Carl Gershman and the Struggle for Democracy

Issue Date October 2021
Volume 32
Issue 4
Page Numbers 5–10
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Carl Gershman, the founding president of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), retired in July 2021 after 37 years at the helm. His contributions to the cause of democracy around the world have been extraordinary. Among them is the pivotal role he played in the launching of the Journal of Democracy. His longtime colleague Marc Plattner, the Journal’s founding coeditor, reflects on Carl’s accomplishments and the qualities that enabled him to be so successful in leading NED for almost four decades.

In July 2021, Carl Gershman, the founding president of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), retired after 37 years at the helm. Though not well known among the general public, Carl became a commanding figure within the global “democracy community,” widely admired for his remarkable energy and his unflagging devotion to the cause of democracy. I do not believe Carl ever sought another position. He held the job that he most wanted in the world. It is hard to imagine a happier fit between a leader and the organization he led than that between Carl and NED.

Carl came to NED steeped in the global struggle for democracy and human rights as well as the movement for civil rights in the United States. When he was selected by NED’s Board of Directors as the fledgling organization’s first president in April 1984, he had to learn quickly how to operate in Washington. He had a modest amount of government experience, having served for three years as senior counselor to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick. That helped little, however, in dealing with Congress, on which NED’s funding and fate depended. But Carl had other kinds of experience that turned out to be enormously helpful in taking on the formidable task of directing a brand-new and politically controversial organization.

About the Author

Marc F. Plattner is a member of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) Board of Directors. He was on the NED staff from 1984 until 2020, serving first as the director of the grants program. In 1989, he became founding coeditor (with Larry Diamond) of the Journal of Democracy. He later served as codirector of the International Forum for Democratic Studies and as NED’s vice-president for research and studies.

View all work by Marc F. Plattner

From 1969 to 1971, Carl had been research director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, where he worked closely with Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader who had organized the 1963 March on Washington. Carl also became a leader of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), the youth wing of the social democrats, and in 1974 he was chosen as the executive director of its parent organization, Social Democrats USA (SDUSA). In this capacity, he was also active in the Socialist International and came to know many democratic political leaders from Europe and other parts of the world. Among them was Mário Soares, Portuguese prime minister and hero of his country’s democratic transition, who in 1977 spoke before more than four-hundred people at a reception in New York organized by the SDUSA.

Carl is also an intellectual, even if he has never been an academic. Although he was often mistakenly addressed by outsiders as “Dr. Gershman,” his only advanced degree is a master’s in education from Harvard. His real schooling was in the rough-and-tumble debates and political controversies in which he engaged as a leader of YPSL and of SDUSA. He was also an excellent writer whose articles appeared in such publications as Dissent, Commentary, the New Leader, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine. He invited leading thinkers such as Sidney Hook, Leszek Kołakowski, and Walter Laqueur to address SDUSA, and developed close friendships with them. Carl had been well-trained both in waging the battle of ideas and in political infighting. He also was well-prepared for leading a bipartisan organization, as he had strong support both from the U.S. labor movement (headed by his good friend Lane Kirkland) and from conservatives who were admirers of Jeane Kirkpatrick.

The Endowment went through some difficult times during its early years. A decision by the House of Representatives to eliminate NED’s funding, taken less than a month after Carl was on the job, would effectively have shut the organization down had it not been reversed by a narrow vote in the Senate. I vividly recall thinking during those years how heavy a burden Carl was bearing—one that I would not have wanted to bear myself. But Carl persevered, and NED was able to overcome its opponents and to begin the expansion that brought its budget from $18 million in 1984 to more than $300 million in 2021. The credit for this happy outcome was shared by others on both the Board and the staff of NED, as well as its four core grantees (the Solidarity Center, the Center for International Private Enterprise, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute), but I think most observers would agree that Carl was the key agent of NED’s success.

