The Crisis of Democracy in America

In the preface to the revised (1952) edition of The Open Society and its Enemies – from which the foundation employing me, the Open Society Institute (OSI) draws its name – Karl Popper wrote that his mood of depression over open society had passed, “largely as a result of a visit to the United States”. Popper’s spirits would not be lifted by a visit today.


In the last few years, radical-right political leaders have moved from the fringe essentially to control much of the national and many state governments. They, the fundamentalist clerics and their followers who comprise the “base” to which they feel most accountable, and the network of think-tanks and attack media which support them, make clear their intent to roll back the Great Society and the cultural, social and political gains of the 1960s. Now, with fights over social security and the courts, they are targeting the New Deal.


Some of these figures and institutions wish explicitly to return United States government, and its relationship to its citizens, to what it was before the Progressive Era. But their combined efforts to remake American society suggest a more recent and disturbing parallel: the McCarthy era.


It is tempting to take some satisfaction from the radical right’s recent missteps, and wait for the benefits of the backlash. But meanwhile it is doing steady damage to key elements of open society, the very elements that can monitor and check the abuses of a power-hungry political majority. We ignore it at our peril.


The Open Society Institute context


Why have I come to take so dire a view of our situation, and why do I think there is a serious and coordinated threat to open society – at times, it seems, even to enlightenment values – that calls for a serious and coordinated response? Before answering these questions, I want to retrace the history of the Open Society Institute’s activities and the thinking which lies behind them.

In the first ten years or so of George Soros’s philanthropy, he established foundations in countries that were in transition from closed to open societies, helping to create and take advantage of the “revolutionary moment.” Most of these, in eastern and central Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union, were shaking off decades of communism.

What they had in common was the absence of any meaningful checks on the power of the state. Elections and courts were rigged; political opposition was suppressed; any independent activity in media, the academy, the law and the arts that would serve to challenge official truth was crushed. Religion, in so far as it was tolerated, was in effect an arm of the state. In light of this legacy, the main task of the Soros foundations was to support the creation or re-emergence of independent institutions.

In the mid-1990s, when Soros turned his attention to his adopted country, the United States, he contrasted the open society challenges here with those faced in the rest of his network. He believed that democracy and civil liberties were relatively secure in the paradigmatic open society.

If the formerly communist world was characterised by the suppression of the marketplace, in the United States the problem was its exaltation – the Newt Gingrich Republicans who had (in 1994) taken over Congress saw the market as the solution to everything, to the detriment of professional ethics and standards, and to public values.

The US programmes of the Open Society Institute sought to challenge this trend, particularly persistent race and class barriers to equal justice, opportunity and education. We tried to foster debate about draconian drug laws, urban futures and high-school reform, and supported policy, grassroots and legal efforts to reduce mass incarceration. These issues remain critically important. But in the broader political arena, the pillars of open society that make social progress possible have been shaken.


9/11 and the open society


The United States response to the attacks of 11 September 2001 revealed that civil liberties were far from secure. In a matter of weeks, the repressive Patriot Act was rammed through Congress with little dissent, hundreds of Arab, Muslim and south Asian men were languishing in inaccessible detention, and military tribunals grossly lacking in due-process protections were being readied to deal with “enemy combatants.”

We have learned since of systematic torture and abuse of detainees authorised at the highest levels of government. OSI responded forcefully to these “collateral” casualties this new “war on terrorism”. As Aryeh Neier has pointed out, no other country faced with terrorism – not Israel, not Britain with the Irish Republican Army, not India with Kashmir – has detained suspects indefinitely without access to lawyers, as the United States has.


Also in openDemocracy, George Soros writes on “America after 9/11: victims turned perpetrators” (May 2004)


Many of these abuses were made possible by the exploitation of genuine fears about security in the wake of the most dramatic attack on US soil for sixty years. In contrast to the McCarthy era and the Japanese-American internments of the 1941-45 war, leading advocacy groups (most supported by OSI) did not lose their voice or forget their principles, and from the beginning there was a strong and articulate opposition.


