Empire State

Now comes the post-election dash of cold water. President Barack Obama fended off a challenge from Mitt Romney, but the challenges for the nonprofit sector remain and will have to be encountered in rapid fashion in the lame duck Congress, and right after Obama’s second-term inauguration. Name the issues: sequestration; tax reform; a recession that is hardly over and an economy that, pardon us, is hardly on an upswing, despite the pundits and prognosticators; climate change; poverty.

Can this nation get its act together after four years of political gridlock exemplified by a chaotic budgetary process, a watered down, jury-rigged healthcare reform bill, and, despite a last minute feint toward the DREAM Act, no movement on comprehensive immigration reform? Isn’t it incumbent on the nonprofit sector, given its crucial role in democratic governance, to afford voice to communities that might not make it through to the political parties (except as occasional props) and to step to the plate with a broad agenda about democracy rather than an agenda focused narrowly on nonprofit-specific issues (charitable deduction vs. overall tax reform, funding for nonprofits vs. domestic discretionary spending, etc.)?

The sinking Republican Party brand

Poor Steve Schmidt, the former senior strategist for John McCain’s presidential campaign, who had to bear the ignominy of having supported the selection of Sarah Palin as the Arizonan’s running mate. On “Morning Joe,” he and Joe Scarborough lamented the Republicans’ selections of “loons” as candidates—in places like Missouri (Todd Akin), Indiana (Richard Mourdock), and Connecticut (WWE spouse Linda McMahon), replicating the spectacle of such candidates as the ex-witch Christine O’Donnell (Delaware) and Sharron Angle (Nevada)—practically giving away elections that were all but winnable. Not only did the party unseat sitting Republicans, like Richard Lugar, who were able to work across the aisle for legislative progress, they defeated sane Republican candidates like Delaware governor Mike Castle and, twice, in Connecticut, such electable and admired Republican leaders as former Congressman Rob Simmons in 2010 and former Congressman Chris Shays this year.

Don’t think that this didn’t extend to the presidential level. Romney might have been a decent Republican candidate had he said what he believed and stuck to what one would have thought he would stress to be his principles and businesslike approach to governing. But the Republican primaries pitted him against the likes of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain, among others—none of them serious candidates for a general election, and all pushing Romney to play to an extreme right-wing base that guaranteed he could never recover, especially with respect to people of color.

These candidates are sinking the political brand of the Republican Party, at least at the national level. Imagine the problem of poor Speaker John Boehner, who has to negotiate with a reelected Obama, who won every battleground state, and Senate Leader Harry Reid, whose majority in the Senate increased as Democrats like Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly—who were all but guaranteed to lose—found themselves winning due to opposition from the “loons.”

Boehner and his more rational colleagues might benefit from eschewing the loons and trying to rebuild a Republican Party that, whether or not one disagrees with their politics, is much better reflected by the likes of Lugar and McCain. That means standing up to the hopefully discredited Republican sub-brand, the Tea Party. One would think the Tea Party’s power within the Republican Party might get a little pushback in light of this election. Enough of the Tea Party-ish candidates lost to send a message to the Republican leadership that the Tea Party’s time is over. In addition to Mourdock, Akin, and McMahon, other Tea Party favorites who bit the dust included Senate candidates Connie Mack (FL), George Allen (GA), Denny Rehberg (MT), Josh Mandel (OH), and Rick Berg (ND). The telling Tea Party losses at the House level include Frank Guinta, who lost his House seat to Carol Shea-Porter, in New Hampshire; Nan Hayworth, who lost her New York congressional seat to Sean Patrick Maloney; Joe Walsh, who was decisively beaten by Tammy Duckworth, in Illinois; and, most notably, the intemperate Allen West, in Florida.

The day of the Tea Party has come and gone. It’s time for Republicans who have some sense of governing as something other than obstructionism to shuck the legacy of the Tea Party and get back to being sensible partners, albeit minority ones, trying to guide this nation through a continuing economic morass. That is a nonpartisan task for the nonprofit sector: helping Republicans and their Democratic counterparts get down to the business of governing rather than engaging in trench warfare.