Of course, the Endowment’s growing Congressional support was largely based on the nature of its programs and the character of its grantees. Initially, there was a great deal of suspicion about NED’s political orientation from both sides of the aisle—from liberals who feared it would become an anticommunist operation that would neglect opponents of right-wing dictatorships, and from conservatives who feared that it would undermine authoritarian regimes friendly to the United States. Under Carl’s direction, NED proved that such fears of a one-sided approach were misplaced. He made sure that NED supported struggles for democracy everywhere—in Chile, South Africa, the Philippines, and South Korea, but also in Nicaragua, Cuba, Poland, the Soviet Union, and China. NED demonstrated that it would assist opponents of both right-wing and left-wing dictators, as well as a range of democrats in countries that were in transition or were working to consolidate a democratic system.

NED’s most effective tool in winning Congressional support was its grantees, a number of whom Carl brought to Capitol Hill to meet with members and staff. They were NED’s best advocates, a remarkable collection of men and women who in many cases had endured persecution and imprisonment for their democratic struggles. Meeting and conversing with these people convinced most skeptics that NED was neither a narrowly ideological enterprise nor, as some of its early detractors claimed, a boondoggle providing overseas travel for the politically well-connected.

The Statement of Principles and Objectives approved by the NED Board in 1984 outlined five areas in which the Endowment would make grants and conduct activities: 1) pluralism; 2) democratic governance and political processes; 3) education, culture, and communications; 4) research; and 5) international cooperation. Although it was foreseen that the latter two would receive less funding, Carl and I nonetheless considered them of high importance. In its early years, NED did support a few research projects, most notably the multivolume study Democracy in Developing Countries carried out by Seymour Martin Lipset, Juan Linz, and Larry Diamond.

Yet when the NED staff in the fall of 1988 recommended a new grant for a research project on the relationship between political institutions and democratic stability in developing countries, the Board turned it down, largely due to opposition from Board member Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski acknowledged that it was an excellent proposal from first-rate scholars, but argued that they should be able to obtain support from other organizations that funded social-science research. The courageous activists struggling on behalf of democracy in Poland and elsewhere, in contrast, had few other sources to which they could turn. Given the scope of the needs and the limitations of NED’s budget (which was very tight at the time), Brzezinski concluded that NED should reserve its funds for those on the front lines of the struggle for democracy. In light of his own academic eminence, his fellow Board members were not inclined to challenge him.

At around that time, I was beginning to have doubts about whether I wanted to remain at NED. I told Carl that, although I had enormous respect for the organization and its mission, my job as director of the grants program had heavy management responsibilities and left me very little time for the kinds of research, writing, and editing for which I felt I was best suited. Carl’s response was to try to come up with a solution that would keep me on board, while also enabling NED to stay connected with the best thinking about democracy. He reminded me that once in the past we had discussed the possibility that NED might someday want to publish a journal on democracy. I replied that I would love to edit such a journal and would stay at NED for the opportunity.

The problem, of course, was that NED’s budget was limited, and the Board was unlikely to approve using its congressionally appropriated funds to cover the costs of operating a journal. Carl’s solution: We should raise private funds to support the launching of a new journal. I drafted a proposal to submit to private foundations, and Carl drew upon his contacts within the philanthropic sector to help us raise the needed funds. He also contacted Leszek Kołakowski and Octavio Paz and persuaded them to join our initial core editorial board (alongside Lipset, Linz, and Samuel Huntington). With Carl’s help, we succeeded in attracting sufficient funding to launch the Journal of Democracy, which opened a small office within NED in September 1989 and published its inaugural issue in January 1990.

I believe Carl also was the first to suggest bringing on Larry Diamond as coeditor. I had met Larry at a 1985 meeting at Stanford for the NED-funded project on “Democracy in Developing Countries”; he subsequently spoke at several NED events and had become good friends with both Carl and me. I liked the idea of a part-time university-based coeditor, as that had been the structure at The Public Interest, the journal where I had been managing editor during the 1970s: Irving Kristol was the in-house editor, while first Daniel Bell and then Nathan Glazer (both professors at Harvard) served as his coeditor. I happily embraced the idea of inviting Larry to be my coeditor, and he was delighted to accept.

