Democracy and Power | December 15, 2021

Turning pandemic profits into ‘democracy dividends’

Sarah Williams and Anna Galland
Guest Author

Sarah Williams

Guest Author

Anna Galland

Even as the recent discovery of the Omicron variant drags out the Covid pandemic, the richest Americans are still doing incredibly well. The cumulative net worth of the 400 wealthiest Americans grew by 40% in 2020. And it’s not just the “one percent.” The wealthiest 10% of Americans now own almost 90% of all U.S. stocks, and have seen their savings and investment accounts swell.

The run-up in housing and stock prices boosted the wealth of American adults by $40,000 on average in 2020, according to Credit Suisse Global Wealth, widening already-sharp divides between the haves and the have-nots.

Pools of elite institutional wealth have also soared: Harvard’s endowment increased by a cool billion dollars last year. 

What good is all that money, though, if we’re at risk of losing our democracy? 

We are being hammered by attacks on the right to vote, a “Big Lie” questioning the legitimacy of our last election, and the authoritarian spiral of one of our major political parties.

For those of us who’ve benefited from the ascent of the COVID-era stock market, this giving season would be a great time to look at that more robust bank account and see a “democracy dividend” that should be paid forward. It’s time to invest in civic and political organizations that are doing the deep work of defending, renewing, and reimagining our democracy — the vibrant, stable system of government that allows individuals and companies to prosper — to give us a shot at solving all the complex problems we face.

Democracy at risk

Given the last few years, millions of us are understandably exhausted. Many have retreated by choice or necessity into private concerns. Yet the threats we face have not receded. The violent attack on the US Capitol on January 6 that left 140 officers injured and five people dead was one of the most stark displays of this rising authoritarian threat, with organizing efforts to overthrow our government coming not just from the outside but directly enabled by members of Congress themselves.

The country will not pull through this period of tumult unless those with resources abundantly fuel the work of beating back creeping authoritarianism, building a country where everyone has power over their future.  

There’s reason for determined hope. We’re starting to see what’s possible again, after the wreckage and division of the past four years. The American Rescue Plan provided direct relief to the struggling parts of our economy and ensured many small businesses could stay open and families could survive. Child poverty is on track to be cut in half in 2021, thanks to the child tax credit. The development of vaccines and their nationwide rollout has been an unparalleled public health success, even in the face of active disinformation and anti-vaccine partisan warfare. 

And just envision all that could become real in short order: unprecedented efforts to tackle the climate crisis, a huge boost to the care we can provide for babies and elderly parents, healthcare people can afford, and a renewed commitment to the freedom to vote. Many people who voted for the first time in 2020 could feel that their voices are being heard and that government can and will work for them.

Paying it forward

What better investment than in a democracy that serves us — all of us? Great places to invest include organizations like Fair Fight, to directly combat attacks on voting; Color Of Change and Care in Action, to help educate and engage people in the electoral process; and MoveOn and Indivisible, to revitalize a participatory democracy that works for everyone, rather than just the wealthiest or well-connected.  

We’ve supported these and others through the Propel Democracy Forward Fund, a charitable fund that helps strengthen democracy. But there are many places to put resources to work – let’s get to it!   

It’s time for those who’ve been on the winning side of the stock market to consider paying it forward with a democracy dividend and to invest some of those winnings back in our democratic future. We could all be richer for it.

Sarah M. Williams is Co-Founder and CEO of Propel, which invests in innovators, change-makers, and entrepreneurs building a democracy and economy that works for the many, not the few. She is one of Inside Philanthropy’s 100 Power Players in 2021.

Anna Galland is a national organizer, strategist and nonprofit leader, and previous Executive Director of the grassroots group MoveOn Civic Action. She is currently a Pritzker Fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.