Civic responsibility?

English: News vans at the Texas Department of ...  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In June 2011, political pundit Sarah Palin was in Boston when, as often happens to celebrities, someone shoved a microphone in her face and started asking questions. She responded – you can watch the YouTube video of this incident – with some misstatements about Paul Revere and the American Revolution. Now, most people walking down the street might fumble just as badly when ambushed by the media and forced to answer questions on the spot in front of a camera. But instead of admitting a mea culpa, Ms. Palin stood her ground in subsequent interviews and some of her followers even went so far as to try to alter the Wikipedia article on Paul Revere to reflect Ms. Palin’s version of events.

This speaks to a disturbing trend in our culture of emotion-driven politics that eschews – indeed, deeply resents – facts, especially facts that refuse to align with a preconceived ideological mold. After the Palin incident, some professional historians began talking about the need to engage the public more to provide a professional view on historical events to inform public debates. The point isn’t to provide the “correct” view – there isn’t one in history – but to share what is known about any given events and what historians who study them think about these events. Part of this exercise would be to show the process behind history, and how historians arrive at their conclusions. This debate continues to rage in historical circles, with attitudes ranging from “We owe it to provide some honest input into public debates, without taking sides,” to “Why bother – they’ll just label us elitist and ignore us anyway.” This movement did have an impact when several scholars, including some Evangelical historians, publicly challenged David Barton’s popular account of Thomas Jefferson’s religious views, ultimately convincing his publisher to drop his book. The issue wasn’t differences in historical interpretation but a blatantly selective and dishonest rendering of Jefferson’s views, based on his own writings.

This phenomenon isn’t just a concern for the academic realm. Recently, populist groups with ideas hostile to globalization and free markets have won important electoral victories in the UK and US, and seem well-positioned to do so in elections next year in Italy, France and Germany. We find ourselves today staring down the barrel of a world with higher levels of protectionism, tariffs, and greater restrictions on the free movement of peoples, data and investments across borders. The people ready to pull that trigger are convinced globalization is their enemy.

Globalization has brought immense benefits in recent years, lifting millions out of poverty and into the middle class in Asia Pacific and Latin America, but it has also laid low some of the more established industrial regions in the West, while also claiming an increasingly wider array of white collar jobs. Globalization produces losers as well as winners. Politicians and the business world have largely ignored that reality – at their peril, it seems.

A key element in populist electoral successes was misinformation – the spread of rumor-filled, highly partisan, all too often inaccurate information that has poisoned public debates. A handful of fact-checkers tried to counter some of that misinformation, but an important voice missing from public discussions has been that of the business world. The business world’s interests and views are not the end-all and be-all in policy debates, nor should they be, but businesses can play an important role in bringing public debate back into the evidence-based realm.

Of course, there is no single, united voice for the business world, and businesses are loath to take a public stand on issues. Companies and industry associations create static websites to inform, but these are largely disregarded or simply lost in the noise of information and misinformation. Consulting firms in particular, which often have clients spanning all sides of public issues, recoil from public positions. The business world prefers to communicate quietly through the back door, via lobbyists – but the upsurge in populist sentiment around the world recently has shown the limits of that strategy in a democracy.

The business world needs to step up and build a more proactive and direct communication channel with the public. Many businesses, especially banks, are trying to develop a better customer experience at the micro level and more effective communication is a key part of that; time to take that same approach to the macro level. The point isn’t to take sides in public debates, but to provide informed business perspective(s) on key issues, and bring an authoritative, informed voice to public discussions of issues impacting the business world.