The following is a conversation between Bill Shireman, CEO of Future500 and Co-author of In This Together, and Denver Frederick, the host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: When a society becomes as polarized and, in many ways, dysfunctional, as America has become, there comes a point when more and more citizens begin to look around and wonder: Is there a better way? My next guest answers that with an emphatic “Yes!” and has started a movement where citizens committed to finding solutions can work together to address our biggest challenges. He is Bill Shireman, the CEO of Future 500 and Co-author of the just-released book In This Together: How Republicans, Democrats, Capitalists, and Activists are Uniting to Tackle Climate Change and More.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Bill!
Bill: Thank you. I’m really glad to be here, Denver.
The reality is that in that broad center, about 70% of us, from the left to the right, can get together and can solve almost any problem, even the ones we think are just unsolvable.
Denver: I think most Americans would agree that this nation is divided now more than it has been in any time in recent memory. We are certainly not in this together at the moment. What are some of the factors you attribute to this great polarization?
Bill: I think we have fallen into a trap. And really, when I look around, I can’t find the actual instigator of that trap. I think it’s something that happened kind of naturally.
But we have fallen into a political media trap where the political industry itself — and it is an industry and an extremely powerful one — has created a business model that enables them to divide the market into two extremes, one on the left, one on the right, and to speak with them separately about each other. So that for those of us on the left, we hear the worst rhetoric from the right and we see the worst behavior from the right. And for those of us on the right, we see the worst behavior on the left and the most angry phrases. And the effect is to radicalize both the left and the right.
The reality is that in that broad center, about 70% of us, from the left to the right, can get together and can solve almost any problem, even the ones we think are just unsolvable. But the profit maximization incentive for the political industry is to keep us apart. Nobody planned it, but a lot of people are exploiting it. And now, to make it much worse, that is the same business model for political news media. And so, that has trapped us, and nobody can get out of it unless we work in this together.
Denver: You know, I start to think about that, and one thing that comes to mind is Crossfire. And I don’t remember when that started, maybe in the 1980s, but it really was a food fight. And it was the first time that I began to think about that newspapers were a cool medium where you could have a rational discussion, and TV is a hot medium where you have to have people going at each other, and it just seems like it has continued to mushroom ever since then.
Bill: Yes, and that’s exactly it. People segregate their jobs from their lives as citizens, and in all of these industries, and I am not blaming media or politics or corporations or individuals or anybody, but we’re all doing our jobs. And when you’re a reporter, you notice that when you cover the most provocative, angry statements, you get better play. More people read it; more people listen to it. More ads are sold. More money is made. Same thing happens to folks in every sector around the table, and nobody takes responsibility because they figure, “Well, look, I’m just doing my job. This is just how it works. It’s not my fault.” Well, it’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility and everyone’s responsibility to do something about it.
It has become the frame that we see of others, and we react to it in others. We look out and we say, “My God! Those people on the other side are so extreme that I better define myself as their polar opposite.” And so, we ended up doing that, and somehow that has become our self-image.
Denver: Along those same lines, Bill, how did our political identities become our mega identities? It used to be, we were multifaceted by race and ethnicity, and I come from Kansas City, and I root for the Chiefs. And right now, even more than religion, it seems to be that our political identity identifies who we are.
Bill: Yes. It is a substitute for religion and a spiritual understanding, or just a bigger picture of life. It has become the frame that we see of others, and we react to it in others. We look out and we say, “My God! Those people on the other side are so extreme that I better define myself as their polar opposite.” And so, we end up doing that, and somehow that has become our self-image.
When I was a kid, I was frustrated that other kids didn’t care about politics. They cared so much about sporting teams, and I thought, “Well, that’s just practice politics. Why don’t you look at the real one?” And now, I’m afraid that somehow, it’s succeeded. Now, people are divided up between the Giants and the Dodgers in a political sense and trying to beat each other, and that’s extremely dangerous.
It is physically painful to be a problem-solving citizen that can look at both sides. And the only answer to that is to create a middle where we have our own community that accepts both of those other communities and listens for the truth through the hateful words… and then serves the higher truth that both sides represent.
Denver: And it’s almost impossible to process information objectively that way because you’re always looking at it through the lens of your team and will construe it– or at least pick out of the environment those things that support your team.
Bill: And then on top of that, we are trained with 6 million years of genetic development to “stay in our herd.” And so, we pick up cues about what we’re supposed to believe, what we’re supposed to say, who our allies are and who our enemies are, and we literally get socked with a bunch of cortisol when we step out and say, “You know what? Maybe our enemies are not actually our enemies, and maybe we’re going overboard.” We get hit with a brain signal that says, “Don’t do that. That’s dangerous,” and I get hit by that all the time because I’m stuck in the middle… kind of… with everybody.
So it is physically painful to be a problem-solving citizen that can look at both sides. And the only answer to that is to create a middle where we have our own community that accepts both of those other communities and listens for the truth through the hateful words… and then serves the higher truth that both sides represent.
Denver: That’s a tricky place to be. Well, we’re going to get to the solutions here in a minute, but first, you’ve had a successful history in bringing people together around common cause, and that specifically would be in the environmental arena. Tell us about that work, work which led to the creation of your organization Future 500.
