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A Better Path

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Wednesday, November 9, is “the day after” for all of us. I won’t hazard a guess about the landscape we will see that morning, nor do I subscribe to the oft-repeated refrain that “this election is the most consequential”—even though there may be good, objective evidence that it is. Every election is consequential because a functioning democracy requires care, attention, and restraint to sustain it. Turning every election into the “most important” may be effective for fundraising and turnout but it also accelerates the disaffection and disengagement among those who lose. When political loss feels eviscerating there is no incentive for concession or compromise. This is not to say the stakes aren’t high—they are—but as the stakes have risen and been amplified, our ability to remember that there is a “we,” beyond an “us versus them,” has been pushed further out of reach. The one guess I’d hazard is that few of us will wake up on November 9 more confident about the stability of our democracy than we were a decade ago. So, what can we do about it?

At the Vermont Community Foundation, we aren’t a political organization. We are a community organization. However, we cannot ignore the intersection between civic function and the vitality of communities. In 2016 we watched the election and turned our attention into the opportunity gap framework which has guided us since that time, because, to quote the author Robert Putnam: “We might ponder whether the bleak, socially estranged future facing poor kids in America today could have unanticipated political consequences tomorrow.”

So here we are in the midst of another election reflecting on the opportunity gap and our community impact planned for the years ahead, wrestling with the stakes at play in our communities and in our democracy right now. We continue to believe that there is an ongoing role for philanthropy to foster civically, socially, economically, and ecologically resilient communities. There is undoubtedly a better path for all of us. Finding it will take everyone realizing that these are not someone else’s problems to fix.

A recent paper by Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace titled Five Strategies to Support U.S. Democracy lays out the stakes. The entire paper is gripping; a clinical articulation of the forces allowing authoritarianism to take hold and violence to be normed, all with voter support. It is worth reading for what will work and what won’t.

My view is the Vermont context. The Vermont Community Foundation is a source of enduring philanthropy that supports Vermont communities. Vermont is not an island. Our cities, towns, and villages are buffeted by the same factors experienced by much of rural America. The flight of human and financial capital, challenges to core industries, and the declining prospects of those without a college degree have disempowered many across the state once able to draw dignity and status from work that was tied to place and community. Open space is not empty space. The way these trends evolved here and across rural communities left a generation behind. Chronic disease, opioids, and suicide have drawn down life expectancy in these areas. At a time when fewer than fifty percent of Americans born since 1980 are likely to do better than their parents, the ground is fertile for frustration and hopelessness and a sense of loss.

That environment fuels our divisive politics. It is a stark contrast to the idea of an American dream or land of opportunity. In Vermont, we saw decades of negative net migration prior to the pandemic, an indicator of economically mobile families choosing to leave. A message was being sent. Voting with their feet. The inbound migration triggered by the pandemic is a welcome demographic change, but it stands to compound economic inequality as homeownership and affordable housing—key economic stepstones—are pushed beyond the reach of many Vermonters.

Kleinfeld’s paper offers direct, useful, and herculean suggestions for how to move forward. They are political, structural, legal, moral, and social. A democracy needs to deliver results. Democracy that is unrepresentative by design is less likely to do so. A number of suggestions offer important guidance for any organization doing community work. The rising tide of authoritarian bias is yet another condition that will only make life harder and less stable. It is also an indicator that conditions are present that we must address. Communities are only as strong as our neighbors’ experience. The paper also sets some important markers for how the best intentions can sometimes compound polarization.

Among the strategies that are most insightful as to the role of a community-building organization:

  • Reduce the appeal for authoritarian policies and politicians by:
    • Revitalizing rural communities.
    • Addressing where communities have experienced a rising dignity deficit.
    • Restore social status and higher wages to those laboring in jobs that don’t require a college education.
  • Ensure communities deliver for historically underserved members. People aren’t motivated to salvage a system that has left them out. National surveys of communities of color find that policy goals focus on economic improvements (good-paying jobs, affordable housing, health care, child care, and access to college) well ahead of any motivation for the idea of saving democracy.
  • Lean in where strategies for addressing status anxiety among the rural working class can also deliver for minority communities. When there is a common challenge—for example, homeownership, child care, or barriers to college and career training—it is key to ensure that strategies do not explicitly or implicitly bar participation by those that might benefit. Doing so drives people apart at a time when a more effective focus drives to a bigger “we.”
  • Acknowledge and address the challenging circumstances of young men in the 21st To quote Kleinfeld, “America now has a large reservoir of men under 30—the most violence-prone in any society—who have low levels of education, lack marriage possibilities and access to steady and well-paying jobs, feel humiliated by their low status in a country where downward mobility is seen as a personal failure … and who must hear high-status individuals tell them how privileged they are because of their gender and possibly race.” To add the Vermont context, fewer than 2 in 10 rural low-income boys are likely to have a college degree six years after high school. Every bit as important, we export the majority of college-going Vermont high school graduates, so many of those young people who stay here are being left behind economically and socially.
  • Adapt when weak civic structures contribute to unmet shared social and economic goals.
  • Rebuild local media. Quality local news sources are a bulwark against misinformation.
  • When addressing basic needs, keep the focus on actual needs addressable at a local scale, closest to those affected.
  • Invest in social activities that remind people that they enjoy doing things as a community. We need to be reminded of what it means to come together in moments of collective experience—“sports, concerts, community service...”

These are a few of the examples from what is a long and nuanced piece that is worth a read for anyone curious about where the work should start. Regardless of what happened on November 8, there is a role for all of us to help design a better path. There are no shortcuts. How we approach these issues is as important as the decision to approach them. We must look for ways to foster connection instead of compounding polarization. We are asked to fight when we should be asking to build. As we look to the years ahead, Kleinfeld’s paper offers valuable insight for how to do just that.