In time, some judges and public officials found their footing, and those responsible for abuses like torture, while regrettably avoiding serious accountability so far, have at least been put on the defensive. The public is sceptical of terrorism “warnings” that seem curiously timed with moments of political weakness or exposure, and those have been shelved for now. But no one should be confident that a second serious terrorist incident would not usher in even more draconian restrictions on basic rights.


From democracy to theocracy


My mounting concern is with the damage done in the US to independent and oppositional institutions. We are closer now to ideologically-driven, one-party rule in the US than ever before, and its hand-in-glove pertnership with the most reactionary, intolerant media and religious forces creates something resembling theocracy.


It is not necessary to believe that the election of 2000, or even of 2004, was stolen (despite the persistence of rules and practices which disadvantage low-income and minority voters), in order to take the view that democracy itself has been tampered with in order to consolidate power.


Unprecedented mid-term Congressional redistricting in places like Texas – a priority so precious to Tom DeLay, Republican leader in the House of Representatives, that he commandeered the homeland security department to locate resistant Democrats who had fled the state capital to block his plan – has created a situation in which so few seats are truly contested that Republican power in the House may be guaranteed for a generation.


The Senate’s constitutional composition means that it cannot be manipulated through gerrymandering, but a serious effort was made to change the rules to make it easier for the majority to have its way – to eliminate the filibuster that has allowed minorities to slow down or block the passage of legislation.


The “nuclear option” pressed by Bill Frist, Republican majority leader in the Senate, and his allies has one purpose: to secure the lifetime appointment of hard-right judges who will remove remaining barriers to one-party rule. It is blocked for now by the emergence of the “gang of 14,” a bipartisan moderate group who stopped the rule change, but this was done at the significant cost of letting at least three of the worst Bush judicial appointments go through.


The culture of law


The appalling battle over Terri Schiavo must be seen in this light. One article in The Weekly Standard, the organ of the Republican right, reassured readers that if the “battle” over Schiavo was being lost, the right’s position in the “war” over the composition of the courts was being strengthened.

Indeed, from the beginning, the crude and unprecedented – and deeply un-conservative – intrusion of the Congress into this family dispute was little more than a set-up job, a kick of the ball to the despised courts, who would predictably fail to “save” Schiavo’s life, thus stoking the anger of religious-right activists against moderate Republican Senators and red-state Democrats who might waver on extremist Bush judicial nominees.


Public revulsion at the machinations over Schiavo, like the growing resistance to social-security privatisation, is a warning of the dangers of hubris. As when Gingrich shut down the government, overreaching can result in a backlash – Clinton was re-elected, despite the seeming weakness of his position after the 1994 elections, in part because the electorate wanted a balance of power in Washington. (Something the Republican Congress sought to undo in another gross instance of overreaching, one of the first salvos in the current crusade, the 1998 impeachment.)


For all the talk by President Bush and others of the “culture of life” – a particularly galling bit of hypocrisy from the authors of the war in Iraq, assailants of the safety net and environmental protections, and defenders of the death penalty – it is the culture of law that is truly endangered in the United States today.


It is law, and particularly the constitution and the bill of rights, that is meant to save us from the excesses of temporary, inflamed majorities. The founders gave federal judges lifetime tenure precisely so they could resist majoritarian pressure – as a number of courageous Republican judges in southern states did in beginning to dismantle the machinery of segregation in the 1950s. The Senate has a two-thirds rule for impeachment convictions and for passage of amendments to the constitution – and, for the moment, a filibuster option for extending debate precisely to “cool the saucer” and resist extremist agendas.


The assault on civil society institutions


The American political and social scene has not in memory seen so systematic an effort by a controlling party and ideology to hobble all significant and potential sources of opposition.


As many countries in the Soros network move past their repressive histories to grapple with the problems that often accompany democracy – such as violence, corruption and inequality – the essential institutions of open society (the media, the academy and even independent philanthropy itself)are under assault in the United States.


The media


The media is the biggest battleground. From the point of view of most progressives, right-wing voices – and often very harsh ones – dominate the airwaves, newspaper and magazine columns, and the web. This is not the place to go into the lopsided tally of right-wing pundits and talk-show hosts vs a few isolated liberals; the imbalance has been well-documented elsewhere.


