October 25, 2010; Source: The New Yorker | It is impossible to read an article by Nick Lemann and fail to learn something of use to the nonprofit sector, even if the article isn’t about nonprofits (Note: Lemann has written some great pieces more directly relevant to nonprofits and social movement organizations—for example, his phenomenal 1991 book, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. about the movement of African-Americans from the South to the North, his controversial 1994 New York Times article on “The Myth of Community Development,” and his recent article on education reform).

This New Yorker piece about Harry Reid’s effort to stave off defeat at the hands of Tea Party-backed Sharron Angle doesn’t mention nonprofits, except for the Tea Party-affiliated organizations that were instrumental in Angle’s capturing the Republican nomination. However, Lemann’s remarks in passing about the shifting national commitment to or blame of government for social problems are quite interesting. He offers the comments of three presidents:

  • Reagan at his first inaugural: “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”
  • Clinton at his second inaugural: “Government is not the problem, and government is not the solution.”
  • Obama this past year: “In our democracy, government is us.”

Is the contest between Reid and Angle really a contest over visions of the role of government in solving (or creating) social problems? If so, it is occurring against an incredibly odd backdrop. Nevada’s economy has reached Great Depression-kind of numbers. In Lemann’s words, “It has the highest foreclosure rate, the highest bankruptcy rate, proportionally the highest state budget deficit, and the highest state unemployment rate in the country.”

That’s a confluence of challenges to bedevil Nevada nonprofits as well as the Senate majority leader. Lemann points out another anomaly: The state’s largest employer? The MGM casino, which also pays 11 percent of the entire state government’s budget. What a weird social and political context to be examining the future of government—and implicitly the future of government and nonprofits! Read Lemann, and you’ll have no choice but to learn something.—Rick Cohen