How to Think Differently about Communication: Your Nonprofit’s Role in Reframing the Post-Election Discourse

Nonprofit Quarterly
6 min readFeb 16, 2017


“The solar transit. This account of the solar compass, and the meridian attachment for transit instruments was written for Young & sons,” page 8. (1887)

’Tis is the season of reflection. In the wake of the 2016 elections, conventional wisdom has been turned on its head. Defeatism and guilt are spreading, and it’s hard to look forward from within the fog of the warlike discourse we’ve slogged through. This is the time when we resolve nevertheless to fight harder, give more, and be more resolute in staying the course. These are our individual reactions. But what do we do in our public roles?

What should we do as members of the nonprofit sector to assess the impact of this election on the sector’s future well-being? What should we pay attention to as we try to figure out what the election means for the landscape of ideas in which we operate, the work that we do, and the goals that we strive to achieve? How are we to think of our roles in bringing communities together to improve outcomes for all people, protect habitats, and make the world a more peaceful place? How can we continue to lead organizations with long histories that transcend presidents and parties to successfully provide services? The current context is fraught with both peril and puzzle.

Electoral politics, as explained by the mainstream press in 2016, is an exercise in binary thinking. Rather than considering the important issues facing our nation and how a range of approaches might address them, the electoral discourse has narrowed into polarities. As suggested by linguist Deborah Tannen, America’s “argument culture” tends to conceptualize everything as a “metaphorical battle.”1There are very real consequences of this framing. Tannen explains: “[I]t makes it more difficult to solve the problems facing our society, and it is corrosive to the human spirit. By creating an atmosphere of animosity, it makes individuals more likely to turn on each other, so that everyone feels more vulnerable and more isolated. And that is why the argument culture is destructive to the common good.”2

Steeped in this culture, we are at risk of using the same dead-end framework to explain the electoral aftermath. The media’s “horse-race” frame (who’s ahead, who’s behind) during the 2016 election impeded consideration of the policies that the presidential candidates espoused; and its “balance” frame, as represented by information from “both sides” of the debate, oversimplified the complex issues we face. Now the “two Americas” frame threatens to further polarize Americans and to distract thought leaders from the critical work that we must do to bring our country together.

In the “two Americas” frame, people are either blue or red, liberal or conservative. The prescription for change is persuasion, not explanation. This binary approach obscures the important work of elections in engaging the American public in thinking about the critical issues of our time and evaluating how we wish to address them. When elections are waged at this level, we all lose — but the nonprofit sector loses big. Binary thinking and the campaigns that activate and ingrain it work against our central mission: to engage Americans in understanding, discussing, and addressing the problems facing society with respect and reason. This mission is not about persuasion and manipulation — it is about explanation, inclusion, and engagement.

The “two Americas” frame is not serving us well. Moreover, it simply isn’t reflective of the truth. American culture offers its citizens a limited set of ideas to understand sociopolitical issues, and we suffer as a result. Just at the time when we are most primed to reconsider and reengage with our working models of how our country works, we have been fed a paltry, binary diet. It doesn’t have to be this way. We have more ways of looking at the world’s and our country’s future than were exercised in this election. But getting beyond binary thinking requires us to dig deep into our mental repertoires and become aware of how our options have been narrowed and what has been lost in the process.

Cultural Models

Anthropologists call the intuitive explanations and taken-for-granted assumptions that we bring to bear on our political (and other) judgments “cultural models.” The term refers to the way we hold culture in our minds and use it to bring meaning to our experiences, which includes the information we are presented with in our everyday lives. Cultural models are an important part of the way we make sense of our world and how we act in it. Scholars have shown that these mental constructs are culturally specific; that is, as Americans we are steeped in stories and common experiences that predispose us to certain ways of looking at the world. If you ask people why some get ahead in life and others don’t, different cultures will share different models of how success “works”: who is responsible, what happens first, and with what consequences. These cultural models focus our attention on what is relevant and important about an issue, and in so doing, they shape how we think about social issues — including those that are more obscure and harder to consider and understand. Although they may be endorsed by different people to different degrees, research has found that cultural models are largely consistent across populations — like a common set of tools that our cultures have given us over time to help us make sense of our world and how it works.

The critical point is that we don’t have just one mental model for how an issue works; we have multiple ways of looking at and understanding social issues. We might attribute success, for example, to individual effort, luck, or privilege; or, we might consider it the end result of the way a community makes resources available to people who live there, the goals we set for our community, or the roles available to those within it. We might think of our economy as a limited and finite resource — a pie from which each additional piece taken means less for the rest; or, we might see it as a pool of resources that can be added to and expanded over time. As psychological anthropologist Bradd Shore has explained:

In the realm of politics and policy debates, what the idea of multiple models suggests is that different advocates are not just trying to impose different understandings on people but rather that they are trying to appeal to one or more of the models . . . to change the salience of those models. That is, they recognize that for most people, it’s possible for them to move between more than one understanding of something, such as what’s more important — individualism, and focusing on the moral individual, or the notion of a communitarian value of what’s good for the group. Both of those are perfectly well modeled in American culture. . . . The difference is not whether one model exists or doesn’t exist but which model is salient, or foregrounded, and which is backgrounded. . . . The competition for the hearts and minds of people, in policy work, is the competition for restructuring salience and what’s in the foreground. . . . The model that’s in the foreground is going to be the default reading people have. And the other will remain, not hidden but latent, in the background, fuzzy.

In other words, when we say that the world has changed, or that we are in a whole new “ball game,” we are really saying that the conceptual environment in which we operate has shifted — that there has been movement in the relative availability and relevance of certain models of how the world works. What this past election did to the cultural landscape…

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