The Flywheel is Turning

Amid partisanship and division, we also see progress

This is a guest post by Daniel Stid, Director of the Madison Initiative at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Credit: Jomar

At the Madison Initiative, our focus is on strengthening U.S. democracy and its institutions, especially Congress. We keep a close eye on the values and norms of liberal democracy, and so it might seem incongruous to say “Happy New Year!” as we wake up repeatedly to headlines blaring news about one crisis after another bearing down on American democracy. But over the past month, we have also noticed multiple signs that the flywheel is beginning to turn with respect to the mid- and longer term progress we have collectively been working towards, and the work of our grantees continues to give us hope that this momentum will continue.

Exhibit one is the energy and interest in reform that has come to Washington with the new Congress and is especially manifest in the bipartisan House vote (418–12!) to establish a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, something that multiple Madison Initiative grantees and our partners at the Democracy Fund have long been pushing for. Indeed, I would encourage you to read Representative Bill Pascrell’s clarion call in the Washington Post, laying out the need for the Select Committee to strengthen Congress as an institution. If you double-click on the links buttressing the Congressman’s argument, you will see work developed or presented by folks at a host of our partners including the Washington Monthly, New America, R Street, the Niskanen Center, the Levin Center, the Congressional Management Foundation, ProPublica, and The Atlantic.

On other fronts with respect to the new Congress, Mark Schmitt of New America had an insightful New York Times piece entitled “The Watergate Class of ’74 Has Valuable Lessons for Freshman Democrats.” Mark’s kicker on the need for Congress to address the rapidly morphing problem of money in politics is well taken. Meanwhile, the team at the Joint Center continued their important work in highlighting the under-representation of people of color among senior congressional staff and unveiled an online tracker to assess progress in rectifying this situation. Spencer Overton gave a helpful interview on the problem and why it matters with NPR. It was also great to see Audrey Henson of College to Congress point out in a first person essay in Vox that paying interns is a critical initial step in the path toward greater diversity on the Hill. Congress is getting the message and has allocated $14 million to pay interns; now the challenge will be to ensure that money is allocated in ways that really make a difference.

In December, the Niskanen Center made quite a splash with their conference envisioning an alternative future for the GOP — Starting Over: The Center Right After Trump — which was forcefully keynoted by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. The wide-ranging discussion at the conference prompted Jonathan Chait to observe in New York Magazine that, “I Have Seen the Future of a Republican Party that is no Longer Insane.” The team at Niskanen has also been putting out some path-breaking think pieces recently, including “Republicanism for Republicans” and “The Center Can Hold: Public Policy in an Age of Extremes,” leading David Brooks to devote a full column to the creative ideas flowing out of the Center. Another group working with determination to reimagine and reshape politics on the right is the Bulwark, a project of the Defending Democracy Together Institute. Sarah Longwell, Director of Republicans for the Rule of Law, and Bill Kristol, founder and former editor of the Weekly Standard got this effort underway last fall, and they have recently rebooted and expanded it with the help of Charlie Sykes, who has taken on the role of Editor-in-Chief, and a number of former Weekly Standard staff.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, Paul Glastris and the Washington Monthly continue in their latest issue to push and prod the Democratic Party to once again compete as a national party by zeroing in on the problems of rural America and regional economic inequality and revitalizing the anti-monopoly policies that would enable their amelioration.

We appreciated seeing the Better Angels project highlighted in a story in The Atlantic, aptly titled “The Bipartisan Group that is Not Afraid of Partisanship.” Along similar lines, the Washington Post just ran a nicely reported story on the efforts of the National Institute for Civil Discourse: “Is it possible to resurrect civility amid a tsunami of toxicity? This group is trying.”

Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution received one of David Brooks’ annual Sidney Awards for outstanding longform journalism for a wise and sobering essay on The Constitution of Knowledge. In this piece, Jonathan assesses and warns against “a national-level epistemic attack: a systematic attack, emanating from the very highest reaches of power, on our collective ability to distinguish truth from falsehood,” which was published by yet another Madison grantee, National Affairs.

While these longer-run efforts to reform institutions, generate new policy ideas, and improve our politics will not directly alleviate the glaring problems in today’s headlines, several Madison grantees are focused on these more immediate challenges. The Partnership for Public Service, for example, has remained at the forefront of efforts to inform policymakers and the public about just how incredibly short-sighted and self-destructive government shutdowns in general and this one in particular are, a case which Max Stier nut-shelled over the weekend in his Washington Post op-ed, “We need to end this ugly shutdown. But that is not enough.” As we noted last month, Liza Goitein of the Brennan Center has been doing some impressive work on the potential presidential abuse of emergency powers.

Meanwhile, the team at Lawfare continues to provide deeply informed reporting, analysis, and commentary and to solicit a wide array of outside perspectives on thorny issues surrounding the separation of powers, checks and balances, constitutional norms, and what they have diplomatically termed L’Affaire Russe. We are especially pleased to see a new byline at Lawfare, that of Margaret Taylor, who has just been appointed as Senior Editor and Counsel. Margaret formerly served as Democratic Chief Counsel and Deputy Staff Director at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and she will be focused in particular on expanding Lawfare’s coverage of Congress and national security issues.

Finally, in case you missed it, Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer released an annual letter in which he reflects on why and how we should listen to people with whom we disagree. Larry initiated our work shortly after he took the helm at the Foundation in 2012, and I trust you will see in his letter a founding spirit that we continue to strive to infuse in our work. No doubt, with the sheer number of things percolating, I have missed some development and encourage you to share them. We look forward to seeing what the year brings in service of our shared mission and encouraging more of our funder peers and colleagues to take up the mantle of strengthening democracy in this time of need.


Daniel Stid is a Director at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. He leads the Madison Initiative, an 8-year, $150 million dollar grant-making effort that seeks to support the key values and institutions of U.S. democracy–in particular Congress, the first branch of government–in our polarized age.

Previously, Daniel was a consultant and strategist to government, nonprofit, and private sector leaders. While a partner in the Bridgespan Group’s San Francisco office, his research and writing on the interplay between government and nonprofit agencies appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Community Development Investment Review, Strategy and Leadership, the Washington Post, and others. Before that, Daniel worked at the Boston Consulting Group in Boston, Kuala Lumpur, and Washington, D.C., where he helped initiate the firm’s work with the federal government and advised leaders at the Treasury Department and the Department of Education, and also supported private sector clients in a range of industries.