What the US election teaches us about making change happen

The social and political context in which the divisive Presidential campaign was fought, is a unique example of the complexities facing social change makers today. Understanding audiences, political positioning and communications techniques played a significant role in the end result, and the Republican Party’s success highlights critical considerations that purpose-driven organisations must address if they are to engage audiences to achieve social change.

Change is inevitable. Whether it changes in your favour or not, is something you can influence.

1. Distance yourself from the problem

The sentiments expressed by Democratic voters, much political commentary and media opinion continually referred to Clinton’s “qualification” and “political understanding” – highly rational and factually accurate reasoning to vote for her. However, this reinforced the rhetoric that she was a part of the current ‘system’. A system that other disenfranchised voters felt didn’t represent them.

Putting political persuasions aside, Hillary Clinton’s career alone makes her arguably the most qualified person who has ever run for President. But in an environment where the system itself is being vilified, being the poster-child for the American democratic process and system of Government is harmful. Voters became apathetic about Clinton’s ability to create the change they needed and meanwhile Donald Trump’s persona and campaign became the antithesis of bureaucratic regime for those who felt the current system was failing them. Visible distance from the problem was a powerful motivator for engagement.

Organisation’s implementing change projects can learn from this. Being perceived as a cog in the machine can significantly hamper public engagement efforts - this is especially true for local Governments, agencies partnered with governmental institutions, or multilateral institutions. Careful positioning of your mission and distancing from the seeming contributors to the systemic problems, will allow you to challenge the problems whilst garnering public support.

2. Identify the time for revolutionary action

It was the reactivation of a critical mass of disenfranchised Americans that hadn’t voted in recent years that helped secure President-elect Donald Trump’s victory. Exit poll data suggests they were largely rural, white, working class voters who are struggling with increased levels of real and perceived disadvantage. When presented with a radical opportunity to create change, whilst hearing messages about how it would benefit them in real-terms, it motivated action on unprecedented levels.

Risk taking is commonly the reactive response of people who feel no benefit from the status quo. Challenging a figure-head who has been involved in the system that has seemingly ignored your struggles is therefore a compelling opportunity.

Hope in the status quo is a privilege only a few can afford. It is the educated, employed, city dwellers who can maintain faith that small, steady change will address societal problems, and in the meantime tolerate the situation. Those who experience, or are threatened by, the negative impacts of social issues – both real and perceived – want and need urgent radical change.

Campaigners and activists need to be intentionally focused on understanding both the reasoning behind disengagement and the type of change that people want to see. Targeted approaches that rationally consider motivations and behaviours of different segments of society, will enable organisations to better sustain support and engagement from the public.  In doing so they can scale up or down the level of action that their intended audience needs to see take place. A call to action for revolutionary change may be more compelling than the slow-burn approach – and using the right approach, at the right time is critical to audience engagement.

3. Understanding audience motivation: The power of perceived vulnerability

The demographic segmentation of voters is common practice and we have seen how the mobilisation of different groups can significantly shift outcomes. Polling and political rhetoric often makes simplistic divides based on race and sex, and whilst there is a lot more complex analysis behind the published information, it is foolish to suggest there is one consistent voting pattern between such diverse communities. Yet polling data certainly suggests that socio-economic status of key demographic groups in certain areas had significant sway in this election.

The previously disengaged rural, white American voters feel that they epitomise the hard working, Christian, family oriented American values that are so heavily draw upon in campaigning rhetoric. They are also bearing the brunt of many shifts in society. As this insightful article discusses, economic changes, such as a decline in the manufacturing industry hits rural Americans harder than urban dwellers, because they don’t have a service industry economy to fall back on. There is increasing drug and alcohol abuse resulting from a lack of services for young people, and people struggle with socio-economic decline. Youth suicide is double that of the cities.  Meanwhile, they see the often sensationalist media headlines about the work being done to support communities in urban areas, including new immigrants, and lose faith in the system that is not supporting them, true blue Americans.

They responded well to Trump’s message that he will rebuild their livelihoods – and they put their trust in a man who has challenged the system that they believe has overseen their community’s decline. This is a phenomenon occurring all over the developed world and in part contributes to the rise in popularity of politicians like Australia’s Pauline Hanson, and leads to the British public to vote in favour of leaving the EU.

Now consider other systemically vulnerable communities: those in urban areas with the lowest socio-economic standards, new immigrants, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, those experiencing entrenched racism. These communities are significantly marginalised. But the social democratic expression of giving a hand up and creating an equal playing field isn’t cutting it anymore.

Driven, motivated, entrepreneurial people don’t see themselves as ‘today’s poor’: they are ‘tomorrow’s rich’. Therefore it is unsurprisingly that a successful business man, who demonstrates that all you need is determination to get what you want, who professes to be able to change the system that is keeping them down, would be an attractive option for a large proportion of this community – regardless of unpalatable comments and behaviour.

The reality of greatest need, real versus perceived disadvantage, is inconsequential in this scenario. These communities experience hardship relative to their former situation. And for campaigners seeking public endorsement it is recognition of these perceptions and experiences that is most critical. The Republican campaign did this incredibly well in order to mobilise previously sleeping voters.

4.       Overcome ideology

The strong political ideology of the Democratic Left and its passionate commitment to its values, may well have contributed to the decline of the Clinton campaign this election. Grounding messages in ideology is a powerful motivator for those that adhere to those beliefs. For those who are unsure or opposing, it is repelling.

The Democratic Party used this technique well to re-mobilise after fallout within political factions resulting from Bernie Sanders unsuccessful candidacy bid. But outside of firm Democratic votes (that this election so heavily relied upon) the impact can greatly differ.

Firstly, political ideology about 'what you collectively stand for' reaffirms that you are part of a system. The strength of the Republicans campaign was it focused on a community desire to challenge the system. Whilst the Clinton campaign had a detailed policy focus on how they would make these values a reality, it was not enough to cut through to demonstrate that the Democrats understood what disenfranchised voters needed.

Moreover, Clinton’s language of the “deplorables” to talk about some Trump supporters echoed that socio-political divide of ‘us’ vs ‘them’, which for swing voters who are questioning the system is hugely divisive. Meanwhile, the Republican campaign succeeded in tapping into the social attitudes of the disenfranchised.

Mike Pence’s calm, rational messaging in the final weeks of the campaign, calling Americans to ‘come home’ was a smart communication and campaigning technique. It tapped into human behaviour in times of uncertainty and strife, when you go back home to the safety and security of family. In confusing political times, Pence encouraged Americans to stick with where they had traditionally placed their allegiances – and for rural white Americans, that is the Republican Party. This rhetoric implied ‘what you know can’t hurt you’, and when coupled with the brash, rebellious messaging from Trump, it covered all bases for anyone who was unsure. It was an approach that showed an understanding of the audience, their motivations, their fears and concerns.

If campaigners apply such savvy communication techniques that go beyond political ideology into personal felt values, whilst coupling rhetoric with demonstrated policy, they have an exceptional foundation for creating sustainable change. As this election showed, policy and political idealism alone doesn’t win new hearts. The public need to feel understood and diverse communications approaches to different audiences enables better results.