From the right’s point of view, though, the media still has a liberal bias, which the right chooses to address by pursuing the rare bastions of independent journalism and opinion.


In the centrist media, Dan Rather has been a favourite target ever since he sharply questioned George Bush senior (then vice-president) during the 1988 presidential campaign. His mistakes in reporting on George W Bush’s National Guard record during the 2004 campaign were amplified and exaggerated by a relentless series of attacks on right-wing radio and television and in magazines like The Weekly Standardand The National Review, until he resigned. (The right-wing “blogosphere” also claimed CNN’s Eason Jordan after repeatedly distorting his remarks about US soldiers killing journalists in Iraq). With the retirements of Tom Brokaw and Ted Koppel, and the illness of Peter Jennings, the remaining generation of network anchors who cut their teeth as working journalists is effectively gone.


National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System have been targets for years not only because of the quality and relative diversity of their programming, but because government funds provide part of their support, leaving them vulnerable to Congressional pressure.


An early harbinger of what lies ahead was the letter to PBS of secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, in January 2005 urging it to drop the episode of Postcards from Buster – a children’s show in which an animated character visits various kinds of families all over the country – that featured a family headed by a lesbian couple in Vermont.


Then, in June, it was revealed that PBS chair Kenneth Tomlinson went outside policy secretly to hire two consultants to monitor the network’s programming – one to watch Bill Moyers’s news and discussion show, NOW, and keep track of the political leanings of guests.


The notorious Janet Jackson “SuperBowl” incident and a few other cases of racy television programming has the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) bearing down on broadcast “indecency” – particularly following the departure of its chairman Michael Powell, who despite his deregulatory zeal, had little interest in issues of such importance to the religious right.


These efforts to restrict the content of programming need to be opposed, but they may turn out also to be smokescreens for measures to liberate broadcasters further from cross-ownership limits and the few remaining obligations to act in the public interest. In the end, these seemingly technical and (to many) arcane battles over the structure of the electronic media reveal more about what kind of country we live in than many higher-profile issues.


Academic freedom


In October 2004, Republican state legislators in Virginia who had heard of a planned appearance on a state university campus by Michael Moore, questioned whether his speaker fee was an appropriate use of state funds. The university withdrew the offer. It was a crude foray by politicians into campus matters in which both the interference and the capitulation were wrong.


This kind of incident is long familiar. Now, however, a more concerted effort is underway, because many on the right view universities as one of the last significant bastions of opposition and criticism.


James Piereson, executive director of the Olin Foundation, explains his emphasis on the creation of new conservative departments of law and economics on the grounds that universities are “key institutions in our country and places where we ought to wage war and combat for our ideas and principles.” Others on the right have given up trying to change, and instead do what they can to destroy, the great research universities.


Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth told a gathering of conservative donors: “Stop funding universities. I mean, the biggest frustration is conservative donors who give money to Harvard and Yale. Hundreds of billions of dollars a year flow into these totally corrupt institutions. Stop! Because the money talks and if conservatives would stop funding these ridiculous programs that universities run, they would have to stop their activities.”


Even more bluntly, David Keene of the American Conservative Union told the same group:

“The good news and the bad news about the universities is that the universities are the last privileged sanctuary in America for liberal collectivism. The bad news is that they have retreated to those universities and clearing them out is a little bit like clearing out the Japanese stragglers on a Pacific island in World War II. And so it’s God’s work, but it’s not easy, but it is certainly something we should do.”


Enter the “Academic Bill of Rights” (Abor). This initiative of a group called Students for Academic Freedomis now pending in twelve state legislatures; it would require, in most of its forms, that curricula and reading lists in all public and private colleges provide dissenting sources and viewpoints. (In this respect, its veneer of “balance” echoes the increasingly successful movement to introduce creationist theory – now repackaged as “intelligent design” – into high school biology textbooks.)


