an era when so many words had taken on a partisan flavor. Last summer, they brought a group of scholarship recipients together for a retreat in Atlanta to strengthen their relationships. Among them were civil rights thinker John Powell of the Othering & Belonging Institute and Rachel Peric of Welcoming America. In the overly cerebral language of the new pluralists, they are called field builders. The basic idea is to make pluralism a coherent field, such as public health, with clearly defined norms and practices that can be replicated, measured and improved.

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Lennon Flowers, one of the founders of People’s Dinner, told me that the gathering felt like a rescue. She said the money and credibility her organization receives from the New Pluralists goes to local partners, showing that “this work is important and it shows that we are not alone.”

But the big question remains: Can a group of wealthy donors change American culture from above? How exactly does it work? If you’re trying to change a law, you hire a lobbyist. Who are you hiring to change American culture?

Nevertheless, the group is doubling down on its vision. Over the summer, she put out a request for grant proposals from grassroots groups doing this work. Eight hundred applications poured in, too many to fund. The New Pluralists then launched an effort to challenge donors to commit $1 billion to pluralism over the next decade. They announced the initiative at the White House Unity Summit in September.

“The needs are so great and the opportunity is so great that we need more philanthropy to take this seriously,” Uma Viswanathan, executive director of New Pluralists, told me.

Even the most ardent new pluralists admit they are not sure they will succeed. But I hope they do. After all, orchestras do not sound by chance. People need to practice.

The New York Times.


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