In February 2020, in the midst of a tight presidential election, a group of ideological philanthropists from across the ideological spectrum gathered 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 combat polarization by funding face-to-face interactions among Americans across political, racial and religious divides.
Fixing what’s broken in American democracy, they argued, requires more than voter ID laws or changing the shape of our congressional districts. It requires making deep personal connections that change hearts and minds and ultimately American culture itself.
Their experiment rests on a basic idea: Most Americans lack the skills, opportunity, and even inclination to work together across lines of difference toward a common goal. Part of the solution, these philanthropists believe, is to embrace a very old idea that has fallen out of fashion: pluralism.
The term “cultural pluralism” was coined in the early 1900s by the Jewish philosopher Horace Callan, who proposed it amid a large wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Instead of trying to exorcise their Poles, Italians, or Jews, as many white Anglo-Saxon Protestants wanted, he argued that America should be a “nation of nationalities” where people learn to work together across lines of difference. He argued that the freedom to participate in political life, different but still an important part of the whole, was key to the country’s genius. Mr. Callan thought of the American people not as a melting pot into which everyone becomes the same bland stew, but as an orchestra of disparate sounds coming together in harmonies.
That idea also feeds the neo-pluralists. Although it is difficult to find two people who describe the project in the same way, respecting the difference, not papering over it, is considered central.
During his tenure, Mr Cullen was heavily criticized by those who accused him of promoting a balkanisation of the country. A scathing review of his book in the New York Times in 1924 declared that the nation faced a stark choice: “Is it to remain one in spirit, tradition and language, or become a hodgepodge boarding school for alien groups?” His ideas were not widely embraced until the 1980s with the rise of the idea of multiculturalism.
Today, the neo-pluralist project is grappling with a set of challenges similar to those Mr. Callen wrote about a century ago. The influx of immigrants is once again challenging existing notions of who Americans are and what it takes to make a country cohesive and whole. At the same time, the country really feels balkanized along many fault lines: rural vs. urban, young vs. old, religious vs. secular and, of course, red vs. blue.
But the criticism that pluralism faces today is different. Rather than being considered too radical, pluralism may not be radical enough in an age of rebellion and potential coups. For some activists, pluralism is like bipartisanship or a call to meet in the middle. But pluralism feels more crucial than ever. Without it, our multiracial democracy cannot exist.
I discovered New Pluralists this summer after attending an online workshop on depolarizing hosted by one of its grantees, a group called Braver Angels. I found the group online because, at a time when so much attention has been focused on toxic politics, I wanted to learn more about groups advocating for the opposite side.
Co-founded by Bill Doherty, a marriage counselor in Minneapolis, Braver Angels is a grass-roots organization across the country that teaches conservatives and liberals to shed boring stereotypes and clarify disagreements without yelling. At the workshop I attended, Red and Blue struggled with how they typed each other. Almost all participants were white and appeared to be over 40 years of age. They were, by definition, open to reach across party lines. In other words, they were low-hanging fruit. Anyway, I came with hopes for the country.
I realized then that there was an entire ecosystem of groups dedicated to bridging divides that had been created during the Trump years: People’s Dinner, which helps communities host community dinners and other events that promote racial and political reconciliation; StoryCorps’ One Small Step project brings together strangers to record conversations about their lives; More on Common, which polls public opinion and releases an influential paper on the country’s “tired majority”. The neo-pluralists fund them all.
The idea of neo-pluralists came about after the election of Donald Trump. Jennifer Huss Rothberg, New York-based executive director of the Einhorn Collaborative, a foundation founded by a Wisconsin-bred hedge fund manager, said she continues to get calls from people alarmed by the level of polarization and hoping she can help fix it. . One call came from Melissa Weintraub, a longtime conflict resolution practitioner who has worked with Israelis and Palestinians.
“You know the toolkit I use in the Middle East? I want to bring it to Wisconsin and Iowa,’” Ms. Rothberg recalled Ms. Weintraub saying.
At the same time, Ms. Rothberg told me, “We created a rapid response by organizing around desegregation.” The Einhorn Collaborative provided $6 million in one-time funding, but wanted to do something bigger. In 2019, Ms. Rothberg invited other donors engaged in similar work to a meeting in New York to see if they could pool their money to fund these projects on a larger scale. She deliberately invited donors from across the political spectrum. The Stand Together Trust, formerly the Charles Koch Institute, which funds social movements to address public issues, agreed to join. But that’s because some social justice funders didn’t want to be in the same room, Fay Tversky, who attended the meeting as a representative of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, told me.
In the end, about a dozen donors stuck with it. They earned the name neopluralists because pluralism felt neutral in an age when many words took on a partisan flavor. Last summer, they brought together a group of supporters for a retreat in Atlanta in an effort to grow their relationship. Among them were civil rights thinker John Powell of Other and Belong and Rachel Perrick of Welcome America. They are called field builders in the hyper-cerebral parlance of neo-pluralists. The big idea here is to turn pluralism into a coherent field – like public health – with clearly defined norms and practices that can be replicated, measured and improved.
Lennon Flowers, a co-founder of Public Dinner, told me the meeting felt like a rescue. She said the money and credibility her organization receives from New Pluralists will filter down to local partners, showing that “this work is important and this proves we’re not alone.”
But a 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. To change American culture, who would you hire?
Nevertheless, the team is doubling down on its vision. Over the summer, it put out a request for grant proposals from grassroots groups engaged in this work. Eight hundred applications were received – plenty to fund. That’s when New Pluralists launched an effort to challenge donors to commit $1 billion to pluralism over the next decade, an initiative it announced at the White House Unity Summit in September.
“The need is so great, the opportunity is so great, and we need more philanthropy to take this seriously,” Uma Viswanathan, executive director of New Pluralists, told me.
Even the most enthusiastic of the new pluralists admit they are not sure they will succeed. But I hope they do. Of course, orchestras aren’t good by chance. People need to practice.
The New York Times