Song of Sorrow or Call to Arms? Four Stratagems to Improve Our Politics

The TakeAway: While extremist politics dominate Washington, financial markets continue to seize, and US credit-worthiness takes a beating, advocates of sustainability and good governance need to stop moping and get off the bench. Here are four stratagems to reverse the tide: educate and engage a broader public, hold political candidates accountable, and support Bob Massie for U.S. Senate.

What a week this was: in the face of a double-dip recession, the Dow exhibits bipolar behavior, its wild volatility (including the worst trading days since September 2008) an apparent reaction to last Friday’s unprecedented downgrade by Standard & Poor’s of the nation’s debt rating, from “AAA” to “AA.” President Obama hit the airwaves Monday afternoon, less than a week after signing a debt-ceiling bill that many believe is a complete capitulation to right-wing Republicans because it failed to include any tax increases while calling for massive cuts—which in the long run won’t make much of a difference. Adding insult to injury, Congress abdicated its authority to a 12-member “Super Congress” that supposedly will recommend at least $1.5 trillion of additional deficit measures, further concentrating public power in the hands of a few.

Meanwhile, despite last year’s passage of omnibus financial regulatory reform, its opponents have taken to the courts while seeking to castrate the SEC by defunding its ability to make and enforce rules based on the law’s provisions. Unemployment remains at historic levels (9.1 percent), with nearly 14 million Americans out of work and more than 6 million of them jobless for more than six months.  Income / wealth inequalities – exacerbated across racial and ethnicity lines – continue to rise, with most Americans unable to cope with a $1,000 emergency. This is a picture far removed from Washington’s political gamesmanship as politicians gear up for 2012 elections. Last night’s Republican debate was the opening salvo in what promises to be a dreary, dirty campaign season.

No wonder the public is fed up. A Washington Post poll reveals that three-quarters of the American people have little or no confidence in Washington’s ability to repair the economy. The vast majority are dissatisfied by the way the way our political system is working, and believe Washington is focused on the “wrong things.” “The decline in confidence has potentially profound implications for coming elections,” reports the Post, “although the anger appears directed evenly between the two parties.”

We’re suffering from a “failure of leadership,” opines the New York Times, telling us what we already know: that our elected officials have no sense of what we need, no empathy for our plight, and no apparently ability to speak our language, define the problem and call upon us all to rise to the occasion and fix it.

You’d think that in the face of this mess that my colleagues, who’ve dedicated their lives to sustainable prosperity and social justice, would rally quickly and use their power as civic change agents as effectively as they’ve used their power as private sector change agents. You’d think that they would apply their recognition of the links between private prosperity and the public good and the overlapping interdependence of healthy ecosystems, and work to complete an incomplete picture of what’s wrong and what’s needed.

But you’d be wrong.

Instead, they’re on the political sidelines, working to advance corporate accountability, responsible investing, and stakeholder engagement. These are noble and important goods, but relatively meaningless within a political context determined to destroy them, driven by an ideology that’s taken us to the brink of economic disaster, poisoned public rhetoric (and even worse, our imagination), and dashed our dreams of liberty and justice for all.

So it’s time to get off the bench and onto the playing field, educating each other and a wider public about alternative approaches to markets that strengthen society rather than dividing it. It’s time to support candidates who recognize that “building value” has multiple meaning, involving not just economic well-being but environmental and social well-being, too.

It’s time to forge a new politics that builds us up rather than takes us down, reminding us that we are more than the sum of our pluralist parts, instead of appealing to prejudice, fear, and vulnerability.

It’s time to create a new vocabulary that’s suitable not just for Wall Street and Main Street, but for our street—a language capturing the fullest sense of “return on investment” that has both civic moral and material purpose and meaning in our lives, and those who come after us.

It’s time to hold political candidates accountable, challenging them to address the problems we tackle every day: global warming and sustainability, accountable business models, responsible ownership, good corporate governance, stakeholder engagement, human rights, clean energy—the list goes on and on.

It’s also time to support those few candidates who dare to run for office because they offer transformative leadership that embodies the purpose, passions, and pragmatic principles that animate our work.

Four Stratagems for Restoring Our Politics

Fortunately, on each of these fronts, there are a number of options available to us.

1.  With respect to education, both social media and the Internet provide endless opportunities for communicating far and wide alternative models of economic behavior that advance sustainable prosperity and justice, which we’ve only begun to tap. But beyond Facebook, we need more face-time, too. We need to go offline, reach out to our community, have a conversation about what this country needs, and what we can do about it.

Coalition building in the finest sense, we need to engage a broader, diverse public about how we can improve both our economy and the planet at the same time. We’re far too isolated from public discourse, as evidenced by the dominance of extremist rhetoric, demagoguery, and downright ignorance. It’s time to speak up, and get beyond our comfort zone in ways that are civically compatible with voter education. Go ahead: call 5 of your friends—better yet, contact folks you know don’t agree with you, and get the discussion going!

