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Advocacy in the Era of Polarization

“Constructive engagement” is a political strategy for polarized times. The idea behind it is that the country has an urgent need to find the political center. For the business community, this means deploying new and innovative means to create bipartisan support for favored policies and programs.

That seems, as it should, uncontroversial and commonsensical. But doing so successfully is another matter. If there’s one lesson from recent attempts at constructive engagement, it’s best to avoid alienating your friends while attempting to make new ones.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. The Chamber of Commerce, the Beltway’s storied and iconic business trade association, knows that all too well. Seeing an intractably divided country, the Chamber understandably tried to broaden its political appeal by, among other things, recalibrating its voting scorecard. But in the end, it seems no one is happy with the result.

This is unfortunate, because these are challenging times. Politics permeates everything, a reality not lost on corporate America, where routine business is no longer routine. Companies experience this most acutely in the shareholder realm. Various interests are growing increasingly sophisticated in using their ownership stakes to drive corporate action on climate change, diversity, equality, and much else. Ignoring these challenges is not in the cards; appropriately and effectively managing them, as many companies are, certainly is.

The political forces fueling shareholder resolutions often manifest themselves in the halls of Congress—and vice versa. Businesses approach these challenges based in part on the products they make, how they make them, and who buys them. Some feel perfectly comfortable taking aggressive public stances, others don’t. Moreover, companies belong to trade associations either to reinforce their social and political efforts, or to let the trades take the lead on issues of public concern.

Whatever the approach, the goal is to get politicians to support their causes. That means more than simply cosponsoring pro-business legislation; in other words, going beyond just kind words or empty gestures, and actually voting with the business community, on policies that businesses care about.

This points to another lesson: don’t get hoodwinked by politicians who self-designate as “problem solvers.” For one thing, implicit in their self-declared status is that those who disagree with them oppose solving problems. This is obviously not conducive to building broad-based coalitions to achieve substantive results. Thus, this contingent works from a position of weakness. And put more bluntly, their putative moral superiority won’t fix any road, repair any bridge, or lower healthcare costs.

In divided times, as paradoxical as it may seem, the way to win new friends and allies is to stick to principle, while communicating it in ways that the other side can understand and, just maybe, grudgingly support. This may seem naïve, but in fact, it means presenting your side as united and committed, operating from a position of strength. It will enhance your arguments politically and make them harder to resist.

That may mean, at times, finding your own way with other like-minded companies, in a group that can be united, nimble, and effective in achieving public policy goals—all without sacrificing principle. These groups oftentimes
work in concert with larger, more established trade associations, to the benefit of both. Together they execute campaigns using a variety of communications, legal, and policy tools. In Washington, this approach is becoming increasingly common, as the digital age collides with populism (in both parties) and the politicization of nearly everything.

Heaping praise—or casting aspersions—on politicians can be precisely targeted, with maximum impact, via social media. Those hits get candidates’ attention faster and with far greater effect than a scorecard, an anachronism from a bygone age. To be sure, opposition to the business community is deployed in precisely this way with, in some notable cases, brutal efficiency and success.

So as the election results roll in, it’s important to keep in mind that “constructive engagement,” as the term is defined today, is necessary to garner bipartisan support to get things done. Corporate America, after all, wants results, not politics or posturing.

But what it can’t mean is turning on your friends. If you do, then the result is predictable: You will end up like the Chamber, living on an island, trusted by no one.