We have been chatting informally since Election Day with new and veteran lawmakers, philanthropic organizations, think tanks and longtime political operatives on both sides of the aisle. While unnerved by the election of a demagogic populist and queasy about its implications for democratic institutions, public discourse and America’s place in the world, no one in the few dozen we have spoken with at length is throwing up his or her hands, heading for the backwoods or declaring that the United States is finished. From all of these voices some major themes emerged:
1. Right and left must end their sworn allegiance to economic determinism. Democrats insisted that economic progress would induce workers to vote for a third Obama term. Both Democrats and Republicans thought that employed, better-educated Americans outside the Rust Belt would abandon Donald Trump in droves; they didn’t. Liberals, conservatives and especially libertarians missed a truism: People are not always rational and are not purely economic beings. They look for a sense of community, status, recognition and a host of intangible rewards. A few smart voices, such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, have recognized that “an acute crisis has been rolling through working-class America.” He explains:
There is indeed a gap in this country, and it has now led to a political revolution, a significant realignment in American politics. But the relevant gap wasn’t income. It was dignity. … What precisely did Mr. Trump offer these voters? Snake oil, say critics. Most economists predicted that policies built on Mr. Trump’s anti-immigration and antitrade rhetoric would hardly help unemployed, working-class people in places like Kentucky and West Virginia. But where these experts heard incoherent specifics, many voters heard a consistent deeper theme: A promise to work hard at restoring left-behind Americans’ dignity by bringing back jobs and striking back at the cultural elites who disdain them.
We can reject Trump’s message of xenophobia, sexism and racism and the urge from populists to infantilize white, working-class voters as helpless victims. We are left, however, with an acute need to cultivate a sense of belonging — to nation, community and shared values.
2. Government likely won’t get better, so look elsewhere. Trump might be crazy like a fox — or he might be crazy and completely incapable of governance. Nevertheless, he presents us with the opportunity not only to rebalance power between the executive and legislative branches and between the federal and state governments, but between the public and private sector. The latter includes philanthropy, civil society and business. We all have looked too frequently to the government for fixes and mandates; now is the time to look to voluntary efforts, persuasion and advocacy aimed directly at business. (One silver lining to Trump’s election: An outpouring of donations and volunteer offers to charitable and public advocacy groups.)
Two items caught our attention. First, Ikea announced it “will now offer up to four months paid parental leave to its U.S. workers of all genders, whether they’re salaried or hourly — and irrespective of whether they’re becoming parents via birth, adoption, or fostering. The move, announced on Tuesday, sets IKEA apart from its peers in the U.S. retail sector.” Second, the Human Rights Campaign announced Monday:
The nation’s major companies and law firms are advancing in record numbers vital policies and practices to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) workers around the world, according to the 2017 Corporate Equality Index released. . . . The Corporate Equality Index (CEI), launched in 2002 to assess LGBT-inclusive policies and practices at Fortune 500 companies, also highlights how corporate leaders are increasingly stepping up to play a leading role in opposing anti-equality legislation — from statehouses to the U.S. Capitol. Through their actions, taken as LGBTQ workers and customers have been facing a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills in state legislatures across the country, business leaders are building on their longstanding commitment to expanding workplace equality for LGBTQ people.
This year, a record-breaking 517 businesses earned the CEI’s top score of 100, up from 407 last year. That’s a single-year increase of more than 25 percent … Leadership demonstrated by these businesses, including speaking out against discriminatory laws like North Carolina’s HB2, reflect more than a decade of work inside these companies to expand LGBT, and particularly transgender, workplace equality.
All this was accomplished without extortion or gifts from the president-elect. Philanthropic groups, think-tank researchers, advocacy groups, labor and other non-government actors can stimulate business leaders’ enlightened self-interest. Certainly there is a role for government and for compulsory rules, but so long as government remains dysfunctional, why not go directly to the source (e.g. all the Fortune 500 companies)? Truth be told, the worse government becomes, the more responsibility the private sector will need to assume for education, R&D and even promoting social cohesion. It’s hard to do business when your city is racked by racial tension, your employees cannot afford to buy their employers’ own products or populist fury is demanding we throw up trade barriers and stem the tide of immigration.
3. We need massive civic education. If we learned anything in the 2016 election, it is that a slick charismatic figure can trash the First Amendment, threaten all sorts of unconstitutional actions, incite violence and appeal to naked prejudice with nary a peep from the majority of voters. In fact, the more disrespectful of our democratic institutions and civil liberties Trump became, the louder they cheered. Part of this can be written off as appalling hypocrisy from “constitutional conservatives” and faith-based leaders, but Trump capitalized on a vast wasteland of civic ignorance.
There is a felt need for civic education not only in the schools but also for adults. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) hit the nail on the head at a foreign-policy forum recently when he reminded the audience that “America was an idea that was about something much bigger than what tribe you come from. … Government is a means to an end. And our government is a smaller issue than the American idea that is that set of things and truth claims that we believe about human dignity that unite us. And, right now, we have not been having that conversation for 50 years.” (As an example, he pointed out that 41 percent of people younger than 35 told pollsters that “the First Amendment is dangerous because you might say things with your freedom of speech that hurt somebody else’s feelings. Actually, that’s the whole point of America. That we can say things that hurt each other’s feelings, because we believe so much in the dignity of the other person that we want to persuade them or be persuaded by them.”)
Perhaps if he does not get the secretary of state gig, Mitt Romney can lead a massive public campaign, organize local Constitution clubs, inspire think tanks and cajole lawyers and courts to teach fellow citizens about America’s foundational values — respect for the rule of law, equality before the law, the right of self-determination and expression, etc.
4. The sane center has to be supported. If the left goes the way of democratic socialists and the right in the direction of European national front parties, we are going to need a coalition from center-left to center-right to support democratic norms and reasoned proposals for education, criminal justice and immigration reform. That can be fostered by supporting problem-solvers in both parties (as No Labels does), joint policy initiatives between think tanks from different ideological perspectives (e.g. the Brookings-AEI report on poverty) and, where possible, bipartisan legislative action (e.g. on combating opioid abuse and human trafficking).
Would it have been better to elect a prepared, stable and intellectually coherent president? Sure, but in the meantime, there is plenty of good work to be done.