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CEOs Take Center Stage in the New Political Regime

CEOs have a critical role to play in reordering politics, fixing the parties, returning to the public square and working in the interest not only of business, but of the country at large.

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Over the course of the past year, voices on both sides of the aisle, across editorial pages and in boardrooms have begun arguing that it’s time for America to rethink its politics. Even many CEOs are shedding their traditional reluctance to engage and, instead, are participating in such a realignment.

Donald Trump’s election as president has yanked the Republican Party into unfamiliar philosophical and policy territory, and the Democrats’ losses have left them in profound disarray. One result is that growing elements are trying to force everyone back toward the center of the American political spectrum where they believe the future of the parties—and the nation—must be constructed.

“I’m tired of it all because it has become so strident,” says Larry Jensen, president and CEO of Cushman & Wakefield Commercial Advisors, a Memphis-based regional affiliate of the real estate firm. “There are people of goodwill, but their voices have been quashed by this political environment. We need a new way of interacting with political parties.”

“There are people of goodwill, but their voices have been quashed by this political environment. We need a new way of interacting with political parties.

Like Jensen, many other CEOs are now trying to figure out how they can advance the interests of business—all business, not just their own—through a mastery of the political process, even though so many balls are still in the air. The confusion argues that business leaders should define what’s important to them now and advocate for it rather than waiting to see how things evolve.

“Business leaders and CEOs have the opportunity now to really step up and engage with elected officials in developing policy solutions,” says Steve Odland, CEO of the Committee for Economic Development, a nonpartisan public-policy organization, and former CEO of Office Depot and AutoZone. “Business leaders have had their heads down basically for quite some time. But any time you have a change in Washington—and this is truly a lot of change—it creates an opportunity for re-engagement. Now they should re-engage.”

Some political leaders clearly are counting on exactly that. “We’re Americans first, and CEOs play an important role in reminding people that we’re Americans first, and what a great country we live in,” U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from metro Detroit who used to be a Republican, told Chief Executive. “They need to help pull people together so we’re not looking at the world as a partisan divide.”

No doubt the vote rocked CEOs’ worlds. Of course, many are happy with the prospect of a President Trump who has promised to roll back regulations, cut taxes, encourage hydrocarbon production and overhaul Obamacare, among other things. And they’re only a subset of a much larger group of company leaders who would be happy if precursors of an uptick actually translated into stronger business growth in the first quarter and beyond.

But CEOs also realize that the long-term stability of American democracy is even more important than short-run considerations. They recognize that America’s current political system is highly susceptible to being swayed by events, trends and even individual politicians such as Trump. Many business leaders see a yawning challenge in reforming America’s political processes and mustering the wherewithal to ensure the nation’s future.

Some business chiefs believe the major political parties are a place to start. After all, the 2018 elections are less than two years away.

They see the Democratic Party as having abandoned working-class whites who turned out in huge numbers for Trump. One possible response for national Democrats is to double down. Rather than “look for areas of compromise” in Congress, for example, says Alan Blinder, head of the Princeton University economics department, Democrats may “become what Republicans have been for years: the party of obstruction,” despite their minority status.

About Dale Buss

Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.