By Elizabeth Doty

In a recent Expert Dialogue presented by the Corporate Political Responsibility Taskforce at the Erb Institute, award-winning author and former CEO Seth Radwell explored the dilemmas and opportunities that business leaders face amid increasing political polarization and incivility in public discourse. Radwell is author of American Schism: How the Two Enlightenments Hold the Secret to Healing Our Nation, winner of the 2022 International Book Award.

Building on his experience as a business executive — as CEO of The Proactiv Company and President of e-Scholastic — Radwell now devotes his time to exploring business’ role in democracy reform and depolarization.

During the dialogue, I asked Seth why he left business to research the causes of American polarization. He said the need for business leaders to step up came into sharp focus over the last decade as he watched the country’s democratic infrastructure weaken and civic debate collapse. “We’re actually moving more and more into an amygdala-driven dialogue about fear and emotions as opposed to facts and problem-solving,” Radwell said. 

Yet in the face of this crisis, he watched as most of his peers opted to keep their heads down and avoid getting involved. “They’re afraid of backlash, and concerned that they cannot make a difference,” he said. “I understand this, but I believe business leaders have a unique opportunity to help heal the schism dividing our nation by working to support strong democratic institutions and civic discourse — all in ways that go beyond the polemical issues fueling the current rancor.” 

Through the rest of the dialogue, Radwell expounded on why business leaders should be concerned about the health of U.S. democracy and how they can play a pragmatic, constructive role in promoting democratic principles and civic discourse. He gave examples of pro-democratic, nonpartisan issues business leaders can engage with and shared advice for those looking for other ways to take action on issues. 

Why should business leaders be concerned about the health of the U.S. democracy? 

Radwell said he’s seen civic debate collapsing over the last decade as rational problem-solving, data, and reason have been crowded out by emotionally driven content. The issue will not fix itself due to what he calls the double-incentive problem: both the political system and most media encourage emotionally driven content. Specifically, he argued that politicians know that provoking fear and anger motivates voters to turn out, while the media is also incentivized to stir emotion to promote viewership and engagement. 

The result is that though the extreme voices are in the minority, they continue to get more play. He said to fix the problem, the “exhausted, frustrated” majority — or the 70% of people who dislike the country’s political polarization and the state of public discourse — must step up. 

Could history provide a model for solutions to today’s polarized environment? 

In his book, Radwell looked to five historical periods marked by great division, going back to the Enlightenment and the founding of constitutional democracy in the U.S. He was excited to discover that the U.S. has a successful formula.  

Historically, the US has navigated these divisions by letting facts and data lead the conversation and working together constructively to engage multiple perspectives and work toward consensus and compromise. 

“History can act as a salve for our wounds if only we’d apply it,” he said. “Over the course of our history, we found what I call a secret sauce, a formula that we’ve used to forge solutions despite being in the face of great division. That’s the reason why I said before the stakes are so high, because where we are today, the trajectory we’re on is moving not with that solution space, that secret sauce, we’re moving away from it.”

He went on to explain that though long-debated questions such as political representation and influence continue to manifest in new forms today, the country increasingly has leaned toward rancor and acrimony while crowding out objective truth and reason. 

“It’s about changing a lot of how we talk to each other, how we relate as Americans. And here’s where I think the digital environment has been somewhat destructive in allowing a level of anonymity to fester in the public discourse. We are moving away and not towards the solution, and that’s why it’s so serious.”

To restore the health of U.S. democracy, Radwell calls on the “exhausted majority” to re-engage using that formula. 

“The first step,” Radwell explains, “is for the exhausted majority to realize that they are, in fact, the majority.” This realization can help them get over the fear that may hold them back from engaging in today’s bitter debates. “This is about fundamentally rejecting the paradigm of debate today — the demonization, the ad hominem attacks,” he said. “It’s about forcing the debate to consider data and facts and reason. And I think we, as business people, have a huge role to play here.”

How can companies play a pragmatic, constructive role? 

Radwell suggests that private sector business leaders are uniquely positioned to help, because so many of them use the U.S. “success formula” — relying on data and debate, and bringing in many perspectives — as a matter of course. 

Though some business leaders fear that in today’s environment, speaking out about issues will bring on the wrath of certain groups or get them “canceled.” Still, Radwell said there are productive, nonpartisan avenues to engage on key issues that don’t throw businesses into the middle of controversial debates.  “What I try to show business people is, in fact, they can get involved in a completely nonpartisan way that has nothing to do with the hot-button issues of today. By engaging in the process of democracy systems, business leaders can make a huge contribution without touching radioactive issues.” 

It starts with business leaders getting engaged locally, seeing what issues people in their communities care about, and plugging into existing efforts that make the democratic system more trustworthy and fair — led by citizens. Radwell gave four examples of such pro-democratic reforms: redistricting, open primaries, ranked-choice voting, and money in politics. 

Speaking to the issue of open primaries as an example, Radwell said because of safe red or blue districts and closed primaries, 8% of the electorate is responsible for electing 84% of the U.S. Congress. He said there are already groups working on these and other structural reforms so businesses have no need to reinvent the wheel. “And that’s what I encourage business to do: to plug into this structure that’s out there,” he said. 

Specific pro-democratic groups noted by Radwell included Business for America, Unite America, American Promise, and RepresentUs. He said the political depolarization group Braver Angels deals directly with mindset rather than structural changes. Business leaders can also help support economic fairness by providing job training or educational programs. 

“You don’t have to give up your career to do this,” Radwell said. “You can focus on continuing to run your business, but doing these one or two or three additional things to support what I call the pro-democracy movement.”

Business leaders seeking resources on whether and when to weigh in on policy issues can consult the Erb Principles for Corporate Political Responsibility. See the CPRT website for additional information, and sign up for newsletter updates!