Democracy in America Revisited—Past is Present When It Comes to Private Philanthropy [Second of a Series]




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As we consider Democracy in America today, analogies emerge between the trend toward increased socio-economic inequality in our country today and the alienation felt between the wide extremes of economic privilege and poverty during the Progressive Era at the turn of the last century, during the American Industrial Revolution.

In the aftermath of the American industrialist Robber Barons that rose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, huge private foundations emerged, with names like Rockefeller and Carnegie, which dedicated substantial financial resources to building public infrastructure in the US. It is interesting to note the parallel between the Robber Barons and the Technology Titans, such as the Gates and Google.org foundations, as well as other less celebrated but equally important multi-billion dollar foundations that have been built on the great technology wealth that has been created over the past fifteen years (or less).

Private citizens today increasingly recognize the need to intervene directly in order to make up for Government’s failure to meet the social and civic needs of needy Americans at times of crisis. Events like Hurricane Katrina only drive the point further home. In addition, private American foundations take on global assignments to bring medical aid and basic infrastructure to refugees and citizens of other countries (these initiatives are not immune from domain experts’ criticism as misguided, such as some of the Gates Foundation medical programs in Africa) .

Why did private philanthropic efforts at the turn of the century identify the need to build public infrastructure as a high priority? Privileged donors sought to establish a common ground with the average American by literally creating a common physical social infrastructure—such as the National Parks System and the neighborhood playground—that would naturally bring people together in a neutral and shared environment. Shared experience in cherished shared civic spaces would bridge the chasm of great wealth by creating a common dialogue for all American citizens. The missions of many private foundations today are driven by this continuing perception of the need to establish common ground between highly fragmented social groups and are inspired by a renewed sense of civic duty that has been lost for many American citizens.

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