2.  As for a new vocabulary, we need to be “bilingual”, speaking both what Canadian philosopher Charles M. Taylor calls an “upper language” of purpose and meaning and a “lower language” more utilitarian in scope.  We need to make it plain, as well: our sustainability language is off-putting to many average people who yearn for a better way to make sense of a bewildering world they feel powerless to influence. One small step for linguistic clarity and precision: I’m working with colleagues Deborah Leipziger, Bill Baue, and Joshua Gay to build a platform for words and terms that more accurately convey the concepts that characterize our work. But we need to do a whole lot more to craft and speak a language that helps us speak to the world in more effective ways. We need to engage, collectively, in broader public conversations about how to strengthen our democracy and political economy within an international context that values many of the same goods that we do.

3.  As for holding political candidates accountable, we need to take to the editorial pages and airwaves, advancing the social justice and sustainability arguments we make so well in proxy races and boardrooms. Our 501(c)(3) status is no excuse for not speaking out as private citizens and letting our voices – and expertise – be heard, challenging candidates to reveal their agenda for building a sustainable economy that incorporates environmental, social, and governance goals, and laying bare their prejudices for business development at any price.

4.  As for supporting candidates that embody the change we seek, we’ve already got one here in Massachusetts who represents our shared commitments and aspirations. His name is Bob Massie, and he’s running for U.S. Senate. Bob holds precisely the depth of knowledge, skills, experience, and temperament so desperately needed to tackle the thorny problems that beset our nation and world.

Bob Massie for U.S. Senate

For those who don’t know him, Bob’s entire life is about public service, whatever his perch—behind the pulpit (he’s an ordained Episcopalian minister), in the boardroom (he’s years of experience advancing corporate accountability), or on the streets (he’s a history of marching on behalf of the oppressed). Against great personal and professional odds, he’s fought for the common good, in health care, in economic life, in sustainable prosperity here at home and abroad. What makes him especially unusual is that he’s a thinker as well as a fighter, someone who understands both the big picture and the details, and isn’t afraid to state his opinions. Plus, he’s an entrepreneur, something sorely needed in this ever-changing world of ours where adaptive creative is a necessity, not rigid adherence to failed models.

Some examples of Bob’s vision and portfolio of experience that helped set the stage for so many to follow:

  • He was the first executive director of Ceres, asked by Ceres’ founder Joan Bavaria back in 1989 to build a coalition of responsible investors that would make companies more responsible environmental citizens.
  • He founded the Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR), now a network of 100 institutional investors with combined assets of $10 trillion, which focuses on climate change risks and financial opportunities, and addresses the policy and governance issues impeding investor progress toward more sustainable capital markets.
  • He co-founded the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) in 1997, now widely viewed as the gold standard for corporate sustainability reporting, used throughout the world by more than 1,800 companies for corporate reporting on environmental, social, and economic performance.

More recently, when he’s not campaigning Bob serves as a member of the Working Group of the International Integrated Reporting Committee (IIRC), a powerful, international cross section of leaders from the corporate, investment, accounting, securities, regulatory, academic and standard-setting sectors as well as civil society. The IIRC extends the principles of the GRI by seeking to legitimate this wider definition of business performance and impact throughout the world, “in a way that will create a more profound and comprehensive picture of the risks and opportunities a company faces, specifically in the context of the drive towards a more sustainable global economy.”

And this is just a sampler. Bob Massie’s run for office before, worked on numerous political campaigns, knows how to speak both the “upper language” of purpose and meaning, and the “lower language” of persuasion and practicalities. He’s climbed more mountains that most of us can see, yet maintains a tireless faith in the future and our ability to transcend our limits without losing our souls.

Bob’s campaign, which receives favorable support from grassroots Massachusetts, continues to advance the causes we hold dear, while elevating the discourse from polemics to possibility. He needs our help, though, to carry the message through the coming grueling months. If you believe in sustainable prosperity and justice, please consider supporting him by visiting his website at and making a donation.

A Time to Play

What’s troubling to me about the current state of affairs is not just the Tea Party’s outsized strength, or the polluting power of corporate money in campaigns, or even the polarized climate in which the nation’s business is conducted.

What’s troubling is the absence of those who’ve dedicated their lives to social justice, sustainable prosperity, and the common good who are missing in action when it comes to electoral politics, thus enabling a democracy crisis that threatens our markets, our heritage, and our common human future. Within this climate, one can choose to sing a song of sorrow and stay on the sidelines, or fight back and reclaim our politics, exercising the duties that citizenship bestows, the Spirit of America upon which our republican government relies.

The destructive dysfunction of contemporary public life needs to be reversed, and who better to do this than those who’ve fought to make economic enterprise more accountable to the public interest?

It’s time for those who are sitting on the sidelines to put their actions where their beliefs are. So get out there and speak to the world, watch your language, hold candidates accountable by asking hard questions and make them talk about their plans for building a sustainable and just future.

And support Bob Massie’s campaign for U.S. Senate. Otherwise, we run the risk of letting our ideals, values, and commitments become ghosts on the landscape of tyranny’s shadows.

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2 Responses to Song of Sorrow or Call to Arms? Four Stratagems to Improve Our Politics

  1. Pingback: Song of Sorrow or Call to Arms? Four Stratagems to Improve Our … « Articles « Election 2012 Coverage

  2. I’ve ‘liked’ this on FB and commented. Well said!

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