How Do We Weather Our Civic Storm?

Business leaders have a role to play in resolving our current crisis

Early in the first week of the New Year, I posted to LinkedIn a link to a forecast of terrorism threats for 2021. The top three were conspiracy theory extremism, violence against faith-based institutions, and domestic extremism. On January 6, violence exploded in Washington, DC. as conspiracy theory and other extremists battered their way into the Capitol building, the most sacred of our secular monuments to democracy. Five people died. More than 50 were injured. The processes of government stopped as lawmakers retreated behind barricaded doors. Historically significant property was destroyed.

Many have said, “This is not who we are.” Yet it is, because this is what we have done. The choice is who we will be going forward.

The question we face is where we go from here. The answer, both simple and complex, is coming together, demanding accountability, and restoring confidence in our civic institutions and in each other. We must unite and go to a better, more hopeful place.

Getting there requires looking at the systemic causes of the rage and violence of January 6. It did not erupt from a void any more than a hurricane appears out of thin air. It was the culmination of social and economic pressures building over time. In communities both rural and urban, we seeded this devastating storm by tolerating swaths of economic and educational blight between pockets of prosperity; too common food, health, and job insecurity; and too many communities ripped apart by mass incarceration and unchecked addiction. We look away from struggling schools. We let blatant falsehoods told by elected officials stand. Too many times, we crossed our fingers and hoped the storm would not hit our land.

While some executives have jumped into the debate over social justice issues, others have exercised caution. They are unsure of the relevance of their personal and brand voices. They do not want to alienate one portion of their customers and employees while supporting the others. Those are reasonable considerations. What we confront now, however, are civic issues and here there can be no silence. Just as the dynamism of the market depends upon the structure and stability of the underlying financial system, all of commerce relies on trusted, well-functioning civil institutions and widely practiced social norms.

One aspect of leading is to get everyone to give up some measure of self-interest in order to achieve together what no one can accomplish alone. CEOs and other executives need to step forward, individually and collectively, to model and illuminate the path forward. Many are doing just that. Business did not cause of these problems, nor can it solve them all. However, here are four non-partisan actions that business leaders can take immediately to begin to knit our communities, and the nation, back together. You may quibble with the specifics of my suggestions. This is less about exactly what we do than who we choose to be. We must hold ourselves and our government to a higher standard, to be our best selves in the aftermath of the horror that shook the nation.

Show that Choices have Consequences: It is gratifying to see that major companies such as American Express, AT&T, Comcast, Marriott, PwC, UPS, and others are pausing political donations. All support, financial and otherwise, should cease to the 139 members of the House of Representatives and eight Senators who continued to question the election after the violence was quelled. There were no competing slates of electors to consider as there were in 1876. All 50 states had certified their elections. Dozens of court cases challenging the election had been thrown out for lack of evidence. Federal, state, and local investigations found no widespread fraud. These elected officials continued giving voice, in somewhat more polished tones, to the demands of the mayhem-makers knowing that the election was legitimate and despite the chaos they had witnessed. Stripping any support now will allow challengers to emerge within their own party well in advance of the next election cycle.

Demand Action on Issues that Matter: The underlying causes of the torment mentioned above result, in part, from Congress’ seeming inability to tackle issues more complicated than ordering lunch. Break that intransigence by cutting off all support to both parties until tangible, bipartisan progress is made on immigration reform, climate change, and healthcare costs and availability. These are commonly recognized challenges in which business has an interest and in which there has been some past bipartisan agreement. Business leaders can prod Congress toward being a functioning third branch of government again rather than a place where compromise eludes, and good ideas go to die.

Shoulder some of the Burden: To deliver a real shock to the system, corporate interests should stand up and offer to pay for investments that will spur the long-term prosperity that heals communities. Advocate for tax increase (or tax cut rollback—I am not an expert) on companies and wealthy individuals, starting in 2023 when Covid should be under control and an economic bounce-back underway, in exchange for an agreement that the incremental revenue is directed to infrastructure, education, and basic research. In each of these areas, the need is great and the potential benefits to business and society-at-large are enormous. Thoughtful solutions can garner bipartisan support, particularly if new revenue makes these investments deficit neutral.

In the short-term, many companies, even profitable ones, are downsizing. Small businesses are closing. Be as generous as you can with people. Support government efforts to cushion those adversely affected by the pandemic. This helps people now and primes the economy for a rapid rebound.

Encourage More Civic Participation: People must be heard for democracy to function. Actively support efforts to ensure that every eligible American can vote safely and securely with relative ease. This may include giving employees at least a half-day off on election day or calling for a national election day holiday. Many questions were raised around the 2020 election. Election officials labored through difficult circumstances to deliver results in which citizens can have confidence. Some voters waited in line for hours. It should not this difficult to administer or participate in such a basic function of our society.

Further, back off pressuring employees to contribute to corporate political action committees. My informal reporting reveals that compelled participation generates fear that abstaining may be a career-limiting move. It is hard to see how the resulting angst generates enthusiasm for the democratic process.

And on those social justice issues, find a way to engage. This may be creating space for conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other issues. Or committing resources to address inequities. Show no tolerance for hate speech or hate action and violence. Develop a radical commitment to deep listening. Speak out against injustice. In the end, the social and civic are deeply intertwined.

On the evening of January 6, CNN commentator Van Jones noted, “We don’t know what we’re looking at yet. Is this end of something? Or the beginning of something?” We still do not. The storm still rages. Business leaders have the voice and the resources to catalyze change that makes that dark day the end mainstreaming extremism and the beginning of a brighter era across America and beyond.

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