Ohio’s version of Abor bars faculty from “persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to their subject of study and that serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose.” The Ohio senator who sponsors it, Larry Mumper, told the Columbus Post-Dispatch that 80% or so of professors in the state are “Democrats, liberals, Socialists or card-carrying Communists,” explaining that the latter term was a euphemism for “people who try to over-regulate and try to bring in a lot of issues we don’t agree with.”


John Sexton, president of New York University, comments on Abor in an essay called “The University as Sanctuary”:

“The invocation by the legislation’s sponsors of the need to encourage a diversity of viewpoint on campus is nothing more than a transparent mask for a concerted effort to chill freedom of inquiry and create a governmentally approved list of views that must be represented in the research agendas of faculty, obviously compromising the right and ability of scholars to shape their inquiry and take it wherever their research leads them.”


When the occasional scandal erupts – like the controversy over Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor who (despicably) called some of the financial industry executives who perished in the World Trade Center attacks “little Eichmanns” – it is seized on to promote this agenda.


After the brouhaha over whether Churchill should be permitted to speak at Hamilton College in New York, his home institution came under attack, and an investigation into other aspects of his conduct, such as alleged plagiarism, is still underway.


Bill Owens, governor of Colorado, used this episode to pressure the University of Colorado’s president into first “voluntarily” accepting the Academic Bill of Rights provisions, then resigning. That the right sees the Churchill incident as a gift to its university agenda was revealed when James Piereson advised his colleagues to “point out that this disgrace that has been brought upon Hamilton College and the University of Colorado was caused by this broad movement that universities have endorsed over the past generation.”


Enter the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (Acta), headed by Lynne Cheney and Senator Joseph Lieberman, which urges trustees of colleges and universities to become watchdogs over curricula and faculty.


Acta, which launched the “defense of civilization fund” after 9/11, issued a report subtitled “How Universities are Failing America,” claiming that “colleges and university faculty have been the weak link in America’s response.” The report asserts that “when a nation’s intellectuals are unwilling to defend its civilization, they give comfort to its adversaries.” Among the 117 incidents cited as evidence of anti-American sentiment are the comments of Wesleyan University’s president that “disparities and injustices” in the United States and around the world contribute to hatred and violence.


Recent skirmishes at two of the nation’s leading universities, Columbia and Harvard, can be seen in light of this larger movement. The attack on Columbia’s Department of Middle East Asian Language and Culture started with an outside group, The David Project, which purports to monitor anti-semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment on campuses. After the campus had been embroiled for months in allegations of bias and intimidation of students, a faculty commission report found only one teacher-professor exchange – still denied by the professor in question – that, if true, could be characterised as over the line.


The problems of Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, following his January 2005 addressoffer an interesting contrast. There are ample grounds for criticism of his observations about women and science, though the vote of no-confidence in him by his faculty probably has more to do with an attitude and a series of imperious actions and comments. But in the right-wing press, Summers – despite his generally progressive views and service in the Clinton administration – is portrayed as a hero for taking on a politically-correct elite.


Scientific integrity


A related issue is the growing concern within the scientific community about the politicization of science by federal policymakers. This is a development which can have life-and-death consequences, from slowing down action on toxic substances or global warming to increasing AIDS infections by impairing access to contraception and safe sex information. Henry Waxman was first to note the trend that when the Bush administration’s political goals conflict with established science, it distorts and censors findings by the government’s own scientists, or manipulates the underlying data to align results with political decisions.


Nominees for scientific advisory panels have been subjected to political litmus tests, and non-experts and under-qualified people from outside the scientific mainstream or with ties to affected industries have been appointed to key scientific bodies. Most recently, Philip Cooney, chief of staff to the Bush administration’s Council on Environmental Quality, was forced to resign after leaks revealed that he had doctored reports on global warming to tone them down. He was then hired by Exxon.


These distortions and misrepresentations of science have played a substantial role in the administration’s pursuit of policies on climate change, biodiversity, toxic substances, nuclear weapons, missile defense, sex education, emergency contraception and stem-cell research, with serious consequences for public health, safety and security in the United States.




Another favourite target of the right is foundations. As Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute, a frequent critic of “liberal foundations”, puts it:

“Let’s face it: foundations have produced big-time cultural damage over the last four decades. Racial preferences, identity politics, gender studies, welfare and homeless rights – all were catapulted into nearly untouchable status by the biggest names in philanthropy: Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie.”


