May 22, 2017; Vox
This fall, when Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, many people felt it as more than a political loss. They despaired or felt unsafe, as though they and their communities were being attacked and their fellow citizens only watched silently. It has been frustrating to watch as years of progress on a number of issues—women’s rights, climate protection, education, criminal justice reform—are stymied or reversed. To many progressives, it feels as the past has intruded upon the present and hidden holders of unpopular opinions have come out of the woodwork in greater numbers than were ever anticipated.
But is that what’s really happening? Vox recently collected polls on major issues from numerous sources, and found some surprising results. Nearly two-thirds of Americans agree that immigration helps the United States more than it hurts and oppose the much-touted wall on the Mexican border; more than half of Americans say they want a government that does more to solve problems and meet people’s needs rather than leaving it to businesses; nearly three-quarters of Americans see foreign trade as an economic opportunity, not a threat.
We are not at war with our fellow citizens; we agree on more than we think. This isn’t to say there aren’t people with extreme views or that issues like climate change, civil rights, and economic justice championed by liberals and progressives don’t still need constant attention. But if these numbers are anything to go by, advocacy works. Lots of these progressive-conservative ratios have flipped within the last 10 years. But what are we doing with that consensus? Given those figures, Democrats should have triumphed, but instead they were beaten in the great majority of races, resulting in a net gain of almost 1,000 federal and state offices for the GOP since 2008. If most Americans support foreign trade, how did we get a president who threatens to pull out of NATO and NAFTA?
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This is not the place (if there ever is one) to analyze the election, but to ask where the work of nonprofits is needed or supported and what shape it should take. If most Americans’ opinions on climate change and immigration align with the values of progressive civic society, how can we connect that to policies and policymakers who hold those views as well? Do we have a wider base of funding and support than we thought?
As Vox points out, part of the disparity between the views shown in the chart and those represented in government is due to gerrymandering; in several states, progressive candidates got more than half of the popular votes but less than half of the Congressional seats. Racially biased voting districts have been challenged in North Carolina and other places, but voting rights are not yet universal and districts reflect that bias.
Part of it has to do with the story we tell about our society and how people feel they fit into it. People understand themselves and their history through stories; white Americans are used to being the protagonists of America’s story, and that may be more important to voters than gun control or tax policy. In fact, as NPQ reported, racial identity played a major role in the results. Yuval Noah Harari wondered in The New Yorker if liberalism was at an end, saying, “As people lose faith in the system’s ability to fulfill their expectations, they become disillusioned even amid unprecedented peace and prosperity.” As pure liberalism proves itself inadequate to deal with huge problems like climate change or cybersecurity, as alternative histories brought to light by civil rights campaigns threaten the story white Americans grew up hearing about themselves, reactionary voting can result in representation that doesn’t align with (some) policy values. But perhaps there’s an opportunity here to bridge a divide.
The opportunity for nonprofits is to capitalize on and expand the areas of consensus. Most Americans support public intervention to help solve big problems—a decidedly illiberal view in economic terms, but one that is great news for the public sector. The story of nonprofit advocacy and civic values did not stop or swerve with the November election; there is reason to believe that the good work being done is having an effect. Now, as Vox’s Ruy Teixeira said, you may return to your regularly scheduled panic.—Erin Rubin