(Nonprofits+Politics)2.0

November 5, 2010

Why should nonprofits welcome the Tea Party?

Filed under: Nonprofit, Politics — Tags: , , , , — kgilnack @ 3:39 am

Earlier today I tweeted that the Chronicle of Philanthropy was rightly taking heat for publishing an opinion piece by Leslie Lenkowsky titled Why Philanthropy Should Welcome the Tea Party, but didn’t have a chance to back that up by elaborating with a comment during the day.  As I started catching up and writing this reply tonight, I discovered I had more to say than would even fit in their comments field, because, well, there’s a lot to say about nonprofits, politics, and what little the Tea Party has to offer our sector.

Dissenting or unpopular view points can foster thoughtful debate and dialogue, as @Philanthropy was correct in pointing out when they replied.  However, The Chronicle is also responsible for curating what opinions it chooses to put out on its site — vetting them for the most useful, relevant, and thought provoking ideas (at least IMHO).

I started searching for guidelines that the Chronicle might use in deciding what opinions to publish but could not find any. Even under Submission Guidelines on their Contact Us page I didn’t see any way to submit an opinion piece.  So, all I can do is offer my opinion as to why I think we could have found a better discussion piece…

The crux of the author’s argument seems to be that

“When motivated by a compelling set of issues, it seems that Americans can still put together an impressive campaign, spontaneously, swiftly, and with little professional leadership or guidance … For that reason alone, the philanthropic world should find at least some comfort in the Tea Party’s accomplishments.”

First of all, the compelling set of issues that brings this group together is ambiguous at best, but centered around the notion that we should have smaller government. Yet this basic premise is undermined by the fact that “they think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers,” and the movement offers no substance about about what they would cut or why.  Well except anything that might benefit immigrants – pretty sure most of them would get behind that.

The hypocrisy of the movement’s message aside, the author is essentially saying “hey guys, come on, they’re increasing voting and civic participation, so it has to be good…”  One could replace the word “Tea Party” with “KKK” and not really lost much of the core elements of the post’s argument.  It’s a false premise to assume that all campaigns that get people riled up and politically aware are created equal.

Now, I know that by and large, most members of the Tea Party do not identify as racists.  However, between the birthers, the anti-immigrant activists, and isolated instances of violence and hateful rhetoric, this isn’t exactly an inclusive bunch. There’s a reason that Tea Party members “tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45.”

I don’t really think the argument as to what extent the Tea Party may be racist is directly relevant to the debate here. I do think that just because you get a group of people together doesn’t inherently make it a good thing, and the author doesn’t seem to care at all about what ideas this group is espousing.

Mr. Lenkowsky even goes as far as saying another potential benefit is that “those with strongly felt concerns will face pressure to reconcile them with the views of others.”  I’m yet to hear of a productive example of someone exchanging ideas with a Tea Party member and making any sort of thoughtful progress toward a common end.

While the Tea Party proports to be anti-incumbent in general, it is only Republican candidates who reap their benefits (well, except for Delaware, Nevada, Mass, Connecticut, and some other places where voters rejected the extreme Tea Party candidates and opted for Democrats).  Again, there’s a reason that “they do not want a third party and say they usually or almost always vote Republican.”

There is a difference, though, between mainstream Republicans and Tea Partiers. “While most Republicans say they are ‘dissatisfied’ with Washington, Tea Party supporters are more likely to classify themselves as “’angry.’”  While the author simply dismisses the role of corporate and private money in the movement, the fact remains that the likes of Sarah Palin, John McCain, RNC operatives, and many large interests have campaigned with and/or helped fund the movement because they know it is in their interests.

I fail to see how this angry, anti-government group is something that the nonprofit sector should embrace.  The types of cuts they would enact – like Ballot Question 3 in Massachusetts this past election – would devastate many nonprofits, particularly the human service agencies providing essential care to the most vulnerable in our community.  Contracts are already underfunded and nearly half of Massachusetts nonprofits are operating at a deficit.  The Tea Party offers nothing that will address these problems, and their anti-tax rhetoric is a direct threat to our sector.

It is time that we took a stand together and reminded our elected officials and the public that it is the role of every member of our society to contribute to fixing the problems that still plague communities.

We do so through our taxes, which then go toward funding our homeless shelters, our recovery programs, our independent living centers, our veteran services, and so many other crucial programs. During tough times with declining revenues it is more important than ever to preserve them

Nonprofits are already struggling under existing contracts and recent cuts and it is not helpful for our sector or the people we serve to embrace a group that would blindly push for further cuts without considering what we will lose. It is not helpful to embrace people who think the Department of Education is a waste of money, or who are in the minority of thinking healthcare reform should be repealed – most people who aren’t satisfied with it wish it had gone farther!

Furthermore, the actual structure of Tea Party organizations and their attitudes toward participating in the 501c-sector as described in Nonprofit Quarterly raises even more alarm. Is it beneficial to have groups parading around and soliciting donations as nonprofits when they don’t even incorporate their rongaizations? One potential saving grace is that hopefully the lack of professionalism in their organization will lead to them being short lived..

If there’s anything that the nonprofit community should do in response to that movement, it is organize ourselves to fight for our sector and more effectively communicate our message to the masses. While the author clearly downplays the role of money in their impact, I wonder how our community could transform America if we had a major “news” network agitating in our favor and the millions that the Koch Brothers and so many others have channeled into the Tea Party.

There are lots of angry mobs that get motivated who I don’t think help our democracy or will advance the cause of nonprofits. And just because they happen to organize and vote does not mean that their ideas have merit or should be welcomed.

And I thought most of this would go without saying, which is why I felt @Philanthropy could provide us with something more thought provoking thank this Tea-Party-Apologetic post.

What are the real lessons to be taken from the Tea Party?  Things we’ve known for a long time, but it’s good to be reminded..

  1. Anger is a great organizing motivator
  2. It is possible to spend 2 years blocking progress, recovery, unemployment benefits, and anything else that might help the country – and still direct people’s anger toward the party that was trying to help the country recover
  3. Nonprofits need to organize and get our message out there
  4. Taxes and government are easy to vilify, and we need to remind people what they provide and what would be lost without them
  5. Everyone, on both sides of the aisle, want to see a better more efficient government. If we can get ahead of that with real suggestions that help get more funding to services, we’ll all be better for it. That might appeal to the Tea Party, but I still suspect that unless those savings yield more money for the wealthier-than-average Tea Partiers.

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