Virtually every word or phrase in the lexicon of time-hallowed Washington homage fits the National Endowment for Democracy (NED): “bipartisan,” “cost-effective,” “practical,” “timely,” “on the cutting-edge,” “inspiring,” “visionary,” etc. etc. It is safe to say that no other federally funded initiative of the last twenty years has attracted the breadth of moral and political support, at home and abroad, that has rightly come to this one. The National Endowment for Democracy is the American people, and the U.S. government, at their best.
Why, then, did the House of Representatives vote, this past June 22, to kill it? Why was a similar effort (which failed miserably) mounted in the Senate on July 28? Why is this most successful of recent American enterprises in world affairs still under threat?
No small part of the answer lies in Mark Twain’s pungent adage: “No good deed goes unpunished.” NED’S very success is now being held against it, both by those who think its day has passed and by those who fear its day has not passed.
On the one hand, the new House of Representatives is full of members whose most urgent priority is to cut the federal budget—an entirely honorable and sensible goal, to be sure. Many, perhaps most, of these new representatives know little about the Endowment’s rationale, history, strategy, structure, and current program. In a post-Cold War world, with isolationist sentiment running high, NED looked like something “discretionary” and “cuttable,” and a lot of freshmen voted accordingly.
That false image of NED as just the kind of program that could be easily dispensed with “after the Cold War”—an image that had a lot to do with the House vote—was deliberately and, it must be said, mendaciously manufactured in large part by unscrupulous hard Left and radical activists and journalists who had been carrying on a disinformation campaign against the Endowment almost since its opening day. These people (whose positions at small circulation journals and obscure think tanks should not be taken to preclude their influence on major communications media, including at least one television network) bitterly resent NED’S success in challenging the Marxist-Leninist Utopia: not simply in its grizzled central and eastern European version, but in its softer Caribbean and Latin American in carnations. They have been seething for years as NED grantees, in venues ranging from Buenos Aires to Gdansk to Managua to Manila, have demonstrated, empirically, that “the people” in whose name the hard Left has conducted its I sundry campaigns really do prefer “bourgeois” institutions like elections, real political parties, free trade unions, and the market. And now the hard Left has taken its revenge on NED—or so it seems to think.
Thus the June 22 death sentence in the House and the July 29 assassination attempt in the Senate were the products of a coalition that was bizarre even by our local standards: fiscal conservatives looking for programs to cut; newly elected solons eager to demonstrate financial restraint to the folks back home; a few honest skeptics; and embittered anti-NED activists and journalists, representatives and senators, fighting an ideological battle they cannot admit they have lost. What makes this coalition even more bizarre is that it was forged in the face of united opposition from the Democratic and Republican congressional leaderships and the White House.
It is not a pretty picture. The National Endowment for Democracy, although bolstered by a major Senate victory, is still in jeopardy.
At a major international conference held in Warsaw in late June, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Ukrainian, Croatian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, and Russian democrats—including several parliamentarians—were simply aghast when I told them what the House had done four days earlier. Perhaps a review of NED’S origins and current program will help explain why America’s most fervent admirers in the world—men and women struggling to make transitions to democracy, or to consolidate the political and economic freedoms they have recently won— were thunderstruck by the House vote to kill the Endowment.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.