Democrats Turn to an Unlikely Ally: Big Business

Democrats Turn to an Unlikely Ally: Big Business

Why you should care

Because government isn’t the only way to change the world.

Less than 24 hours after House Democrats voted to keep Nancy Pelosi as minority leader, an insurgent group met in the basement of the Renaissance hotel in Washington, D.C. to plot their own path forward. Many of the hundred or so business-friendly progressives — a mix of state reps, mayors, city council folks and even treasurers calling themselves “NewDEAL Democrats” — felt their national brethren had lost the ability to speak to working-class concerns. And with conservatives controlling more than two-thirds of state legislative chambers and the entire federal machine, liberals could be locked out of meaningful lawmaking for years.

One solution? Don’t try to advance progressivism just through government. Do it through boardrooms, too.

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Chairman, Board of Directors of the Jefferson Awards Foundation, Joe Sanberg, speaks at the Jefferson Awards Foundation 2016 National Ceremony on June 16, 2016 in Washington City.

Source Larry French/Getty

Yes, in the year that Republicans discovered a public appetite for a certain real estate mogul, some Democrats believe they need to get more businessmen advancing their causes. To find a face for this movement, look no further than Joseph Sanberg, who delivered a speech at the NewDEAL conference “We’re coming off this era where capitalism has been kidnapped by this godlessness that treats people like mathematical variables of consumption and production,” said Sanberg, an investing founder of home-meal delivery service Blue Apron and co-founder of online financial firm Aspiration, which lets clients pay whatever they think is fair for its services. “What a time to look really hard as progressives to create both regulation and stimulate the creation of great companies that are proactively solving problems.” When Sanberg finished, he was met with applause … and a missive aimed at Pelosi: “I wish you had been running for minority leader this week,” quipped Tennessee state senator Lee Harris.

You talk about a sort of capitalism 2.0, a Kennedy-esque ‘rising tide lifts all boats.’ That’s the winning message …

Andrew Platt, Democrat, Maryland House of Delegates

But Sanberg isn’t the only name floating around. Recently, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced plans to step down from his post amid rumors that he could have a political future. (The Atlantic forecast a presidential run for Schultz last year.) Billionaire Mark Zuckerberg was described as “eager to learn” and hoping to “move the needle on the specific public policy issues he cares most about,” according to a Wikileaks-hacked email sent in August from Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg to Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. From the Patriotic Millionaires — one-percenters united in their support for livable wages and higher taxes for the rich — to a bevy of small business owners just trying to build better relationships with their employees, liberals could find sympathizers. “You talk about a sort of capitalism 2.0, a Kennedy-esque ‘rising tide lifts all boats,’” said Andrew Platt, a Maryland state delegate. “That’s the winning message, instead of trying to piece together enough identity coalitions.”

Working through the private sector may be the only option for Democrats to advance such progressive efforts as equal pay, paid family leave and worker protection, among others. And lawmakers may find the largest corporate behemoths surprisingly willing to listen, in part because companies are looking for ways to restore consumer trust after a series of scandals deepened the chasm between Wall Street and Main Street. In one 2014 study, only 36 percent of Americans saw corporations as “a source of hope” for the economy. (In contrast, 84 percent of the Chinese saw the glass as half-full.) Even executives were pessimistic, with nearly a third saying they felt corporations had become less socially responsible in the past decade. “The Wells Fargo scandal lays bare what’s totally broken,” Sanberg said at the Renaissance, referring to how the banking giant “stole the identity of 2 million of its customers,” created false accounts under their names and then charged them extra.

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), after winning the House Democratic leadership election, November 30, 2016.

Source Mark Wilson/Getty

If liberals are successful, it could mean a throwback to the altruistic oligarch in the mold of leaders like Republican Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, the oil and banking scion who, as the four-term governor of New York, was credited with advancing nascent environmentalism and the near-total prohibition of housing discrimination. There may be forward momentum with companies like the Container Store, which voluntarily pays its employees almost $50,000 per year, and Costco, which offers $20 an hour and health insurance for most of its workers. “A growing number of investors,” Sanberg said, are willing to consider that worker-friendly practices may actually help the bottom line over time. “That’s correct,” said Patriotic Millionaires chair Morris Pearl, a former managing director at mega-investment firm Black Rock. “Things like paid family leave can do an enormous amount to increase the morale of your workers – that’s very valuable.”

NewDEAL (acronym: Developing Exceptional American Leaders) is still relatively under-the-radar, although its leaders tout that 52 of 53 members won reelection in November, a promising sign for their messaging. Still, they aren’t confident in the national party, where headwinds point toward a doubling down on progressive activism that doesn’t reflect the Blue Dog economics of, say, a Bill Clinton type. “The party has to be led by some of the national Democrats, and I don’t know if that’s happening,” acknowledged Harris. “We should be talking about incubators, co-working spaces and living our values. Instead, we talk about jobs not returning and tax breaks.” The latter talking points resonate — but with donors who want cheaper labor, not working people, the Tennessee minority leader adds. “People forget that Obama ran on economic change,” said Maryland’s Platt. “In 2016, we didn’t really have a unified economic message that applied to everybody, which is a huge problem going forward.”

After his speech, tucked away in the recesses of the hotel at 999 Ninth Street, Sanberg continued his treatise on bringing progressive change to businesses. But he was interrupted by another well-wisher: “For president, right?” Sanberg paused: what? “Sanberg for president?” responded former Clinton-Gore hand Rob Stein, founder of the $500 million donor network Democracy Alliance, who then added, “I’d love to stay in touch.”

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