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What is the single biggest challenge to democracy in the United States in the 21st century? Ford Foundation president Darren Walker sat down with us recently to discuss this question, which led his organization to focus its philanthropic giving on efforts to battle inequality.

Learn more about his transformative vision for the Ford Foundation, and the role that philanthropy can play in resolving deep social challenges, in this energetic dialogue with John Templeton Foundation president Heather Templeton Dill.

‘Hope Is the Oxygen of Society’

The Ford Foundation’s mandate to promote democracy, and the desire to maximize the impact of its giving, led Walker to initiate a strategic review. His team sought to identify the greatest threats to a strong democracy in America and around the world, and then to align those challenges with Ford’s expertise. They landed on “inequality.”

Inequality erodes democracy by reducing public trust and social cohesion, he says, and ultimately undermining people’s hope for a positive future. “Hope is the oxygen of society,” says Walker. Without hope, trust in institutions and norms evaporates and “the public square for democracy will atrophy.”

“We can never take democracy for granted,” he says. For Ford, “everything comes back to democracy.”

How Social Media Incentivizes Misinformation

Democracy depends on having a public that is reliably informed on what is happening in the government and society. Accordingly, says Walker, the Ford Foundation has focused on bolstering news gathering to ensure that accurate information is available. However, that does not resolve the challenge that most people get their news through channels that benefit from emotionally charged, biased, or distorted claims. “You are much more likely to be engaged in information that is not fact based,” says Walker. The reason is simple: misinformation “is much more interesting” than factual reporting. That is why the business model for this sort of journalism has collapsed, creating a gap for philanthropy to fill.


Explore more of the great minds from across the sciences and humanities in our other Speakers Series conversations.

Watch geneticist, physician, and 2020 Templeton Prize winner Francis Collins speak about the discovery that filled him with awe.

Watch physicist Alan Lightman of MIT describe how he found transcendental meaning in the bottom of a boat.

Watch biologist Stuart Firestein of Columbia University share an exclusive early draft of a book he’s writing which argues that science invented optimism.

Watch economist Tyler Cowen of George Mason University explain how to radically accelerate the process of scientific discovery.