Benjamin Soskis, a historian of philanthropy at George Mason University, recently added to the ocean of digital ink that’s now been spilled in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president. Soskis’s piece is worth the read, not least for its heartfelt attempt to move beyond the sneering characteristic of the Trump-commentariat in order to actually suggest a constructive path forward.
Soskis rightly recognizes that the pathologies of organized philanthropy encouraged Trump’s supporters inasmuch as they confirmed for them the idea that “distant elites control the institutions and forces that shape their lives.” The important socio-cultural divide in this election was not based on gender (the proportion of women voters supporting Clinton in 2016 was roughly the same as supported Obama in 2012 while more Republican women came out to support Trump than Romney), age (both Democrats and Republicans lost support among young voters in 2016), or even race (Trump in fact gained Hispanic and African American voters against Romney’s 2012 numbers).
Rather, the defining divide in this election, and increasingly in America generally, is the urban-rural divide, which contains in it the "educated"-"noneducated" divide: In 2012 Romney and Obama basically split the rural vote 50-50, while in 2016, Trump captured some 62% of these same voters, a huge jump in terms of national polling. According to Pew, voters of whatever race with “some college or less” preferred Trump by a 9-point margin (again breaking from what was basically a 50-50 split in 2012). The entrenched coastal-centrism of Big Philanthropy only contributes to the felt marginalization of non-urban non-college-educated voters. This creates situations in which “populist antipathy toward philanthropy can fester,” and this neglect could be addressed in part by large foundations recommitting to local investment and programming.
But then Soskis goes on to argue that “Trump’s victory represents a civic failure of epic proportions.” This is true, I think, only in a narrow sense. It’s not true, as Soskis asserts, that this election constitutes a failure of electoral systems—Vox explains that Clinton lost in states that had no new voter restrictions, like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan and her losses in states that did have new laws that may have affected voting access were far too large to be chalked up to alleged suppression. Soskis also alleges 2016 represents a profound “failure of political engagement,” by which he means voter turnout, but this, too, is thin at best. It’s true that overall voter turnout was (barely) down from 2012, but “turnout still remained well above levels for most presidential election years from 1972 to 2000,” according to FiveThirtyEight.
Where Soskis is right that this election was a failure in that the journalistic apparatus which is supposed to overlay and structure our national discourse failed to accurately predict or even grasp the most important dynamics of this election season. It’s true also that Trump supporters generally failed to critically weigh his policy proposals, such as they were, while Trump opponents generally failed to recognize the appeal he had beyond and in spite of whatever racist or sexist language he too-often used. His supporters took him “seriously, but not literally” while the press and the left took him “literally, but not seriously,” as the Atlantic’s Salena Zito has very perceptively noted. These are indeed failures of civic discourse and mutual understanding.
Soskis suggests that philanthropies and foundations have a role to play in rehabilitating civic discourse, but he’s a bit fuzzy on the details. I think the best thing foundations could do now is invest in innovative programs geared towards civic discourse.
Though it’s depressing to admit it, American citizens at this point need to be taught how to talk to one another, especially about politics and policy, as this focus group featured recently on 60 Minutes illustrates all too vividly. For too many, politics has become a bloodsport, at once both all-encompassing and disconnected from their daily lives. They have opinions on lots of topics and strong feelings for or against particular politicians, but they can’t be bothered to account for those opinions or feelings. In a republic, however, you don’t get to blithely assert your own position and label those who disagree with you either stupid or corrupt. Our system of deliberation doesn’t work if we’re not willing to engage with one another.
And so the scandal of this election was not merely its outcome—Donald Trump is not Hitler. The scandal lay in the fact that that outcome came as such an utter surprise to half the country, and as such a desperate necessity to the other half. Programs that brought together partisan Democrats and Republicans to teach them the basics of dialogue, say, would help bridge the empathy gap currently wrecking our politics. It sounds childish, perhaps, but also necessary given the tone and quality of this electoral season.