Filling the Void After an Abdication

In early February, Bruce Mehlman, of Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, a Washington communications firm,posted his quarterly slide deck.  It is worth a look as my summary gives it less than its due. The theme was trust or rather the lack of it.  Our government is underperforming and not getting away with it.

The Congress is by far the worst offender (my observation not Mehlman’s) likely because it is the only part of the government in which Democrats and Republicans need to get along if they are to do the jobs assigned to them by the Constitution and for which we pay them. It has essentially abdicated, and other institutions are moving to fill the void.

Surely, the Biden administration knew it already, but Mehlman reminded them that they had but two years before they were likely to lose tenuous control over the Congress. Proponents have a harder job than opponents and it gets worse when partisanship hits new highs. If the real goal of a politician is to get reelected (do you doubt it?), there is no incentive to compromise.

CEOs on the other hand prefer narrower and more predictable swings of the pendulum so they have stepped into the controversies and taken more visible positions, especially on the most outrageous political ideas. If you’d like to replace the words “political ideas” with “fund raising” or “attention getting” schemes, you won’t be far wrong.

Of five themes Mehlman thought could go either way, three started well

  • Vaccines prevailed over mutations and fear;
  • The relief recovery continued; and
  • Investments in resilience seem likely.

Two are less favorable

  • Confrontation with China continues; and
  • Bipartisan compromise is losing badly to gridlock, blame and the permanent campaign.

Let’s split the credit evenly between government and the private sector for the things that are going well. Unfortunately for those who look to government for answers, we have to blame that side for the things that are going badly.

At the three-month mark (true, far too early to draw meaningful conclusions,) the private sector is contributing while government is detracting.

Today, less than three months later, Mehlman has posted a new deck. He calls it “Woke Capitalism” and its Discontents: Navigating Hyper-Activism in an Age of Disruption. Thanks to technological, cultural and political trends resulting in social disruption, citizen engagement and leadership failure, business has emerged as the most trusted institution to lead on a wide range of societal issues.

Such business involvement is not new. Nor is it just about sucking up to politicians. Contributions are a cheaper and less controversial way to achieve that goal (at least in the minds of the politicians).

  • 68% of Americans think CEOs should take a stand on social issues
  • 54% of employees think CEOs should speak publicly on controversial political and social issues
  • 43% of consumers will favor the company that takes a stand on like-minded (that’s the tricky part) social, environmental, or political issues
  • About 25% of investments (up from 1% in 2014) went to ESG (environmental, social, governance) funds.

Would these be the results if Congress were doing its job?

On the left, Progressives grapple for power with moderates, while on the right, Populists do the same with traditional Republicans. In the battles that matter to elected officials – reelection and money raising – the Progressives and Populists seem to be prevailing. Since those are not the issues that matter to the business community, it is not wholly surprising that it is not well-aligned with either party.

Leadership and solutions face an uphill fight in a media environment in which narratives are more important than facts, speed is more important than accuracy and outcomes are more important than objectivity.

Yet leadership and solutions are needed and those are not prioritized by members of Congress. Like it or not the void is being filled, at least in part, by the business community.

In such a tricky environment, what is the CEO to do? Mehlman prefers to suggest best practices because he believes there is no formula. Here are his guidelines. The explanations in his concluding slide are additive.

  1. Be true to your word and values.
  2. Resist reflexively rushing in.
  3. Build a diverse team and a consistent process.
  4. Find safety in numbers and wisdom in crowds.
  5. Inoculate in advance through meaningful stakeholder engagement.
  6. Ensure employees are heard.

Engaging in social and political issues is not the traditional remit of corporate leaders, but what are they to do if members of Congress show little interest in finding answers that satisfy perceived needs?

Trust in government is near non-existent and, according to Mehlman, this is our greatest problem. Is it any surprise, that two non-elected bodies – the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve Board – are making some of our most important decisions?

Now we seem to be adding a third unelected influencer: the business community.

