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The Elephant in the Room for Social Change Non-profits

As we witness the introduction of GOP candidates making statements about gay marriage, immigration, climate science, health care and the government plot to invade Texas, I wonder how the leaders of non-profit organizations are reacting. No, not the political organizations who are non-profits in name only. I mean the true non-profits – foundations, health voluntaries, professional science societies and social issue advocates – who have been my clients for the last 30 years.

My bet is that they’re reacting with secret fear and resignation. Fear that a GOP presidential victory will deal a major setback to the causes they advance. Resignation that even a Democratic victory will simply mean more of the same near-paralysis in good national policy making.   But the real issue I want to address is the fact that these leaders may be reacting strongly, but reacting in silence.

If non-profit leaders say anything at all publically, it’s likely to be something expressing their despair over “polarization” of our national politics. Here’s where I take issue and call out such statements as less a description of the reality than a diplomatic rhetorical retreat.

It’s nothing new to say that our national politics is polarized. But there are two new things that must be said.

One is that “polarization” is inaccurate. It implies both conservatives and liberals have become more extreme. The fact is the right has become polarized and the left has, if it’s moved at all, has moved toward the center.  The governor of Texas has ordered the State Guard to monitor a Pentagon exercise to ensure there’s no secret plot to take over the state.   There is nothing remotely like this craziness happening on the left. Saying that Bernie Sanders calling for raising the national minimum raise is communism? Please.

We’re not polarized America.   We’re “polarized right” America.

Second, this is not some brief phase we’re going through. It’s structural. It’s a new long-term reality that’s evolved steadily over decades. It’s been driven by a host of inter-related trends and historical realities, including party realignment (e.g. the Republican south), gerrymandered redistricting, media fragmentation, over-weighting of rural state representation and the immense increase in individual, big-money contributions to politicians by individuals with extreme right agendas.

The polarized right is here to stay and it’s the elephant in the room (excuse the pun) of any discussion of social change: Extreme right-wing voters wield influence on national policy in a way that’s far and away disproportionate to their numbers. Any social issue that can be twisted to engage the far right is fair game. Paying doctors to have end-of-life discussions with patients and their families?   Death panels.

For organizations that see their missions as about advancing social progress – via a specific cause, set of related causes, or simply through informed decision-making – it’s time to reassess.

In this and posts to follow I’ll talk about how social change proponents need to better understand what they’re up against and fundamentally re-think their strategies for achieving their goals.

But my over-arching plea is this: Stop being so reasonable.


First, being reasonable (synonyms include being “above the fray,” “non-partisan” “seeking bi-partisan solutions”) assumes both sides begin with the same level respect for reason. Reason is our prized tool to reach the right answer. In the polarized right thinking, reason is a tool to reach a pre-determined conclusion. Witness Senator Inhofe throwing snowballs on the floor of the Senate. Adhering to this rule of engagement lends credibility to unreason. Not calling it out is not “being reasonable,” it’s abetting anti-reason.

Second, the hallmark of being reasonable is avoiding any appearance of partisanship.   When our two national political parties have such gaping asymmetries of interest in advancing your issue or priorities, appearing partisan is unavoidable. It’s something that should be explained, not avoided.

Third, being reasonable abets the media’s “false balance” bias in covering the issues we care about. As one prominent example, it wasn’t until very recently that the mainstream media was forced off its default false-balance approach to presenting the scientific reality of human-caused climate change as a “debate.”

In the posts that follow, I’ll talk about the alternative to being reasonable to advance social change in a polarized right America, but my overall message is this:

Stop being reasonable. Start defending reason.

One Response to "The Elephant in the Room for Social Change Non-profits"

  • Mike
    May 30, 2015 - 6:34 pm Reply

    To paraphrase Kenny Powers, “Stop not being reasonable.” I think you’re totally right Rob. But I guess that’s what happens when liberals are fundamentally more open to ‘other ways’ and less likely to blindly champion ‘my way’.

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