Demographic and geographic divides

In his gracious and articulate concession speech, Mitt Romney called for an end to partisan bickering and asked the nation to pray for President Obama’s success. But the day after the election revealed some serious divides in this country that appear to have deepened.

One is geographic. Romney carried a large number of states—almost all the Mountain states and all the states of the old Confederacy—while Obama carried the West Coast, the Northeast, and the Midwest rustbelt. The deepening red/blue divide looks like a map of two nations. Consider what happened at state-level elections, outside of the klieg lights of national political punditry. With some room for recounts and challenges, it appears that both houses of 27 state legislatures are controlled by Republicans, 19 by Democrats, and only three split between Republicans and Democrats. For most of the states, the parties in control deepened their control. Although Republicans managed to win back control of the Wisconsin Senate (that they had lost in the Scott Walker recall brouhaha), Democratic gains reflected some national patterns, such as Democrats retaking both legislative houses in Minnesota and winning back legislative houses in Oregon, Colorado, New York, and New Hampshire. Republicans, however, took both houses in Arkansas, solidifying again the all-Republican confederacy map.

Doesn’t this look like a house divided that cannot stand? If one has any sense of American history, it is a troubling geographic picture.

At the same time, commentators have talked about the demographic bomb that exploded on the Republican Party on November 6. Republicans were crushed by a huge deficit in the Latino vote, and found more African Americans voting—and voting against them—than even in 2008, despite predictions that people of color were less enthused by Obama the second time around. Do Republicans get the fact that by writing off people of color they have written themselves off in America’s cities? Do Republicans understand that their advocacy of clearly racially motivated voter ID laws get interpreted by people of color as the Republicans saying that they have no interest in cultivating people who, by the middle of this century, will be the dominant population in the United States, and without a doubt, are already the dominant population of new young voters each year going forward?  

You don’t write off tens of millions of Americans without repercussions, but the issue is more than just the future of the dwindling Republican brand. Allen West and Marco Rubio do not equal a Republican statement to people of color. Policies calling for voter ID laws and “self-deportation,” and punitive efforts against young undocumented immigrants, resonate. At the same time, nonprofits have to be the societal bridge that responds to the needs of people of color who, regardless of the Democratic victory nationally, are on the losing side of the economic situation. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate of African Americans is twice that of whites, and has increased rather than decreased in the past few months. Two out of every five young African Americans between the ages of 16 and 19 are unemployed, again twice the rate of young whites. The Census Bureau’s most recent income and poverty numbers put median income in 2011 for African-American households at $32,229 compared to $38,624 for Latino households and $55,413 for non-Latino white households. For people living below the federal poverty level, the rates were 9.8 percent for non-Latino whites, 25.3 percent for Latinos, and 27.6 percent for African Americans. Given how low the official poverty income is ($23,050 for a family of four), if you consider the percentage of people living below 150 percent of the poverty level, it is 17.5 percent for non-Latino whites, but 40.4 percent for African Americans and 41.5 percent for Latinos.

A political demographic shift has relegated Republicans to a regionally concentrated and shrinking population, but a demographic time bomb on economic inequality based on race and ethnicity faces our government, no matter who sits in the White House or presides over the U.S. House of Representatives. Under these circumstances, a rising tide may lift all boats, but the disparities won’t be overcome. The need is for strategies of targeted universalism that seem to require the intermediation of the nonprofit sector to counter the defensive and threatened reactions all but guaranteed to emanate from the numerical “losers” in this demographic shift.

