President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Andrews Air...

President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Nov. 29, 2017. Credit: AP / Andrew Harnik

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. This put them both among the top five.

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.

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. The company reported that it added 105,000 net digital-only subscriptions for its news product in the third quarter, helping to push digital subscription revenue to $86 million, a 46 percent increase compared with the same period a year ago.

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



Mark Whitehouse writes editorials on global economics and finance for Bloomberg View. He covered economics for the Wall Street Journal and served as deputy bureau chief in London. He was previously the founding managing editor of Vedomosti, a Russian-language business daily. Readersy may email him at


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