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Changing the Political Climate

April 06, 2017

Us-politics_climateThe election of Donald Trump, together with Republican control of the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and most statehouses, is both a reflection of and serves to underscore the dramatically altered political climate in America. Many nonprofit and philanthropic leaders are scrambling to figure out how they can best operate in this new environment. Too few of them are thinking about how they might work to change it.

A lot of people would like to see it change. We know that a significant majority of Americans are stressed by the outcome of the election and that fully two-thirds are deeply concerned about what it will mean for the nonprofit sector and the nation. That presents an opportunity for charities and foundations. Instead of trying to make do, nonprofit leaders should try to make change.

Make no mistake: efforts designed to alter the context for the administration's policy agenda will find a sizeable and receptive audience. Sixty percent of Americans are embarrassed by the past actions and rhetoric of the president and do not feel he shares their values; similar percentages feel he is neither temperamentally suited for the job nor honest and that his actions are dividing the country. Given these concerns, an outpouring of donations and willing volunteers are finding their way to charities either directly affected by the Trump agenda or working to resist it.

The question now for many nonprofits is how will they deploy the new support they are receiving. Will it be used to ramp up frontline services made necessary by cutbacks in government funding and regulations? Will they allocate it to policy advocacy and organizing aimed at directly contesting the Trump and Republican agendas? Will they also use it help fuel initiatives aimed at changing the political climate in ways that renders these other activities less necessary?

As most of us have read or heard, the dramatic shift in the political landscape is the result of many factors. John Zogby, a leading Democratic pollster, observed during the presidential campaign that the middle class in America understands in a visceral way that it has been losing ground both in terms of real wages and social status, including what for many had been a comfortable and comforting sense of being a member of the demographic majority. Zogby, presaging what has now become conventional wisdom, also notes that many Americans feel their country is no longer respected, able to effectively advance its interests, or care for its own.

Elsewhere, political scientist Kathy Cramer has found it's not just about America or American interests — people in the heartland feel they themselves are disrespected by coastal "elites" and big-city dwellers, who as often as not ignore or belittle their identities and values.

Many Trump voters believe they have been cheated by globalization and that any control they had over their own lives, always tenuous, has been hijacked; that public resources that might have benefited them in the past have been redirected to help others; and that they are dismissed as "rednecks" and "racists" when they protest or demur. They feel they have not been getting their fair share of power, money, and respect.

It is these Americans who are responsible for changing the political climate, for electing a president and majorities in both branches of Congress that seem determined to take the country in a direction that scares millions of their fellow citizens -- and whose actions have polarized the nation in ways not seen in half a century.

Indeed, many of us continue to argue about the election with friends, family, and co-workers, while fully two-thirds of those who disapprove of Trump's job performance can't understand why or how anyone would support him. Conversely, about half of Trump's supporters say they can understand why so many other Americans don't support the president.

All of this presents a problem for the nation and a challenge to nonprofit organizations and philanthropy. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof points out, it is unlikely that most of the sixty-three million people who voted for Trump are going to change their views. But if they are approached respectfully, some — especially among the large number who understand why so many Americans are adamantly opposed to the Trump agenda — might be willing to modify their political attitudes on some issues and vote differently the next time.

Similarly, while it is difficult for many to stop blaming and vilifying Trump voters, those opposed to the Trump and Republican agenda must discard the notion that almost half of all who voted are deplorable, homophobic, racist, and misogynist. Although there are plenty of people in America who hold such views, it is neither accurate nor helpful to stigmatize with a broad brush all those who are happy with the way the election turned out.

And while it is important that individuals and charities stand up to protest new policies and actions of the federal and many state governments, it is nonprofit organizations that are in the best position to begin to change the current political climate that has enabled them.

That's because charities are more trusted than government and because Americans have more confidence in them than they have in any other sector. Many nonprofits, large and small, national and local, have great credibility as honest brokers dedicated to addressing the concerns of working people and others, be it early childhood education, job training, health care, rural development, the environment, food and drug safety, or assisting the elderly and disabled.

With sufficient philanthropic support for sensitively developed and efficiently operated outreach programs, charities can engage Americans — including Trump voters — in ways that honor what is best in all of us while building on the concerns we all share. And they can help more people understand that they are not being well-served by the administration or the new political climate.

There's no shortage of work to be done. As millions of Americans better understand the jeopardy they are in from Republican vows to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something deeply unpopular, as they consider the president's "skinny" budget proposal and its call for the termination of dozens of programs important to them (and of critical concern to nonprofits), as they continue to worry about the threat of unchecked climate change — and Republican attempts to deny that any such threat exists — in all those areas, the potential for a respectful and constructive dialogue grows. It is up to charities to foster and capitalize on that potential.

While it is appropriate (despite suggestions to the contrary from the administration) that charities and foundations continue to be barred from directly supporting candidates for electoral office, it would be an abdication of our responsibility if we failed to do something about our polarized political climate. Acting boldly and creatively at this moment is in our best interest — and in the national interest.

Headshot_mark_rosenmanMark Rosenman is a professor emeritus at the Union Institute & University. To read more of Rosenman's commentary, click here.

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