CEOs Must Start Selling Capitalism

Should CEOs be battening down the hatches amid populist campaigning against business leaders—and even calls for outright socialism? Here's what you can do.

It’s smart strategy. Since 2014, there have been nearly 300 ESG-related proxy campaigns in the U.S., according to FactSet. From 2009 through 2013, there were only about 80. CEOs have long relied on robust philanthropy to even out capitalism’s rough edges, but they may need to overhaul corporate giving as well. Many younger Americans seem unimpressed by traditional charities like United Way.

Kesner argues that it may be a matter of refashioning philanthropy to appeal to younger generations. “They must know where their money is going before they give it,” she says. “They must be able to relate to the cause it supports; they don’t see the generic benefit of philanthropy like previous generations do.”


Topics like income inequality can be even gnarlier. The issue ties into what many Americans identify as most offputting about capitalism—and most appealing about socialism.

Actual data can help here. Chief Executive’s annual study of C-level pay in the U.S. found median CEO comp in 2017 was around $350,000, just 6.7 times the median income for all U.S. workers, not 275 times, as is more widely reported.

Still, “On the fringe these days are people like Sanders and, on the other end, those who want to go back to the gold standard,” says Gary Tobin, a Fortune 500 communications veteran. “Both don’t work. But if you don’t self-regulate, you’re going to get regulated. Look at what happened to Wells Fargo.”

That serious consideration is being given to such ideas underscores the level of distrust in business right now. Fifty percent of millennials and Generation Z members surveyed by the Harris Poll earlier this year said they would prefer living in a socialist country, with huge majorities expressing support for government-provided universal healthcare and tuition-free college. They will make up 37 percent of the 2020 electorate.

“I hope that, like most young idealists, once they get through the learning curve of life and put their skills to work… they’ll start to sort all of this out and do some of their own learning on socialism and free enterprise,” says Dan Ariens, CEO of lawn equipment manufacturer Ariens. “That’s when reality may set in. I’m hoping they’ll decide that all their hard work shouldn’t be given away to a government that is going to be about as wasteful as any on earth. Keep it for yourselves, or donate it if you feel that sort of responsibility.”

Die-hard progressives warn against overreacting. Even they find it difficult to picture America turning into Sweden anytime soon. “Every generation when they’re 18 to 26 is more idealistic and liberal-leaning,” says Tim Hubbard, a University of Notre Dame business professor with liberal affiliations. “Is there something fundamentally different now? Maybe. But I don’t think in this election cycle or even six years out we’re going to see it. I’m not holding my breath.”

Read more: Elizabeth Warren’s War On Big Tech


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events