The Trumpian crisis for civil society – and an opportunity

In March last year New York Times opinion writer David Brooks argued that the Republican Party was at a Kuhnian “model crisis” moment in a historical transition from the Reagan orthodoxy to something new that would be born out of the Trumpian disruption. He noted that Trump would not determine what would emerge because, “Trump has no actual ideas or policies. There is no army of Trumpists out there to carry on his legacy. He will almost certainly go down to a devastating defeat, either in the general election or — God help us — as the worst president in American history”.

It might be straining it, but let’s push Brooks’ argument further to apply beyond the Republican Party to our entire domain of civil society and philanthropy. As Lucy Bernholz so well chronicles, we are part way along a transition from an analogue model to a digital one, and we are playing catch up on hugely significant issues relating to privacy and, as CIVICUS has shown in its annual global review of civil society,  a closing in of hallowed freedoms of democratic self-expression and association. We don’t know yet what the emerging social economy will look like, but we are past the point of no return. We know the old model is broken and we have no choice but to press on to make the new one.

It is the nature of this time of the broken model that, as Brooks noted, “…you get a proliferation of competing approaches, a willingness to try anything. People ask different questions, speak a different language, congregate around a new paradigm that is incommensurate with the last”.

I want to venture a prescription that I hope will win through to become a norm of the new social economy. In the broken model we have today we see a pattern of growth that breeds inequality and alienation. We can see a fundamental break in trust between the leaders and the governed. If you are not convinced of this just listen to Trump’s inaugural address. The center is not holding. We can see everywhere the anti-democratic populist reactions that this produces, with Trump only being the most recent: Chavismo in Venezuela (an early warning case now in final implosion), Dutarte in the Philippines, Putin in Russia, Zuma in South Africa, Brexit, the rejection of the Colombian Peace Treaty. It is the idea of leaders acting in general public good  that has been discredited. The people are hurting, and in their pain they have been conned into putting their faith in demagogues. Left in the cold, they are huddling around the most obvious source of heat.

Those who have been conned will figure it out soon enough. But if we in civil society want to be with them when they do then we need to listen, really listen.

“Really listen” means responding to them in ways that they find satisfactory. Our social change and philanthropy organizations need to model a different, more inclusive and responsive way of working. We need ways of working that double down on listening. We need to get extreme to do this. We need to aspire to inspire those we seek to help. We need to reach a point with those we help where they say, “hey, my voice actually matters to this organization”.

To translate this into management language, we need survey response rates of more that 66 percent, with upwards of 80 percent giving 9’s or 10’s (and 0 percent give below a 7) to the Voice question – “How likely is it the organization will respond satisfactorily to your feedback?”

Photo by Kyknoord

I’ve seen this, though rarely. In 1983 my job at the Ford Foundation was to fund the liberation struggle in South Africa. The largest part of our work focussed on human rights, including support for the human rights lawyers that advised the black trade union movement, the most powerful anti-apartheid force in the country. Most of these lawyers were white, which meant they had grown up with all the privileges that their clients were denied, and were fighting for. Non-racialism was the dominant ideology of the struggle, but, taking my cues from Black Consciousness movement leaders, I was concerned that official non-racialism masked underlying tensions. I wanted to make sure that our grants for worker rights to white lawyers were genuinely accountable to trade union leadership. So I asked them.

I will never forget the first time I asked. I did not get a direct answer. Rather, the three leaders I was meeting with took turns telling stories about what these lawyers had done. As they did, their eyes shone and they laughed remembering the audacity and cunning that the lawyers had shown. They included failures in the stories, but emphasized that failed moves had been thoroughly discussed beforehand. They made it clear to me that these lawyers were very much at the heart of their most important deliberations, and that what the lawyers did was always “under democratic leadership”.

As we move forward to tackle the huge societal problems of poverty and environmental abuse, we will need to win that kind of testimony from those we mean to help. And win it not in the exceptional cases, but as the new norm.

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