JOE GOLDMAN MPP 2003 has been working on democracy, in one way or another, for much of his life. You could say it started when he helped design an electoral process at his suburban Chicago high school, continued during college when he began working in the field of public deliberations, and went from there, as he established his credentials in the field, connecting public voices to decision making. Then in 2010, frustrated by the siloed approach to pro-democracy work and alarmed by the loss of faith in democratic institutions, he joined forces with eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, eventually creating the Democracy Fund, a foundation devoted to supporting and connecting bipartisan work that ranges from electoral access to transparency to sustainable journalism. Like the organization that he leads, Goldman seems built for the moment.
Q: What moved you to create the Democracy Fund?
If you solve the problem of public dialogue and deliberation, democracy isn’t fixed. If you solve money in politics, democracy isn’t fixed. If you solve the journalism business model, it’s not fixed. You need to make progress in all of these areas to make it work better. And I think as I got exposed to larger parts of the democracy field, I just began to recognize how interconnected these pieces were and that all of these fields were starving for resources.
Q: You saw the big picture earlier than most.
I often tell people I understand how a climate scientist must feel who spent a couple of decades warning people about rising carbon levels and saying something bad is going to happen. I think I, and many others in this field, spent a long time worrying about what the long-term consequences are when you have very low public trust in democratic institutions. I think people are now aware of that at a different level than they used to be. … I definitely feel that the Democracy Fund is an institution that was built for this moment, not knowing that this moment was necessarily coming.
Q: How do you resist focusing on the crisis of the moment?
We focus on the short term and the long term. In the short term, this is an institution that feels like it needs to stand up to deeply authoritarian threats and is going to speak out about it and call out bad actors. At the same time, we recognize that the problems facing the country and our democracy did not just start a few years ago and are not going to be long gone if an administration changes. We need to be able to work both in the short and long term. I see us as weaving together a kind of fabric of this broader movement of people who are of standing up for democratic norms and democratic ideals.
Q: Why is it important to fund projects from across the political spectrum?
You know, being bipartisan does not mean being neutral. A healthy democracy requires at least two healthy parties. And we certainly want to cultivate that and we think that it’s always really useful to be able to listen to others and to get broader support behind laws and institutions. And at the end of the day, we stand for a set of values and we have articulated what those core beliefs are. And if you share those values, we want to work with you. And if you offend some of those values, we’ll call you out on it. In an environment where polarization is a deep problem in the system, I think it’s valuable to have to be able to work across the aisle and have relationships with folks across the aisle.
Banner image from Washington Post future of democracy program; portrait courtesy of Joe Goldman