(There is an alternative view, succinctly stated by Grover Norquist: “Large foundations have little or no effect on the political life of a commercial republic. The Right is winning based on other strengths.”)


While OSI has many sharp differences with foundations on the right, I’ve always believed we are similar in our efforts to engage and affect public policy. The right and the left are in the same boat when it comes to their protected status under the tax laws. To restrict OSI’s support of advocacy also affects, say, the voucher-promoting Bradley Foundation in Wisconsin.


There are signs of change in this area too. A particularly disturbing one is a talk by John Fonte, senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, at the institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.


In answering “yes” to the talk’s title – “Philanthropy and the American Regime: Is it Time for Another Congressional Investigation of Tax-Exempt Foundations?” – Fonte sorts philanthropic initiatives into four kinds: acceptable “regime improvement” and “regime maintenance,” and illegitimate “regime transformation” and “regime revolution.”


Fonte argues that “the policies fostered by money from some foundations (including Rockefeller as well as Ford and others) represent a direct challenge to the core values of the traditional American regime.” There is little question about where Fonte would see the Open Society Institute in this matrix. He cites with admiration a McCarthy-era panel, the Reece Committee, which charged the leading American foundations of the time with support of research favouring “the concept that there are no absolutes, that everything is indeterminate, that no standards of conduct, morals, ethics and government are to be deemed inviolate, that everything including basic moral law is subject to change.”


The Ford Foundation was subject to sustained attack over its support of some Palestinian groups’ attendance at the United Nations anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa in 2001. The campaign, led by conservative advocacy organisations and fuelled by columns and editorials in the Wall Street Journaland New York Post, resulted in Ford ending support for several of the groups; it also changed its policies to require all grantees to sign a statement assuring the foundation that funds would not be used to promote “bigotry, terrorism, or destruction of a state.”


The American Civil Liberties Union (Aclu) and the Drug Policy Alliance, viewing this language as akin to a loyalty oath, refused to sign the conditions and forfeited Ford grants. The US justice department, responding to a lawsuit by Aclu and numerous other organisations over new anti-terrorism requirements imposed on non-profit beneficiaries of the Combined Federal Charities Campaign, justified the government’s position by citing the grant conditions imposed by Ford and less sweeping ones adopted by several other foundations.




I am inspired to employ this phrase by Domna Stanton, the president of the Modern Languages Association, who used it in her inaugural address after cataloguing academic freedom concerns. One of the best ways to get a perspective on how it works is to discuss the experience of OSI and the Soros Foundation Network, particularly in light of the way that George Soros in his personal capacity became a critic of the war on drugs and a supporter, then funder, of efforts to unseat President Bush. The attacks on Soros and OSI are characterised by innuendo, guilt-by-association, and questioning of our patriotism – all classic McCarthy techniques.


Here are four examples:


First, the 2 March 2005 edition of CNS, a right-wing web news service, featured a “special report”, (featured along with a story headlined “George Soros Sued Over Dog Attack”). It claimed that David Brock, founder of Media Matters for America – a website set up in 2004 to monitor right-wing news and opinion outlets – had been forced to “backpedal” on his denials of funding from George Soros.


I happen to know, as the person who turned down his grant request, that Brock – whose website has performed a useful service in throwing a spotlight on the right-wing attack media and the way it operates – has not received a grant from OSI or any Soros entity. The “smoking gun” that CNS found was in the form of links between Brock and Soros “affiliates” like (which received personal contributions from George Soros), the Center for American Progress (which also received personal Soros contributions) and insurance billionaire Peter Lewis of Cleveland (who sometimes funds the same organisations and initiatives as Soros, but who would be surprised to be called a “Soros affiliate”).


Despite these facts, David Horowitz, the 1960s radical-turned-right-winger, called Brock’s original denials of Soros funding a “lie,” and called it typical of Brock’s operation, which “split[s] hairs to present an untruth”.


