The parallels between Brexit and Trump are plain to see and are constantly being made, but what does this say about the divisions in our society? What can we learn, and can charities help to heal the divide?
Challenge 1: A rejection of experts and the establishment
Trump and Brexit were fought on anti-establishment lines. Trump was the outsider from Washington who could fix America and make it great again, and Brexit was an anti-elite statement and a rejection of warnings from the experts. Loath as I am to quote Michael Gove, he seems to have stumbled upon something when he said “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”.
Hillary was the quintessential establishment figure. As a former First Lady with 30 years’ experience in politics, she was the status quo candidate. She was the clear embodiment of the Washington institution for those unhappy with the current state of affairs. Trump winning represents a mood that is against the establishment, and wants fresh thinking from those outside of Washington. Luckily our research shows that charities are not viewed as the establishment.
Charities can use their voices and the voices of their beneficiaries to provide information that is trusted, but not viewed as part of the establishment.
One of the most powerful speakers I have heard was an ‘expert from experience’; a former immigration detainee speaking about immigration detention. At the same meeting, academics and members of the UN spoke but none were as arresting and powerful as someone speaking from their own lived experience and knowledge. Lots of charities are in a unique position like this, as they often have direct contact with the people they support.
Challenge 2: Post truth politics
What does it mean now that we live in what has been heralded as an era of ‘post truth politics’ where there is a negative reaction to facts and politicians openly mislead the public? Shockingly, hours after the EU referendum vote Nigel Farage claimed he never said that £350 million a week saved from EU contributions would be spent on the NHS. But this misinformation was thoroughly (or bigly) outdone by Trump throughout his campaign, including such favourites as “nobody respects women more than I do” or “I was against the war in Iraq” .
An interview with Newt Gingrich is probably one of the starkest examples. When questioned about crime, the politician was told statistics showed that crime rates were dropping. He responded that facts don’t matter - it only matters how people feel about crime rates.
This serves as a reminder of the importance of fact checking and scrutinising the claims of politicians. Lies and misinformation have been damaging on the campaign trail this year, but not as disastrous as they will be if they go unchallenged once Trump is inaugurated or once Brexit negotiations begin. Charities are well placed to marry up facts with more emotive appeals, which Gingrich argued to be more important.
Our parliamentary research found that 66% of MPs agreed that research and support from charities was vital to their work. It is more critical than ever for charities to be performing this role, providing solid evidence for policy to be based upon as well as fact checking and countering inaccurate information.
Challenge 3: A vote for change regardless of the consequences
Many have interpreted Brexit and Trump’s election as a vote for change from the current state of affairs. People are dissatisfied with the current economic circumstances and are willing to take action to the point of risking the unknown in order for it to change.
It is unclear what this change will look like in both Britain and the US, but charities can help to play a positive role in ensuring that the change benefits those most disaffected in society. In some cases, this is definitely easier said than done. Environmental charities, for example, now have the unenviable task of campaigning for action on climate change with a world leader who denies that it exists.
However, one of the positives from a divisive vote is how it motivates certain groups to affect change. People who are positively activated (people who are happy and excited by the result) or negatively activated (people who are frustrated and angry about the result) by Brexit or Trump are also likely to get involved in campaigning or volunteering, which is fertile ground for charities. The charity sector is in the best place to identify the key areas that are in dire need of investment and change in order to build a better society and mobilise the volunteers to make it happen.
Challenge 4: Reasonable people voted for Trump and Brexit
A key reminder that the US election has given us is that reasonable people voted for Trump and Brexit. Whilst some of us (particularly in the UK) might find it inconceivable to vote for Trump, many of the people who did had rational reasons for doing so. Lord Ashcroft’s research found that many republicans who voted Trump whilst wishing for a better candidate still felt that they could not leave decisions such as the Supreme Court to Hillary, while others felt that the last 8 years had not been particularly beneficial for them and decided they didn’t want more of the same. One of the pitfalls of the UK Remain campaign was again this view that rational people would not vote to leave. Ashcroft argues that this led them to overstate the consequences, warning of economic and political disaster that just didn’t wash with the public.
This serves as a key reminder for those working in the charity sector. 61% of people working in the charity sector voted remain. It is important to be aware that whilst everyone on your social media and most of your colleagues and friends all voted to remain or vote for Hillary, many of your charity’s beneficiaries or supporters didn’t. Lots of these people had rational, well-reasoned, motives for doing so. Charities could look at the possible reasons their core beneficiaries might have voted as they did, such as job insecurity, and consider whether these concerns can be incorporated into their campaigns.
One thing that is clear from both votes is that deep set divisions in both the US and the UK have been unearthed. Somehow we will need to address this, but in the meantime perhaps charities can play a positive role in addressing the concerns of both sides.