President Trump's first 100 days in office show that foundations have a key role to play in this challenging political environment.
By Doug Hattaway & RJ Bee
In President Trump’s first 100 days in office, avenues that strategists used to advance policy change during the Obama administration have closed. In response, many philanthropic leaders have spent the past three months exploring ways to create impact in the new political environment. Here are six ideas that have risen to the top.
1. Take the fight to the courts. The courts can be the first line of defense for protecting good programs and stopping bad policy. A legal assault on Trump’s “Muslim ban,” for example, quickly put the brakes on that discriminatory executive order. When litigating high-profile issues, a legal strategy must be supported by a communications strategy designed to frame the public debate. Legal arguments don’t often gain traction in the national conversation—you need a politically savvy message to build public support for your cause while the courts ponder the legal questions.
2. Take the fight to congressional districts. The failed attempt to overturn health care reforms enacted by Democrats under President Obama shows that advocates can successfully pressure a Republican-controlled Congress to stop bad policy. This approach is even more effective when you find common ground with constituencies valued by Republicans and raise their voices in opposition to bad policy. The campaign to mobilize working people who stood to lose health coverage under repeal of the Affordable Care Act, for example, elevated the voices of Republican-leaning voters to pressure their representatives.
3. Pursue visionary goals at the state and local levels. The challenges in Washington, D.C. are prompting many funders to think big about what can be accomplished at the state and local levels. Recent movements that focused on the states in the face of Washington gridlock have had notable success. Much of the country’s progress transitioning to a clean energy economy, for instance, has come at the state level, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And cities have been on the frontlines of resisting the Trump Administration’s draconian deportation policies. Foundations can focus on states and cities as laboratories of democracy, and demonstrate progress on climate, immigration and other critical issues.
4. Counter negative narratives with positive ones. Sadly, a major tenet of Trump’s politics is the demonization of vulnerable people, particularly immigrants. The administration continually drives negative narratives designed to stoke fear and resentment, such as featuring the family members of a people murdered by undocumented immigrants in Trump’s first speech to Congress. Philanthropists can support efforts to counter negative narratives driven in the political debate. To do so, they can draw lessons from successful efforts to drive new narratives on marriage equality and the 2008 financial crisis.
5. Support watchdogs to take on federal agencies. Beyond litigation, watchdog organizations can take on bad federal policy by engaging with the rulemaking process all regulations must undergo. During the Trump administration, they can also use the rulemaking process to preserve good policy like the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule, which would require financial advisors to act in the best interests of their clients. Rolling back any federal rule is a laborious, complex effort that gives the public the right to comment—and gives advocates a crucial opening to make their voices heard.
6. Partner with business leaders. The first 100 days of Trump saw business leaders taking a stand against a self-proclaimed “pro-business” administration, notably in the debate about immigration. In the wake of Trump’s travel ban, Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote that the company “would not exist without immigration, let alone thrive and innovate the way we do” and that Apple would remain open to “everyone, no matter where they come from, which language they speak, who they love or how they worship.”
Business leaders have pushed back on the administration on other crucial issues as well, including climate change. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt vocally opposed Trump’s executive order to reduce regulations that would cut carbon emissions, stating that it “doesn't change what GE believes" and that climate change "should be addressed on a global basis." Meanwhile, ExxonMobil—one of the world’s largest oil companies—sent President Trump a letter urging him not to abandon the landmark Paris climate accord, which it called “an effective framework for addressing the risks of climate change.” Business leaders could exercise significant influence on a range of policy decisions. Foundations can help by convening business leaders and lifting up their voices in the public conversation.
These are just a few examples of the options open to strategists and funders looking to drive change in a challenging political landscape. If you have other examples or ideas, please share them with us by emailing [email protected].