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Social issues

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How Nonprofits Can Destroy Community

And almost all of them do this.

Over at Humane Pursuits, Julia Kiewit writes:

Last week, Chico and Debbie Jimenez were cited by the police for feeding homeless and needy people in a city park—something they’ve been doing for over a year with no problems or public disruption. They were cited as a part of the city’s increased attempts to discourage individual charity where city agencies provide the same assistance, in an effort to centralize their homeless services.

She goes on to describe other similar instances elsewhere. New York City's is particularly bad; long-time charitable communities being shut down because the city wasn't in a position to analyze the nutrition of the food they distributed.

People who are concerned about the sprawl of government have plenty of red flags to work with here. But as Julia points out, there's a larger issue at stake. At the most basic level, government exists to promote human community; so, for that matter, do many nonprofits. But here we have instances of the government actually, intentionally, destroying the relational human connections that put meaning into life and reduce the need for expensive social programs--actually saying "Don't love your neighbor; that's a job for the professionals."

And that is not just a government problem. As I've written about in my "Enlisting the Amateurs" report, the nonprofit sector is mostly structured to send the same message. When we communicate that normal people are supposed to outsource their compassion, that doing good is a job for bureaucrats, we not only severely hamstring our own fundraising efforts, we actually destroy community--supposedly the opposite of what we exist to do.

This is the massive moral disconnect at the heart of how our social sector currently operates--and until it's dealt with, nonprofits will be unable to realize their stunning potential, and American will continue to long hopelessly for community.

Excerpt from my report:

"Even someone who donates generously to the local food bank or United Way will ignore [a beggar as he walks by.] The scale of our cities, and the consequent centralization and professionalization of our methods of dealing with poverty have created a situation where the sufferer before us has been depersonalized, as have we. He is a unit in a social service system, and we are the funders of that system. We interact through the system and its agents, and any direct interaction between us as humans actually hurts the system’s ability to work properly. [...]

"The relational connections between helper and helped, between charities and their funders, have largely been lost. While government bureaucracy has its own more obvious problems, our nonprofits largely operate as professional entities in which their funders are treated as disconnected pocketbooks and their volunteers as cheap labor. [...] There is something profoundly wrong with this scene."

(You can read the rest of the report, and what I think can be done about the situation, here.)

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Why Social Issues Win Elections

Ditch the social conservatives, say economic conservatives. But they’re dead wrong.

Conventional wisdom on both sides of the aisle has it that if conservatives dropped the social issues, they could win a lot more elections.

But conventional wisdom is dead wrong, says the social science.

As far as it goes, there’s a logic to said conventional wisdom. Social conservatives hold a number of positions that are currently unpopular. They’re often very religious in a time when that evokes images of Westboro Baptists. They don’t support abortion on demand (although in fairness, they're increasingly mainstream there). Worst of all, they don’t share the current unimaginative view that any kind of relationship can be stuffed indiscriminately into the word “marriage” like it’s a Chipotle burrito.

On top of all this, the spokespeople have difficulty expressing their views in a way that resonates with everybody else—and are sometimes all-out national embarrassments. They’re as uncool as it gets. All things considered, many on the right would love to be able to just sweep the whole group under the rug.

And this would be an obvious move, goes the thinking. The big problem in America right now is a colossal, tottering, outdated national government that’s way too expensive, way too suffocating, and way too primitive to have survived the 1960s for so long. At a time when everything in modern life—nonprofits, businesses, education, and especially technology—is geared towards empowering individuals to solve their own problems and achieve their dreams, the government still thinks 300 million people can be micromanaged by a few bureaucrats like it’s 19th century Prussia. So conservatives should sell a message of economic conservatism—government getting out of the way of business, and government being cheaper. The libertarians and Tea Partiers are the good guys, and the conservatives are the dead weight.

Only problem with this theory: it makes no sense.

Don’t misunderstand me—all that stuff about the government has some merit to it, if you’re a policy wonk figuring out how to make things work better. But as far as elections go, the theory assumes things about voters that just aren’t true. It assumes they’re rational. It assumes they vote in their own self-interest. It assumes that the things that make the most sense get the most votes.

But if you’ve ever spent 30 seconds arguing about politics with someone who disagrees with you, or watched a losing election, you know these assumptions are crazy.

So do the social scientists. For a good while, people like Alan Gerber and Donald Green have been studying what makes people vote. Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have been studying what shapes their beliefs. They’ve been trying to figure out why people often vote in ways that seem contrary (at least to the researchers) to their own self-interest, like a poor person voting for an anti-welfare libertarian or a rich person voting for a Democrat who supports higher taxes.

And as with most good social science, it turns out the answers are pretty intuitive. People’s political beliefs are inescapably moral. They think in terms of stories; of good guys and bad guys, of visions and ideologies. They vote according to who is on their side, not in the sense of a Bill Clinton feeling their pain (although that's not bad either), but in the sense of which person shares their vision of who the good guys and bad guys are and why. It’s not irrational; it just involves more subconscious thinking than most people on the right give people credit for. A lot of decision-making is done long before a person has a conscious thought, so if you’re a “bad guy,” it’s pretty tough for your arguments to break through the wall (if you’ve ever dealt with leftist trolls on Twitter, or tried to convince a libertarian of anything, you know what I’m talking about).