Second, the 11 February edition of the Fox News TV programme The O’Reilly Factor featured an expose of the “Soros-Sundance” connection, an irresistible teaming of one favourite right-wing enemy, George Soros, with another – Robert Redford, the Sundance founder.


Terry Scanlon of the Capital Research Center, noting that the Soros Documentary Fund was transferred to the management of the Sundance Institute shortly after its director went to work for Sundance, told the O’Reilly show that the fund “had a very leftist tinge to it” (Scanlon is apparently ignorant of many films supported by the fund that exposed human-rights abuses by governments in, for example, North Korea and Iran).


The programme’s host, Bill O’Reilly, claimed that Redford “is now being used or has been bought” by Soros. Scanlon commented that Sundance receives $1.6 million in federal grants (for unrelated Sundance arts activities) and O’Reilly, objecting to “the stealth” of the alleged Soros-Redford alliance, said: “I … don’t think the U.S should be putting tax dollars into what is decidedly not a fair and balanced operation.”


Third, shortly after the conviction of attorney Lynne Stewart in February 2005 for relaying a message from her client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a series of articles appeared in the right-wing press, culminating in aNew York Post editorial, attacking OSI for a $20,000 grant made in 2002 to Stewart’s defense committee.


The American Spectator, without bothering to ask OSI why it made the grant, said that “Soros and the OSI sent a message: Funding terrorist enablers is more important than fighting a War on Terror.” Listing a number of groups which receive $100,000 or more from OSI, including the American Bar Association and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the American Spectator called on all OSI grantees to “consider returning the money you received from the Open Society Institute” and asked whether “you will accept grants in the future from donors that assist accused terrorists.”


Fourth, a House of Representatives government reform sub-committee held hearings on harm reduction in February 2005; these provided a forum for the chair, Mark Souder of Indiana, to attack George Soros for support of needle exchange and other harm reduction programs.


Souder called witnesses who serve on the board of the Drug Policy Alliance, a key OSI grantee, and confronted them with a children’s book on marijuana to which a staff member had contributed an afterword – but which was funded by another donor and which the board members testifying had never seen.


These examples could be multiplied. Hardly a day goes by without some assault on George Soros; Bill O’Reilly, for example, has claimed that US taxpayers are “subsidising” Soros’s alleged leadership of “the culture wars against traditional Americans” because the Open Society Institute administers a number of government-funded scholarship programs and US Agency for International Development (Usaid) contracts. Increasingly, any independent research supported by OSI faces a concerted campaign of delegitimisation.


An argument for more argument


I want to relate these attacks on the independent sector to the emerging movement in which a number of us are engaged, to build a stronger infrastructure for progressives in the United States to counter and overcome the systematic investment in policy centers, leadership, media and other areas by the right over the last thirty years.


This is a critically important task. But I am not sure that enough emphasis has been given so far in these efforts to ideas and to what generates, tests and strengthens them: argument.


Progressives badly need better message development and communications training and dissemination. But a message is the way of delivering an idea, not the idea itself. We certainly need stronger institutions on our side, all the things that comprise what we call the “progressive infrastructure”. But no one marches into battle under the flag of “infrastructure”. When the right started to change the country, they were primarily moved by a vision of how they wanted it to look. A disturbing vision, to be sure, much of which has come to pass, but a vision nonetheless. In articulating, creating and achieving our own vision, we would do well to remember that debate and criticism are essential to any movement, and particularly to one so grounded in open society values, as ours is.


The New York Times columnist David Brooks reinforces these points. “Conservatives,” Brooks argues,

“fell into the habit of being acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears and had big debates about public philosophy. That turned out to be important: nobody joins a movement because of admiration for its entitlement reform plan. People join up because they think that movement’s views about human nature and society are true.” Brooks concludes: “In disunity, there is strength.”