Speaking truth about critical issues

The oxymoronic “silence is deafening” applied to the presidential campaign. Do you remember the vigorous debate of the candidates concerning sequestration and the impending fiscal cliff? No? That’s because they both steered away from the topic, with neither seeming willing to say anything. Or perhaps they had nothing to say. Remember the high-level discussion of climate change, as the two candidates discussed their various strategies for expanding the production of carbon-based fuels? No? That’s because they couldn’t utter the words “climate change” or “global warming”—Romney because a significant wing of his political party thinks climate change is a hoax or worse; Obama because he didn’t want to alienate “clean coal” constituencies in Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, and elsewhere. Remember the exchanges on poverty and the candidates’ references to competing theories of poverty reduction by top economists such as Jeffrey Sachs (The End of Poverty), George Gilder and Steve Forbes (Wealth and Poverty), Peter Edelman (So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America), and Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed: On [Not] Getting By in America), just to name a few of the important tracts that all our nation’s leaders are probably familiar with? No? Because there weren’t any, as the candidates, egged on by cable TV pundits of the left and right, talked about the middle class ad nauseum and failed to discuss the needs of over 46 million people living not in the middle class, or even on the margins of the middle class, but below the federal poverty level.  

Bridgespan’s Daniel Stid suggests that for Republicans and Democrats, or at least for the Obama and Romney candidacies, there were areas of fundamental agreement on economic issues, even if they couldn’t speak much to the subject based on their political calculus:

  • “Much of what government has been doing to address chronic social problems isn’t working, and the spending that has gone into these ineffective programs represents a waste of taxpayer dollars;
  • Rather than more top-down solutions driven by the federal government, policy and funding need to be fundamentally recast to rely more on promising community-based programs and providers;
  • The litmus test of a policy is not the inputs (program design or funding levels) but instead the outcomes achieved for people, families, and communities, i.e., whether the targeted social problems are being solved.”

Stid may be right, but the political leaders have to begin talking about the issues and confronting them directly. These issues are squarely implanted in the upcoming battles over sequestration and tax reform. Is the nonprofit sector going to participate fully or narrowly? Will it be forward thinking or defensive and reactive? Will it remember, as a correspondent from Root Cause tweeted us, that the nonprofit sector “stands for participation in democratic governance of this nation” and, therefore, logically should be bringing to the table the needs and concerns of Americans usually cut out of the political process?

Fundamentally, the nation’s political leaders—at least those who aren’t loons or lunatics—have to be educated about what nonprofits do and what they contribute to society. Does that sound basic? Sure it does. But remember that during this election, billions of dollars flowed through organizations described by the press and by politicians themselves as “nonprofits”—501(c)(4) social welfare organizations and Political Action Committees—to fund an incessant cacophony of political ads, well over four-fifths of them negative, and attack ads, the vast majority of them overtly unedifying if not seriously dumbing down the electoral process, and leading Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution to conclude, “Seldom has so much been spent for so little”.  

Maybe it is a matter of getting candidates who actually know something about the nonprofit sector from tangible experience to speak up about the real contours of the nonprofit sector, like the six of the “nonprofit eight” endorsed by CForward who won their campaigns this election cycle (especially Kay Bolz, of Nebraska, Ellie Hill, of Montana, and former Michigan Nonprofit Association director Sam Singh, who brought top-flight nonprofit expertise to their races), or candidates like Democrat Martin Heinrich, who beat Heather Wilson for the open Senate seat in New Mexico and who, as Ben Duda reminds us, is the first AmeriCorps alum to reach the U.S. Senate.  

In a way, the gig is up. It’s no longer sufficient for the nonprofit sector to sidestep critical societal issues of race, campaign finance, climate change, and the fiscal cliff for fear that in speaking out on them they will alienate arenas of political support they need to cultivate and protect. It’s equally no longer tolerable for our nation’s political leaders to be allowed the leeway to feed the nation bromides without coming to grips with the real issues at hand. And it is untenable for the leaders in Washington and in the state capitals to continue down a path of intransigence and obstructionism that makes the nation appear virtually ungovernable. The nonprofit sector has a concrete role to play in telling politicians to get their acts together, to start speaking to the real issues of the day, and to act as if being elected to government means having to engage in the process of governing.