Changing The Political Climate

For months, activists, especially nonprofit and philanthropic leaders have been worrying about how they can best operate in the Trump era, given Republican control of the presidency, Senate, House and most state governments – a dynamic that both reflects and advances a dramatically altered American political climate. But it’s been more than five months since the election and still too few people are talking about to change that political climate itself.

And a lot of people would like to see it changed. We know that a significant majority of Americans are feeling stress about this new political reality and that fully two-thirds of people feel deep concern about where it is taking our nation. That presents an opportunity for charities and foundations – instead of trying to make do, nonprofit leaders should indeed try to make change.

Work toward altering the political climate will find a sizable and immediately receptive audience. Nearly 60 percent of Americans are embarrassed by President Trump and do not feel that he shares our values; similar percentages feel that he is neither level-headed nor honest and that he is dividing the country. In the face of these profound concerns, more and more donations and increased volunteering are being directed to charities.

The question presented by such largesse is how nonprofit leaders will deploy that new support. Will it be used to provide more services in the face of cutbacks in government resources and regulations, will it be allocated to policy advocacy and organizing to directly fight Trump and the Republican hegemony, or will it also help fuel work to change the political climate that makes these other activities necessary. And they certainly are necessary — but they are not sufficient.

The dramatic shift in our political climate came about as the result of a number of factors made evident in the recent election. As a leading Democratic pollster, John Zogby, observed during the campaigns, the middle class knows in a very visceral way that it has been losing ground both in terms of real wages and personal status in society, including what for many had always been a comfortable and comforting sense of being in the demographic majority. Mr. Zogby, presaging what has now become the prevailing analysis, also notes that people feel that America itself is no longer respected, no longer able to easily assert its will in the world or to take care of its own.

But political scientist Kathy Cramer has found that it’s not just about the country – people in the American heartland feel that they themselves are personally disrespected. They feel “elites” and big city dwellers tread on their identities and values, on their very perceptions and sense of reality.

Many Trump voters believe that they have been cheated, that their individual power over their own lives and larger decisions have been denied, that resources are taken from them and directed to others, and that they are regarded as “redneck racists” when they demur. They feel that they have not been getting their fair share of power, money, and respect.

It is these people – and others – who have changed our political climate, who have elected a president, congress and state officials who are taking the nation in a direction that appalls the majority of Americans. And more so than in previous elections, the campaigns and the subsequent actions of elected officials have polarized our nation in truly extreme ways.

Almost half of Americans continue to fight about the election with friends, family and coworkers, and fully two-thirds of those who disapprove of Trump’s job performance can’t understand why anyone would support him. Conversely, about half of Trump supports say they can understand why many others don’t.

All of these strong feelings and behaviors represent a problem for the nation and a challenge to nonprofit organizations and philanthropy, although they also clearly indicate an encouraging possibility for changing the political climate. As Nicholas Kristof points out, it is unlikely that most of the sixty-three million people who voted for Trump are going to experience a radical transformation, but if they are approached in a reasonable and respectful way, some – especially among the half who understand why there is opposition – might modify their political attitudes and behavior; they might vote differently next time.

It is difficult for many to stop blaming and vilifying Trump voters. To move forward, however, those in the opposition must discard the notion that almost half of all voters are deplorable homophobic racist misogynists. While certainly such people did and do support what is happening politically, it is neither accurate nor helpful to so stigmatize all of those who were and are happy with electoral outcomes.

When attacked assertively with counter-arguments, being called racist for instance, most people tend to dig in deeper and hold positions more resolutely. Although it is essential that protest movements and established charities themselves increasingly resist the abhorrent policies and actions of the US and state governments – as well as try to help those being hurt by them, nonprofit organizations alone hold the real potential to begin to alter the very political climate in which we live.

Charities are more trusted than government and about two-thirds of Americans have significant confidence in them. Many nonprofit organizations have established great credibility as honest and caring agencies working on concerns of the local populace, be it early childhood education, job training, healthcare, animal cruelty, rural development, arts and culture, the elderly and disability, the environment, food and drug safety, and on and on.

With sufficient philanthropic support for sensitively developed and critically operated outreach programs, these charities can engage people – including Trump voters – in ways which honor them and build on the concerns shared with nonprofit organizations. They can help people understand that they are not being well-served in this new political climate.

People’s concerns have been growing and are likely to continue to do so with even greater speed, depth and breadth as new government policies are promoted. For instance, once they understood their jeopardy from the president’s desperate efforts to replace Obamacare (Affordable Care Act) with Trumpcare (American Health Care Act) at any cost, only 17 percent of Americans supported it. The more people will learn in the coming weeks about the president’s budget and his slashing and termination of federal programs important to them – even to his ardent and other supporters, as well as to most of charities – as they think about the real costs of climate change and the Trump administration’s denial, the possibility for a respectful, productive and transforming dialogue grows. And it is up to charities to realize that potential.

While it is fully appropriate, in spite of President Trump’s efforts, that charities and foundations continue to be barred from electoral campaigns, is would be an abdication of their responsibility if they failed to try to change our current polarized and destructive political climate. It is in the national interest and in their own for nonprofit organizations to act creatively and boldly to save the common good.

Versions of this piece also appear in The Chronicle of Philanthropy and PhilanTopic.