Associations and the Future of Our Republic

The association community is a peculiar political animal.

Most of us who work in this arena have relatively well-honed political sensibilities because of the lobbying and advocacy most of our organizations engage in. Irrespective of what political perspective we embrace, most association professionals I have met over the years strongly believe in our overall system of government. Many of us are well aware of our First Amendment roots (you can read this recent post for a refresher if you like) and have literally made careers out of exercising those rights. I often feel like the labels “Democratic” or “Republican” are a bit on the reductionist side. I know plenty of Republicans who embrace social issues most often attributed to Democrats, and plenty of Democrats who embrace economic ones most often attributed to Republicans. Through the art of dialogue and compromise we sometimes come to accept other points of view, or at the very least understand them even if we do not agree. Nuanced views such as these often develop in groups of people who become experts in the inner workings of specific systems. Over time, our complex mental models can lull us into thinking things will always be this way.

Unfortunately, this is a mirage. It may be comforting to believe a system will endure forever and cannot fail, but that is not true now nor has it ever been. While some systems are more resilient than others, none of them are immune to drastic change or even collapse under the right set of circumstances. The longer systems endure, the more ingrained our mental models become and the more incredulous we are when we first hear rumblings that they may be under threat. Despite having learned these lessons time and again on the historical stage, we still tend to have faith the systems “we know” will endure any assault either from without or within.

The mental models are hard to shake even when we begin to realize we may actually be in real trouble. When crafting our defenses, we can rely too heavily on the “rules we knew” instead of the “rules that exist.” When democratic systems come under fire we tend to double-down on the ways things are “supposed” to work. For example, democracy demands compromise. Therefore, logic would seem to dictate that if intractable problems have obviously been caused by a systematic, purposeful obstructionism and unwillingness to compromise, the solution must be to model positive behaviors and pursue MORE compromise. I mean, isn’t that the job of the “adults in the room” – to demonstrate what is good about the system and attempt to restore a sense of balance and fair play? The problem is, those tactics only work if everyone involved still agrees “compromise” is actually a rule.

What’s even worse is when one group of players makes the decision to play a fundamentally different game without overtly informing everyone else. Neville Chamberlain was a model politician, and he “played the game” according to the “rules” in the 1930’s. He was praised for being the adult in the room. What he didn’t realize at the time, (in spite of being repeatedly warned), was he was playing a game that was already over. Unbeknownst to Mr. Chamberlain, the fine art of “compromise” had changed from being a “rule” to a “tool” and was only used to buy time as the other players pursued unthinkable objectives. The biggest lesson we seem to have to repeatedly learn is making deals with liars usually turn out pretty well for the duplicitous but not the lied to. The future of our republic may depend on our learning that lesson again and with all haste.

It is almost unfathomable to believe we might be standing on the cusp of a historic unraveling of our political system when we are busy drafting and pursuing our 2017 legislative and regulatory agendas. For political experts who have worked the halls of Congress for years, it seems laughable that our institutions could fail us. For goodness sake, who knows better than us how resistant these institutions have been to change? If they seem immovable to us, (and we believe we are the “movers”), they must be immovable to all. I would argue that clearly Alice, we are through the Looking Glass. Past is not always prologue. The fickle twin Furies of Chaos and Collapse have run amok before. It may well be the case that we need to prepare to break from our own social norms in order to restore balance in the whole. And so, again, as distasteful as it is to abandon norms we believe in while we criticize others for not adhering to them, we may not have a choice. We are facing a myriad of international crises being created by nuclear armed states. The stakes could not possibly be higher.

Let’s talk about two of the norms in the association community that we need to challenge, right here and now. Social norms in associations tend to dictate that dramatic statements regarding our political system are out of place. Certain elements of our community, most likely due to years of experience, seem to hold themselves somewhat above all of this nonsense – “this too shall pass.” The more sophisticated the player, the more they tend to ignore warning signals that don’t fit the established narrative. Counter-intuitively, the more strident the warnings the less credence those warnings are given until they show themselves beyond any doubt, by which time it is too late. We currently have alarms sounding from all quarters within the United States and yet, I see little in the way to convince me it is anything but business as usual from the preponderance of the association community except for the ones who are already under direct threat. I do see some associations beginning to look to their silent brothers and sisters as if to say, “A little help here would be nice…” but it is too easy for us to shrug and say, “This really is your problem, our members have other concerns.”

Another norm we need to question is our tendency to excuse ourselves from engaging in broader issues because we represent members who vote on “both sides of the aisle.” We tend to believe we can’t risk engagement on any issue that doesn’t clearly benefit our “members’ bottom line” (or our own operation a non-profit) for fear of alienating members and perhaps losing important dues streams. On the surface, that sounds relatively reasonable. Yet, over the years we have repeatedly used this rationale to sideline ourselves regarding critical issues that were cast in partisan terms but shouldn’t have been partisan at all. I am reminded of our collective inaction in the wake of the Citizens United ruling, our refusal to engage in coordinated efforts to protect net neutrality (which is rumored to once again be under fire) or the way we give a passing nod to climate change and sustainability yet refuse to collectively engage in the collaborative development of an adequate societal response.

So, I’m flying in the face of our norms to say I am deeply saddened to see the lack of coordinated response from the association community at this crucial moment in our nation’s history. We have an opportunity to join together to collectively face one of the most pressing issues of our time – the fact that we are about to install an authoritarian President with contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law. One who may have been elected in part due to the interference of a foreign power in our governmental process from without and subversive acts from within. One who is telegraphing every warning sign that he will attempt to subvert our democracy into a totalitarian state. One who seems to have the tacit approval of the leaders of the majority party in Congress who appear willing to let him get away with just about anything if they get enough goodies in return, and a minority party who doesn’t seem to realize that reasoning with bullies rarely gets anything but contempt. Will we rise to this occasion? Will we?

While I wait for the answer to emerge from the silence, I feel compelled to seek leadership elsewhere and I encourage you to do the same. If you haven’t already, follow Robert Reich and the Resistance Report on Facebook. Subscribe to legitimate news sources because they need money to pay for old fashioned boots on the ground reporting. Follow Dan Rather’s new online news source – News and Guts. Download the Indivisible Guide and learn more about how to engage. Get involved in marches, protests and other forms of civil resistance (I will be participating in the Women’s March on January 21, 2017). Support your fellow associations as they prepare to enjoin the battle. Start with the White House Correspondents Association. Join together and support efforts such as the one just launched by Ubiquity University in their recent Call to Action published by their President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Jim Garrison. I urge each of you to sign onto the document and forward it to everyone you know.

It is because of my deep and growing concerns about our professional community, our country, our global brothers and sisters and the pale, blue dot we all inhabit that is suffering from the ravages of climate change that I will continue to search for ways to engage my association peers and colleagues in conversations around these critical issues. As we move forward into the unknown of 2017, my fervent hope is that our association community, as leaders and experts in government affairs, will gain the courage to look beyond our own membership borders to the world beyond and ask ourselves what is truly worth fighting for.

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