If people work this way, you’d expect issues that have a moral component (“We’ve got to STOP this!!”) would be more powerful than dollars and cents. Sure enough, a 2013 study by the Brookings Institution found that economic conservatives were the smallest group under the tent, and other studies (and elections) have shown their issues have a limited tug on voters’ heartstrings. While a few hyper-ideological politics nerds might get excited about tax policy, most people will get a lot more worked up about poverty or abortion—issues where there are clear moral elements involved.

So right-wingers interested in winning elections shouldn’t ditch the social conservatives (and not just because they’re a very large constituency, or because it’s weird to pretend “social issues” don’t exist). And they shouldn’t build platforms and messages that simply will never have the upper body strength to carry an election.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that conservatives should ignore economic issues, or that they should engage social issues in the same way they have for the last couple decades. On the contrary, they need to be willing to frame a new vision of conservatism (including the social components AND the economic components) in moral terms that resonate with other people’s values; other people’s narratives; other people’s visions of the good guys and bad guys. (Example here.) You wouldn’t know this to listen to current social conservative leaders, but Americans still share a lot of those in common.

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Why Social Issues Win Elections

Ditch the social conservatives, say economic conservatives. But they’re dead wrong.

Conventional wisdom on both sides of the aisle has it that if conservatives dropped the social issues, they could win a lot more elections.

But conventional wisdom is dead wrong, says the social science.

As far as it goes, there’s a logic to said conventional wisdom. Social conservatives hold a number of positions that are currently unpopular. They’re often very religious in a time when that evokes images of Westboro Baptists. They don’t support abortion on demand (although in fairness, they're increasingly mainstream there). Worst of all, they don’t share the current unimaginative view that any kind of relationship can be stuffed indiscriminately into the word “marriage” like it’s a Chipotle burrito.

On top of all this, the spokespeople have difficulty expressing their views in a way that resonates with everybody else—and are sometimes all-out national embarrassments. They’re as uncool as it gets. All things considered, many on the right would love to be able to just sweep the whole group under the rug.

And this would be an obvious move, goes the thinking. The big problem in America right now is a colossal, tottering, outdated national government that’s way too expensive, way too suffocating, and way too primitive to have survived the 1960s for so long. At a time when everything in modern life—nonprofits, businesses, education, and especially technology—is geared towards empowering individuals to solve their own problems and achieve their dreams, the government still thinks 300 million people can be micromanaged by a few bureaucrats like it’s 19th century Prussia. So conservatives should sell a message of economic conservatism—government getting out of the way of business, and government being cheaper. The libertarians and Tea Partiers are the good guys, and the conservatives are the dead weight.

Only problem with this theory: it makes no sense.

Don’t misunderstand me—all that stuff about the government has some merit to it, if you’re a policy wonk figuring out how to make things work better. But as far as elections go, the theory assumes things about voters that just aren’t true. It assumes they’re rational. It assumes they vote in their own self-interest. It assumes that the things that make the most sense get the most votes.

But if you’ve ever spent 30 seconds arguing about politics with someone who disagrees with you, or watched a losing election, you know these assumptions are crazy.

So do the social scientists. For a good while, people like Alan Gerber and Donald Green have been studying what makes people vote. Psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have been studying what shapes their beliefs. They’ve been trying to figure out why people often vote in ways that seem contrary (at least to the researchers) to their own self-interest, like a poor person voting for an anti-welfare libertarian or a rich person voting for a Democrat who supports higher taxes.

And as with most good social science, it turns out the answers are pretty intuitive. People’s political beliefs are inescapably moral. They think in terms of stories; of good guys and bad guys, of visions and ideologies. They vote according to who is on their side, not in the sense of a Bill Clinton feeling their pain (although that's not bad either), but in the sense of which person shares their vision of who the good guys and bad guys are and why. It’s not irrational; it just involves more subconscious thinking than most people on the right give people credit for. A lot of decision-making is done long before a person has a conscious thought, so if you’re a “bad guy,” it’s pretty tough for your arguments to break through the wall (if you’ve ever dealt with leftist trolls on Twitter, or tried to convince a libertarian of anything, you know what I’m talking about).

If people work this way, you’d expect issues that have a moral component (“We’ve got to STOP this!!”) would be more powerful than dollars and cents. Sure enough, a 2013 study by the Brookings Institution found that economic conservatives were the smallest group under the tent, and other studies (and elections) have shown their issues have a limited tug on voters’ heartstrings. While a few hyper-ideological politics nerds might get excited about tax policy, most people will get a lot more worked up about poverty or abortion—issues where there are clear moral elements involved.

So right-wingers interested in winning elections shouldn’t ditch the social conservatives (and not just because they’re a very large constituency, or because it’s weird to pretend “social issues” don’t exist). And they shouldn’t build platforms and messages that simply will never have the upper body strength to carry an election.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that conservatives should ignore economic issues, or that they should engage social issues in the same way they have for the last couple decades. On the contrary, they need to be willing to frame a new vision of conservatism (including the social components AND the economic components) in moral terms that resonate with other people’s values; other people’s narratives; other people’s visions of the good guys and bad guys. (Example here.) You wouldn’t know this to listen to current social conservative leaders, but Americans still share a lot of those in common.

Comment