News & Politics

3 Things to Know About DC’s New MacArthur Genius

Why Ian Bassin won the $800,000 prize.

Photograph courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Ian Bassin, co-founder and executive director of Protect Democracy, was named a 2023 MacArthur Fellow this week, commonly referred to as a “Genius Grant.” Here are a few things to know about this lawyer and democracy advocate. 

1. He was trained as an attorney.

Bassin graduated from Wesleyan University in 1998 and Yale Law School in 2006. He joined the Obama campaign’s policy team in 2007, then for the first three years of the Obama administration served as associate White House counsel, focusing on ethics and rules governing the executive branch. He has said his experience working at the highest level of government helps him understand the tools in place for individuals to stand up for democracy and accountability from officials. Bassin later worked as deputy counsel to Bill de Blasio while he was mayor of New York. He has also worked with non-profit organizations like GiveDirectly and advocacy groups like online activism community Avaaz.

2. He co-founded Protect Democracy in 2016.

The nonpartisan organization—which he started with fellow former White House lawyers—is an effort to defend the processes of democracy against authoritarian tactics. Bassin doesn’t see democracy as a guarantee in today’s world, but rather as a form of government that must be actively protected and sustained. Experts and advocates at Protect Democracy use a range of tools–litigation, technology, research, analysis–and the staff includes conservatives, moderates, and progressives. The organization’s areas of emphasis include free and fair elections, the rule of law, and the fight against disinformation. As part of this work, Bassin and his colleagues formed the National Task Force on Election Crises in 2019, and many of its recommendations made it into reforms to the Electoral Count Act in 2022.

3. He’s been involved with the January 6 response.

Protect Democracy also took several steps to promote accountability in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, including the creation of a guide to dealing with such situations based on analyses of previous attacks on democracy. The organization represented several Capitol Police officers in their lawsuits against Donald Trump. And the MacArthur Foundation credits Bassin’s work as having influenced the approach of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Hope Cartwright
Editorial Fellow