That does not say much for democracy, but maybe that is to be expected when elected officials abdicate their responsibilities.

10 Responses to “Filling the Void After an Abdication”

Peter W. Bragdon, April 23, 2021 at 6:10 pm said:

Haven!
The polls would indicate that the nation favors Democratic moves: I wonder whether this will give traditional Republicans some leverage. There are indications of hope — such as Senator Scott’s present conversations with Senator Booker regaring police reform.

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Diana kitt, April 23, 2021 at 7:19 pm said:

I agree with Peter. Biden is leading and proposing major initiatives. He has support across the political spectrum for many if his initiatives. He probably figures he has two years to get this country back on track—before who knows what happens.

The roadblock? Its not Congress writ large. Its the Republicans in Congress except perhaps for senator murkowski and Tim Scott.
Im pressed to identify a single positive thing trump and the GoP did the past 4 years for the health of this country. Tax cuts for the rich and corporations? Sorry i fail to see any trickledown while workers are still being paid minimum wages.

I frankly wondered why trump, McConnell etc failed to do anything on infrastructure. That was such an easy thing to do while the GOP controlled Congress and the Presidency.

Biden has surprised me because of the scale of his agenda. He’s doing something on the pandemic, the infrastructure, the environment, gun violence, and the far extremist elements in this country. I for one am relieved to see leadership leading us in a positive way.

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Garrard Glenn, April 23, 2021 at 6:26 pm said:

Sadly, Haven is correct. For decades Congress has been primarily interested in partisan tribal warfare, money-raising, and reelection schemes. Change has originated from the Executive branch. Trump did things, some of which were effective, whereas Obama
did little that was effective. Now Biden is doing things, all of which are dependent on spending Trillions of dollars which must be printed as opposed to collected via taxation. Will it all come to tears? I suspect so. Maybe we’re better off on balance with a do-nothing, spend little Congress. An unpleasant irony.

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Russell Seitz, April 23, 2021 at 6:43 pm said:

It may take some time for Mehlman’s guidelines to trickle down to media corporations .The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Fox seem too toxically woke and predictably comatose to grapple with bipartisanship any more

Your Earth Day viewing choices are three hours of Greta Thunberg , or three sound bites from Tucker Carlson.

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Haven Pell, April 24, 2021 at 11:03 am said:

Rather than reply to each comment, as I sometimes do, I will try to clear something up that must not have been stressed adequately enough. The story was about inertia in Congress, an overall loss of trust and others filling the void. A quick reread just now suggests to me that it was neither about presidential administrations nor about the relative merits of the two political parties.

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Garrard Glenn, April 24, 2021 at 1:54 pm said:

The idea that business is stepping into the void is an interesting one. I have no idea how effective it might be. There is certainly plenty of potential to be effective.
But I’m afraid that a number of large corporations have adopted woke stances, even to the point of supporting the odious BLM, in order to deflect criticism from themselves from various destructive elements of the Left.

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Bob Bailey, April 24, 2021 at 9:01 pm said:

Government and business! You forgot the Third Estate. Progressives and Populists are prevailing because the “news” has become a battle for eyeballs and advertising which has transformed it to entertainment. The extremes are much more entertaining than the moderate middle.
I do think that business is ultimately more aligned with Progressives than the Populists. Business is finally seeing that investment in global warming reduction, education, prison reform, public health and building a diverse workforce are in their long term business interests. True Populists should be pushing for the same reforms, but they are too focused on sending us back to the 1950’s.

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Haven Pell, April 25, 2021 at 9:37 am said:

So many villains; so little time. The economic dislocation of the news business has done just what you describe. Perhaps suspending all self congratulatory journalism events and all awards for journalism until the business model sorts itself out would be salutary. Alternatively make the awards for the skill that is actually rewarded — largest number of clicks.

Shall we also consider the publicists and the political consultants?

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Sellers McKee, April 26, 2021 at 5:31 pm said:

Well, if nothing else, big government and big budgets are very efficient at making everybody hate everybody else. We were warned…

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