When I mentioned earlier that some on the right were determined to roll back the Progressive era, I had in mind, among others, Steven F Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute, who made such a call at theBradley Center forum on vision and philanthropy. What he had to say about its relationship to “liberalism” and progressive values and institutions is worth quoting at greater length:

“Liberalism as a programmatic ideology derives much of its energy and legitimacy with the public by assuming to be the prime force of human progress. In practical terms ‘progress’ means the continual – and in principle unlimited – expansion of government. This is why more and more spheres of economic and social life end up being politicized despite our best efforts, and is also why today’s liberals slide naturally into calling themselves ‘progressives’ to avoid the unpopularity associated with the liberal label. Public opinion remains vulnerable to liberal/progressive appeals, which is why narrow cost/benefit analysis and similar approaches are not sufficient to turn back liberalism. Right now the conservative movement does not explicitly contest the left over how the terms of human progress are understood.


“As a historical matter, it was during the Progressive Era 100 years ago that both the intellectual foundations of modern liberalism, and the corruption of American constitutionalism, were set in place. The ideas spawned during the Progressive Era established the foundations of both the welfare state and the regulatory state. Progressive liberalism began as a broad-based intellectual movement, comprising economists, lawyers, political scientists, historians, journalists and practical politicians. In the space of a generation this movement reshaped our understanding of our political system. It requires an equally broad-based intellectual movement to reverse this.


“In other words, we should seek to roll back the Progressive Era. This is less daunting and far-fetched than it may seem on the surface. Liberals today are largely unreflective about their own premises. Therefore, what is necessary is a sustained program to force liberalism to engage in arguments they avoid, or to examine its unstated premises.”


This hits the mark, a little uncomfortably so. But you could read widely on the right, as I have been doing, and find many similar statements. David Keene of the American Conservative Union claims of his movement: “It is both ideological, and distrustful of certitude”. We would do well to earn the same label. You don’t have to think that the right always lives up to these claims and aspirations of robust and honest debate to think that it’s an ideal worth striving for.


There are genuine differences among progressives – over globalisation, over interventionism in foreign policy, over “identity” politics, over numerous economic issues – that have been muted in the common effort to stand up the right-wing assault. The challenge is to argue openly and respectfully among ourselves, coming together on urgent issues and at critical moments.


Some ideas, and an invitation


Progressive institutions and alternative policies and messages need to be built and nurtured. That must and will be done, with our involvement. But we must also build and nurture institutions that are not progressive or conservative, but independent – capable of resisting extremism and counteracting the polarisation that is deepening in American society.


In many ways, the Open Society Institute and its grantees, and many of our donor colleagues, are dealing with the range of open society threats I discuss above. In some areas we need to step up this work; in others we need to find or help create new initiatives and institutions; in all we need to recognise the integrated nature of the threats and integrate our own responses accordingly.


Here are seven steps we need to take:


  • We need to protect the independence of the judiciary as urgently as ever. The key US advocacy groups are in the vanguard of resistance, but at least at the federal level, the situation has become steadily worse. Preserving the filibuster as an option to block the worst judicial nominees is only a first step. We need a longer campaign to monitor judicial appointments, particularly with the balance of the Supreme Court at stake. Such a campaign must involve the civil liberties and pro-choice groups already in the foreground, and also build the broader civil-rights and environmental communities. It must include groups whose social and economic justice agenda is threatened by judges determined to reverse hard-won civil rights and the very underpinnings of social welfare and regulation in the public interest
  • We need a much more intensive campaign – of documentation, media public education and litigation – to challenge the legitimisation of torture, which is both a moral abomination on its own terms and deeply corrosive to the culture of law
  • We need to strengthen institutions that monitor the fairness of the media and call them to account for violations of journalistic ethics and standards. We need to strengthen the emerging grassroots movement for media reform: protecting the independence of public broadcasting, monitoring the FCC on ownership rules and other regulatory issues, and supporting legal challenges
  • We need to call attention to the politicisation of science, and assist scientists to organise and speak out against the corruption and manipulation of scientific findings
  • We need to recognise that academic freedom and university independence are under increasing attack, and respond by strengthening them
  • We need to organise with colleagues in the field of philanthropy who want to use the special status of our institutions to protect the interests we represent, and to advance broader social-justice issues.
  • We need to do more to encourage dialogue and new ideas about the best ways to foster open society. I hope that the Open Society Institute will play a key role in this thinking and development


This is only the beginning. There is a long way to go. The debate starts here.