Monday, August 02, 2004

Young Corporate Liberals: The New Demo Base?

It turns out that one of the strongest and most focused calls for regulating corporations may come from inside the corporations themselves, where young liberal professionals are only too aware of the pitfalls involved in handing over political power to the corporations they work for.

The party in Fort Point Channel had been organized by a group called the 2020 Democrats, and as soon as the film crew for the DNC website had finished interviewing one of the group's founders, Josh Green, I went over to chat with him. Josh is in his late twenties, a former corporate consultant and private-equity analyst who is now at Harvard studying business and public policy. He and his co-founder, a young teacher named Jorge Miranda, started the group soon after the Democrats' disastrous 2002 election.

Green, who, like many of his liberal-professional cohort, talks in bullet points, laid out for me the group's mission. "We felt like the party had three challenges it urgently needed to tackle -- one, articulating a compelling long-term vision of where we wanted to take the country; two, regaining the edge in terms of innovative policy thinking; and three, connecting in a meaningful way to young people. The Democrats were always asking young people for their time as volunteers, but were never asking for their ideas or opinions." The two founders circulated an email, asking young people to send in their vision for America in the year 2020. Within a month, they received 300 responses; they invited the writers of 150 of them to come to D.C. last summer for a conference. The organization has since grown to roughly 3,000 people, and its focus is on areas where, to their minds, the government has neglected its "intergenerational responsibility": the deficit, the environment, national security, and education.

I wanted to know: given his corporate background, how did he think about the role of the corporation in politics?

"To me, the fact that I worked at a corporation is part and parcel of why I'm a Democrat," he said, without hesitation. "All the corporations that make money -- and all the people who make money by participating in corporate America -- are the people who pay the bills for all of the social programs that Democrats find to be important. And I'm a big believer that the market can play a role in promoting the social good.

"But," he went on, before I could break in, "all of that requires an active government. You need a strong regulatory environment to lay the ground rules, and then let the corporations pursue their self-interest within that. If you don't regulate the economy -- if you don't provide a framework for companies to treat workers with respect -- it's like robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Considering that he himself might go back into corporate America after school, while still staying involved in Democratic politics, how did he, personally, feel a balance could be struck – when corporate executives have, after all, a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits, even at the public expense? His reply was, in essence, the same curious plea that I have heard, over the years, from a number of young Democrats in corporate America: For God's sake, regulate us!

"Again, that's why I'm a Democrat," he said. "Do I wish more CEOs understood that they have a responsibility to the world at large? Sure. But is that realistic to expect? I don't think so. Because like you said, they have a fiduciary responsibility. Which to me is exactly the argument for government intervention, for a strong public sphere."

Though it remains to be seen over the next few years how strong this group and the others like it grow and how well they maintain their integrity once the corps notice their existence and start applying pressure for them to conform, this is nevertheless a hopeful sign. These are people whose clear-sighted acknowledgement of the need for restrictions on corporate power means they could make common cause with the kind of workers Andy Stern's SIEU represents and together forge a whole new Democratic Party centered on sensible reforms and re-regulation to protect both us have-nots and democracy itself from the blind acquisitiveness of the corporate octopus.

Maybe these guys should be running the DLC.