After the Journal was launched, Carl remained its greatest booster and helped it to gain wider recognition and external support. He also wrote over the years nine articles and reviews for its pages. Occasionally he offered suggestions about subjects we might address or authors we might approach. We pursued some—though by no means all—of these suggestions, but Carl never pressured us. In fact, he always scrupulously respected the editorial independence and integrity of the Journal, something that was and remains critical to its success. He understood that if the Journal came to be viewed as a “house organ” for NED, its impact and its influence would be seriously diminished.

Carl also played a critical role in getting the NED Board to approve the establishment of the International Forum for Democratic Studies, which opened its offices in April 1994 and also began with significant private funding. A kind of in-house think tank initially built around the Journal, the Forum includes a program of research and conferences, resident fellows, and a resource center housing books and online information about democracy. At first, no funding was available to provide fellows with stipends. But in 2000, following the passing of NED’s key founder and first chairman Congressman Dante Fascell, Carl was able to secure congressional funding for the establishment of the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellows Program, which now hosts about eighteen fellows per year for five-month stays.

Carl has shown a special affection for the fellows, many of whom have been NED grantees, and he has spent quite a bit of time having one-on-one conversations with them. They typically remark on his keen interest both in their personal situations and in the politics of their home countries. They also are struck by his modesty—they are not used to receiving such attention from the CEO of a major institution. Carl wins their esteem in the same way he does that of other democratic activists from around the world—by being intensely interested in their concerns and treating them as colleagues and equals. As the space for civil society in many countries continues to shrink, the fellows program has increasingly become a short-term refuge for democratic activists suffering from persecution in their home countries. NED is planning to enhance its efforts to support persecuted democrats and to honor its outgoing president by creating a new Carl Gershman Fund for Democrats at Risk.

Carl also has taken the lead in launching several other initiatives within NED, including the World Movement for Democracy and the Center for International Media Assistance. Moreover, he devoted a good deal of effort to encouraging other countries to start or expand their own democracy-assistance activities. Britain’s Westminster Foundation, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, and the EU’s European Endowment for Democracy all entered the world with Carl’s help. In the last few years, he has taken the lead in drafting statements aimed at rallying democrats, notably the Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal, which gave birth to the International Coalition for Democratic Renewal, managed by the Prague-based Forum 2000. Remarkably, he achieved all this while overseeing the large-scale growth of NED’s grants program and the expansion of its staff from fewer than ten people in 1984 to about 265 today.

What were the keys to Carl’s extraordinary success in leading NED? First is an indefatigable energy, fueled by his unsurpassed enthusiasm for the cause of democracy. His passionate commitment was strongly appreciated by NED’s grantees and fellows. It also enabled Carl to win over congressional skeptics and to infuse the NED staff with an ethos of deep respect and admiration for those engaged in the struggle for democracy. Indeed, “struggle” is a word that Carl uses often—it is at the heart of how he sees the world. This is what most clearly distinguishes him from the cautious managers and career professionals who lead so many other Washington institutions.

Unlike many passionate advocates, however, Carl is blessed with sober judgment, strategic savvy, and a readiness to consult with others. He is a fount of ideas; unsurprisingly, these are not invariably sound or practical, and NED’s senior staff often found itself trying to discourage or significantly amend things Carl proposed to do. He usually listened to their advice, but when he did decide to push forward despite staff misgivings, the results often bore out his persistence. Carl also has shrewd political instincts, and he was able to deal with people of very different political orientations, including members of the NED Board. In short, his enthusiasms were tempered by prudence and moderation.

Finally, I would emphasize Carl’s intellectual gifts and passions. Although his commitment to liberal democracy has been unwavering, in every other respect he is quite open-minded. He reads widely and is interested in ideas and culture for their own sake. Moreover, he has the utmost respect for serious thinkers. This not only has broadened his view of the world, but also, I think, helped him to resist any sort of authoritarian temptation, either in his political views or in his professional life. In sum, Carl’s success in building and leading NED was a product of his rare combination of enthusiastic energy, prudent political judgment, and intellectual open-mindedness. He will be deeply missed at NED, and his departure will be a source of regret for all those who care about the fate of democracy in the world.


Copyright © 2021 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press