Competition of Ideas: Encouraging Civil Engagement in Business and Government

In the newest episode of The Competition Series, leaders convened to discuss combating political polarization and making the case for constructive conversations between business and government.


Air Date: February 1, 2022

Moderator: Suzanne P. Clark, President and CEO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Neil Bradley, Executive Vice President, Chief Policy Officer, and Head of Strategic Advocacy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Jenna Shrove, Senior Director of Strategic Advocacy and Advisor to the Chief Policy Officer, Carolyn Cawley, President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation

Featured Guests: Michael Carney, Senior Vice President of Emerging Issues, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation

Today, American companies are tackling some of the biggest challenges and opportunities facing our country.

To help the business community better understand the landscape, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched The Competition Series, a four-week dialogue diving deeper into key issues outlined during State of American Business 2022. The third episode, “Competition of Ideas: Encouraging Civil Engagement in Business and Government,” continues the dialogue we started this year about competition—and focuses on combatting political polarization and making the case for constructive conversations between business and government.

“We know that democracy and free enterprise go hand in hand,” said U.S. Chamber President and CEO Suzanne Clark. “We also know that political polarization has a negative effect on business and our economy. All of us—lawmakers, business leaders, media, and citizens across the country—need to get on the same side in this competition for our future.”

How Reinforcing “Norms” Can Help Stabilize Democracy

The event began with a panel about regular Americans’ perceptions of democracy.

“Officially, Americans are as supportive of democracy as they ever have been,” said William Galston, senior fellow with the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution. “When you ask them how our democracy is doing, you get a different set of answers: almost nobody thinks our democracy is functioning well. And most people think it’s not functioning as well as it did one or two generations ago.”

Galston added that he feels that democracy and the private sector mutually reinforce and strengthen one another.

“The private sector has an intense interest—or should—in the stability and functionality of democratic political systems,” Galston said. “Democracy and a well-functioning private sector go together.”

But things are changing, and Galston is concerned about increasing political polarization and norm-breaking.

“We’re in a period where the reward for norm-breaking is very high,” Galston said. “The more you have to lose, the more you are tempted to violate previous norms. Norm-breaking and political polarization go hand-in-hand.”

What can be done about increased polarization and dysfunction? Galston has some ideas.

“It is going to take two things to shore up norms,” Galston said. “One, the emergence of leaders who understand the risks to the entire system...Number two, you’re going to need a chorus of high-level public opinion—from newspapers, from civil society organizations, from the private sector—to say that ‘This is bigger than all of us. We can’t continue going down this road.’”

Institutions’ Role in Fostering Cooperation

Local governments, non-profit organizations, and other organizations play a vital, but often overlooked role in creating and sustaining democracy. Yuval Levin, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that institutions often enable and enhance collective action.

“In a society with weaker or weakening institutions, people become less capable of common action. We don’t always know where to go to work together with other people to achieve the goals we have,” Levin said. “Institutions help us to engage in common work.”

Levin also said that businesses should take a measured approach on how much to engage in the political arena.

“It is important to constrain and contain the degree to which our commercial institutions become politicized. They can’t just become another venue for partisan sniping and partisan warfare,” Levin said. “There’s room for politics, but there’s also room for just providing a service, meeting a need, in a way that doesn’t divide people by their political views.”

However, Levin added that the business world can be very helpful by encouraging workers to be part of the civic world and by providing resources and assistance to important civic institutions.

Boosting Civics Education

Civics education is another vital pillar of a well-functioning democracy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s program, The Civic Trust, is a nonpartisan educational initiative committed to increasing civic literacy, skills, and participation in schools, workplaces, and communities.

“According to recent data, four in ten Americans were unable to name all three branches of government,” said Mike Carney, senior vice president of Emerging Issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. “That lack of knowledge is symptomatic of some big, big challenges. We need to make sure that folks have the information they need in order to make political decisions. Civics enables politics.”

Whitney Harmel, Executive Director of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce Foundation, says that her organization is encouraging business leaders, employees, and constituents to engage at the state level.

“We’re engaging our members consistently,” Harmel said. “Often employees want to engage—but they don’t know how to. That’s a big part of what we do here in Maryland at our Chamber.”

The Competition Series will continue with “Competition for Talent: Expanding Opportunities for the Workforce of Tomorrow,” Tuesday, February 8, from 11 a.m. to noon ET. Register here.

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