Two Ways Trump Might Be Great for Democracy

U.S. consumers seem to be devoting a bigger share of their spending to social advocacy groups and newspapers.

Protest isn't cheap.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

If you think the presidency of Donald Trump has cast a pall on American democracy, consider a bright side: It has been very good for two important institutions of civil society -- social advocacy groups and newspapers.

One way to assess the changing state of the nation is to follow how people spend money. To that end, I looked at Commerce Department data on personal expenditures in the year before and after Trump’s election in early November 2016, to see if any shifts in U.S. consumer purchases stood out.

Two did. A category called “social advocacy groups and civil and social organizations” -- which could include memberships in anything from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Rifle Association -- saw its share of total spending grow by 16 percent. The share of another, “newspapers and periodicals,” increased about 7 percent. 1 This put them both among the top five: 2

Where's the Money Going?

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, author's calculations

*In the 12 months through October 2017, compared with the same period a year earlier

What’s more, their estimated share of aggregate U.S. consumer spending expanded much faster than it had at just about any point in the past 10 years. Here’s how that looks for the advocacy groups:

Budget Share: Social Advocacy Groups

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, author's calculations

And here’s how that looks for newspapers and periodicals:

Budget Share: Newspapers and Periodicals

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis, author's calculations

It’s easy to guess what's going on. Trump’s election has further polarized the nation, prompting more people to join organizations that they think will advance their goals. And the desire to make sense of seemingly unending scandals, together with all the talk of “fake news,” has been a boon for traditional media. The New York Times, for example, has seen subscriptions rise sharply.

Will the trend in consumer spending translate into greater civic participation? Perhaps we’ll find out at next November’s congressional election.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. To be sure, these are rough estimates based on imperfect data. The Bureau of Economic Analysis, for example, uses quarterly data from a broader Census Bureau category called “Religious, grantmaking, civic, professional, and similar organizations” to inform its estimates for “social advocacy groups and civil and social organizations.” For “newspapers and periodicals,” the BEA uses retail sales data from establishments such as newsstands and direct sellers (which include subscription sellers). For more information on the BEA’s methodology, see here and here.

  2. Excluding volatile categories such as fuel and vehicles, and categories that accounted for less than 0.1 percent of total consumer spending.

To contact the author of this story:
Mark Whitehouse at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at

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