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Somebody’s going to win. Now what?

None of us know how the elections are going to play out. It might be a blowout, it might be a nail biter, or it might drag on well past Election Day itself. But no matter what happens, ultimately, someone is going to win. And perhaps surprisingly, that poses a particular threat to credit unions.

  • Andrew Turner Professor at University of Wisconsin Law School

As voters go, so go credit unions.

Several years ago, I did some research with Filene to find out how credit unions are perceived politically. Are credit unions viewed by consumers as more politically conservative or more liberal? The initial evidence was, to be honest, completely confounding. My personal hunch – likely formed by living in credit union-heavy and more progressive Madison, Wisconsin – was that credit unions would be perceived as liberal institutions. I had guessed that such a finding would lead to some self-reflection about how to avoid credit unions becoming typecast in the eyes of the public.

That’s not how it turned out.

In fact, credit unions are well loved by people across the political spectrum. The vast majority of liberals do, in fact, love credit unions. Then again, so do the vast majority of staunch conservatives.

That sounds like great news for credit unions, but there was a worrying punchline hidden underneath those results.

The less politically engaged a person is, the less likely that person is to use a credit union and the more likely that person is to see credit unions in a negative light.

One group really did seem to dislike credit unions: the politically disengaged. Across the board, the stronger one’s political feelings and participation, the more positive one’s views about credit unions. But the less engaged a person was, the more likely they were to dislike credit unions. Though the numbers were small, they were striking.

What’s more, we must remember that the politically disengaged may constitute a majority of U.S. Americans. Indeed, while there are many ways to get involved in civic and political life beyond voting, as Chris Arnade has recently written1, “each election there are three choices and the winner is always not voting. […] “None of the above” effectively wins every presidential election, and it isn’t even close.”

Credit union danger zone—we’re about to harvest a huge new crop of disillusioned voters.

As they say, this has “been a year.” Before the most contentious political battle in memory, we already faced a slow, grinding reckoning on racial issues, economic upheaval, and a previously unthinkable global pandemic that is still burning through the country. Those challenges, all leavened by deep partisan divides in the United States, have led a huge number of Americans to view the election as an existential matter.

These high stakes and deep partisanship almost assure that an unprecedented number of Americans will be angry, frustrated, disillusioned, and numb regardless of who ultimately prevails.

The election itself is unlikely to cure the problem. Millions of voters in “safe” red and blue states increasingly feel that their vote is useless. Voters on the left and the right are convinced that elites and media have reasserted control at best or are trying to steal the election at worst. Many are frustrated by the lack of democratic participation and accountability in government, from local elections to the highest levels of political representation. If President Trump wins via the Electoral College, it’s easy to imagine an overwhelming sense of frustration, antipathy, and hopelessness among huge swaths of the voting public. Paradoxically, if Joe Biden wins, not only will many conservatives have similar feelings of overwhelming frustration, many of his opponents may also be set adrift, for President Trump has forged a sense of common purpose among his opponents, from “never-Trump” conservatives to centrist Democrats to progressives on the left.

All of this suggests that 2021 will bring us a rich harvest of newly disillusioned citizens. Disillusionment is usually a precursor to disengagement, and as we’ve seen, disengaged voters and non-voters don’t like credit unions.

Why do disengaged citizens reject credit unions?

I am currently working on follow-up research to analyze why the politically disaffected and disengaged have negative views of credit unions. For now, the truth is that we don’t yet know—and that’s because this group is itself extremely diverse.

Here are several theories. (And it’s even possible that this research will reveal the effect is less powerful or more nuanced that we realized.)

First, the disaffected and disengaged may not have a particular problem with credit unions – perhaps they have a problem with everyone. The anti-credit union feelings I recorded were not very specific. That suggests that people may have more general frustrations with what they perceive as “authority” or “the system.”

A second theory is that some people are simply checked out. They’re not angry, they just hear credit unions roughly the way Charlie Brown heard his teacher – as vague mumbles at the margin of their lives, irrelevant and unhelpful.

Third, the disaffected and disengaged might be cynical – not just about politics, but about the economy, business, schools, and pretty much everything else. For people who have deep-seated distrust, what credit unions may intend as authentic messages may be perceived as no more convincing—and hypocritical—than a sales pitch by a major commercial bank or retailer.

An anchor in rough waters: What can credit unions do in the post-election period?

Where does that leave credit unions in the immediate, post-election aftermath? Credit unions can play an important role in helping their members navigate muddy waters and, quite frankly, help themselves at the same time.

Nothing I’m proposing is rocket science – most credit unions do these things already. But there may be no better time to reaffirm this approach, reassess what’s working, and double down on successful messages and strategies.

  • Keep it concrete.
  • Help people re-engage with their community.
  • Reaffirm that not all values are political in a partisan sense.
  • Provide a sense of empowerment, growth, and opportunity.

Keep it concrete.

One of the best antidotes to generalized cynicism is specific, visible accomplishment. While credit unions can and should tout high-minded ideals of fairness, member governance, and non-profit status, they should also make sure that high-minded concepts are continually grounded to real-world, tangible accomplishments tied to real people. This will help overcome any perception that credit unions are just one more in an endless stream of empty promises from those representing “the system.”

Help people re-engage with their community.

As membership organizations that join people around common identities, credit unions have a unique ability to remind people that our identities and commitments go much deeper than our national politics. To some extent, a sense of frustration and disengagement around national politics (and local politics that have become nationalized) is almost inevitable when one is a single voice among 300 million. Yet many of us lose touch with the fact that we are crucial components of many other, more intimate associations – our schools, our churches, our workplaces, our neighborhoods and towns.

By emphasizing those more intimate connections to real people in their communities, credit unions can play an important role in helping people maintain a sense of connection, voice, and importance.

Reaffirm that not all values are political in a partisan sense.

It’s no surprise that in our social media-inundated world, many of us have started to feel like having a political position is the same as engagement. Yet there are many other ways to be engaged and express core values. Credit unions show that access to affordable credit, fair financial dealing, and creative savings options are ways to transform communities. Helping members become actively engaged in governance and empower themselves and their communities is a way to make the promise of credit unions more palpable and give members a sense of purpose that ties more directly to their everyday lives. 

Provide a sense of empowerment, growth, and opportunity.

Hopelessness and a lack of self-efficacy are fellow travelers with disengagement and disillusionment. Put in the simplest terms possible, credit unions can give hope to people who are starting to feel hopeless. Credit unions can play a role in anchoring people’s lives by emphasizing not just lower rates and accessible credit, but by making sure those messages are tied to a clear sense of how financial products and services can create a path to financial stability, access to better housing, and educational opportunities. This is a lesson Filene research has shown over and over again (see additional research topics below): Financial well-being is a winning value proposition. It’s worth reflecting once again on the fact that a stable economic situation, the ability to buy a home, access to credit to smooth the rough edges off life, and access to education and economic mobility—these are the types of things that can restore a sense of connection to community and a sense of purpose and fulfillment in life. By having those lessons front of mind, credit unions are not just helping people get by day-to-day but helping their members reaffirm a sense of belonging and participation in their community and eventually in the country.

Credit Unions and the Coronavirus

Pathways to Financial Well-being

The Case for Workplace Financial Well-being

Payments, Financial Wellness, and Prospects for CU Growth