An important study from the MacArthur Foundation shows that American voters believe that “solutions” to “problems” are possible. No, really, that’s the whole thing: Solutions Are Possible: Post-Election Poll Indicates. 92% of Americans agree!
Neither the solutions nor the problems are defined at all, leading me to conclude that this may be the single most pointless poll that a philanthropy has ever paid tax-free money for (though I will gladly take nominations for others at firstname.lastname@example.org). Previously I believed this title belonged to an October finding from Demos which showed that we’d all really like it if college tuition was more affordable. In my own informal poll using the same language, similar percentages agreed that they’d like it if Filet Mignon, luxury vehicles, and shredded cheeses were more affordable. But this MacArthur poll takes the cake for the surprise conclusion: ordinary people mostly believe that solutions of some sort are somewhat likely to exist for whatever they believe to be the most important problems facing our nation or maybe our world too.
At first I thought to myself that the results were something that would come out of the mouth of Michael Scott on The Office, but then I recalled a more precise analog. The MacArthur poll would have fit perfectly in an obscure series of digital shorts produced by A&E a few years ago about a fictional philanthropy called the Woodbine Foundation. The videos primarily satirized the disconnect between the utterly vacuous thinking of a large philanthropy with its inflated sense of self-importance. The employees of the Woodbine Foundation speak only in clichés and appear to know next to nothing about the issues they address, yet at the same time they believe that their organization—through their own brain power, evidenced by graduate degrees from prestigious universities—will solve enormous national and global issues in a short time frame. As their mock promotional video puts it, “The Woodbine Foundation: where the answers to problems…are solutions.” If that doesn’t sound clear enough, the Woodbine Foundation has a very simply formula to guide their activities: Possibility + Progress + Sound Solutional Thinking = Results & Solutions.
What MacArthur hopes to get out of their Woodbine-esque effort to manufacture democratic consensus for a laughably generic sense of optimism I am not quite sure, but the survey did ask one other non-demographic question. It asked “Among the following, which do you feel is most needed to help solve the most pressing problems facing our nation and the world?” Top results among the seven options were “increased collaboration among political leaders” at 41%, followed by “greater compassion” and “higher quality education” at 17%. So we can now safely rank the popularity of various abstract nouns when completely devoid of content or context. “Solutions” are more popular than “collaboration,” which are both noticeably more popular than “compassion” and “education.” So if you work at a nonprofit or foundation and you were considering solving our global problems with compassion and education, you might want to refocus on solutions and collaboration instead, to get greater public support for your initiatives. Good luck establishing your core competency in solutional thinking.
Apparently without any sense of irony, one of the options to pick from on that final question was “More focused philanthropy,” which came in dead last at 3% of all respondents. The MacArthur Foundation may take comfort in knowing, then, that few of the nation’s citizens are overly concerned about their output of totally meaningless data.