It’s been fascinating to follow the country’s roller-coaster political mood over the last two years. After the Obama election, nonprofit observers were predicting a new era of volunteerism and civic activism; some even thought it would bring back a collective spirit not experienced since the presidency of John F. Kennedy. But along came the Great Recession and the country seems to be moving to the right, reacting against many of the government’s actions, precisely the opposite of what happened during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Gerald Seib recently wrote about this phenomenon in the Wall Street Journal. He thinks it’s a little too early to draw any conclusions about whether there is a political shift. I personally think the 2008 election turned out to be more about Obama than about resolving some of the more contentious issue dividing our society. We remain a deeply divided society—split 50-50 on most issues. This division would suggest that perhaps the Democrats misjudged their 2008 mandate.
But Seib has another explanation for today’s trends:
It may be that the movement being seen now is less an ideological statement by Americans and more a reflection of a broad loss of confidence in big institutions, including the government.
If that’s so, the 2010 election is best viewed as an “I over E election—insurgent over establishment,” says Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who co-directs the Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey. “We are becoming angrier, and much of this anger is against the establishment—that is government, business, and those ripping off the system.” …
The more striking movement in public opinion over time has been the erosion of confidence in the country’s big institutions, starting with but not limited to the government. Twenty years ago, 42% of Americans said they trusted the government to do what was right just about always or most of the time. By this month, in the Journal/NBC News poll, that number was down to 25%.
A stunning 31% said they “almost never” trust the government to do the right thing.
Gallup pollsters have found a similar long-term decline in confidence in other big American institutions. Over the last two decades, the share of Americans saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in banks has fallen to 22% from 32%; in big business to 16% from 26%; and in the Supreme Court to 39% from 48%.
Seib concludes, “Mainstream voters obviously aren’t asking for no government, but definitely one that’s competent and efficient.”
This suspicion of institutions offers both a challenge and an opportunity for the nonprofit sector. Opinion polls show a lack of trust in nonprofit institutions as well. Commitments of transparency and accountability need to be an essential part of our relationship with the public. If we can’t demonstrate that we are competent and efficient, we run the risk of experiencing the same disfavor other institutions are experiencing. The opportunity is for us to be—and act—differently than all those other institutions. We aren’t in business to make a profit—but to make a difference. We have the ability to operate organizations that relate to the public with an openness and a willingness to encourage engagement and participation in a refreshingly unique way. If we can build trust, we can bridge the gap of skepticism plaguing most American institutions.
The preceding is a guest post Bob Ottenhoff, Chief Executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. With an entrepreneurial spirit, strong technology focus, and a quest to make an impact in the world, Bob has the ability to take an organization and lead it into strong performance, sustainability, and industry leadership.