Bill: Well, I’ve been an activist all my life, an environmental activist, but also a Republican and an entrepreneur, and I’ve created various profit entities over time. And so, I’ve been a misfit, if you will, for a long time. When I was in college, the activist community was heavily anti-corporate and they demonized, as they still do, the captains of industry.
But in leading a statewide group for California’s Bottle Bill, a big recycling law, I reached out to these designated enemies, which we had been trashing in direct mail fundraising because it works. I sat down with them — Bill Coors from the Coors Brewing Company… and a religious right activist who was the head of a retail chain — and we basically said, “Look, we don’t want to battle over this. Let’s just sit down and write a policy that’ll work for everybody. It’ll be low-cost. It will be great for the environment,” and we did that.
And so, we ended up, to make a long story short, passing the California Bottle Bill, which is the best system in the country — lowest cost and highest return — but we all got trashed for it by the extreme folks on the far left and far right. So, I learned from that: if you want to do big things, you’ve got to take on this demonization culture, this war culture.
So we did the same thing a few years later between Mitsubishi companies and Rainforest Action Network, and RAN had demonized the Mitsubishi companies because that’s the narrative that sells to the media. It raises money; it raises attention, and they sincerely need to use it in order to run their organization. But it also forecloses actual agreement because media and politics don’t let you actually come to agreement because that violates the narrative.
So we help them get over that, and we helped them fashion an agreement with each other that transformed the global forestry industry, not just what Mitsubishi was doing, but it established a set of sustainability standards for forest products that has become the standard across the board. And plenty more to do, but it had a revolutionary effect on the timber industry globally and has saved tremendous amounts of forest over time.
So those are two of the examples. There’s a lot of others, but that’s what you can accomplish when you’re willing to step across the aisle and suffer some of that cortisol, and do a deal that actually makes a difference.
Denver: And to dig a little bit deeper into your politics there because you mentioned that you were a Republican. And I know you’ve been described as a “Nike Republican,” — whatever in the world that is, I want to find that out — and also your hero was, or one of your heroes was Congressman Pete McCloskey. Tell us about that.
Bill: Yes. Well, I am a contrarian. I think it’s just built into my nature. I look for gaps. I look for services that aren’t being met and ideas that aren’t being expressed and people that are left out.
So that’s my thing. And my hero growing up was Pete McCloskey. Pete McCloskey was a war hero in Korea. He risked his life and saved the lives of a lot of other soldiers, so he was brave; that appealed to me. He was a patriot. He loved America and freedom, what it stands for. I don’t love the ground. I love the principles, and I could see that in him.
And he fought corporations when they were hurting the environment. He challenged PG&E out here, and he also ran against President Nixon on ethical issues and against the war. And I thought, “Well, here’s my guy. He is Republican. He’s a patriot. He loves free enterprise. He loves the country, and he’s willing to run against the president of his own party to make his point.” So that sold me on that.
And I just felt that being entrepreneurial, the Republican Party was where I needed to be, but I don’t feel comfortable in either party. I’m still waiting for my party to emerge, and I think it can emerge in the Republican Party, but it is difficult, to say the least right now. And I think there will inevitably be a little revolution across the parties in the next few years and a realignment; so we’ll see where it all goes, but obviously, we want to make it right.
Denver: Through these experiences that you’ve had in the environmental movement and others as well, Bill, what have you found to be the keys to get each side together across the divide to find common ground?
Bill: Two things basically. Number one, you need to humanize each side. Each side comes into this with a mental model of their enemy that they carry with them day-to-day. If you’re in a corporation, and you’ve been attacked or you’ve seen somebody be attacked by an activist group, you have a mental image of this demon character that hates all corporations and hates business and hates prosperity, and maybe even hates people and wants to get them out of the environment. And if you’re an environmentalist, you’re coming in with a mental model of this corporate greedy capitalist who plunders the world for short-term profits, not caring about even his own children and the lives that they’ll live. And so you’re coming in with these demon models.
So our first step is to break that demon model. So we work with both sides, and we basically introduce them to each other as human beings. We identify who it is on each side that is reasonable to work with. It doesn’t mean that they are moderate. It doesn’t mean that they lay down their positions and compromise them. It means that their temperament is one that they can meet with somebody else and actually see the human being that’s standing before them.
And so, we intrigue them by profiling each other to each other, and then we create interest on the part of both to meet each other, and then we facilitate a meeting. And at that point, they can see that this is not the demon that they’re working with. Now, it’s complicated, and it goes through ups and downs, and there’s a fairly standard elation at first, suspicion second, and gradually trust that comes from that process.
But once you’ve done the humanization process, then you go to systemic solutions. And systemic solutions, like we talk about now in racism, these problems that we face are structural. They are built into the system. We’re busy blaming demons while the system is structured to perpetuate the problem. So we get them focused on the structure. And then lo and behold, they can usually find solutions that work for both.
What really needs to happen is we need to disrupt all these business models so that there is a fairer distribution of wealth… We’re not all going to have exactly the same wealth, but we all deserve to fully express our potential and to lead rich lives, however we define that.
Denver: That is a perfect setup for what you’re doing right now, which is In This Together. It’s a book, of course, but it’s also a movement, and it was launched on July 4. Tell us how’s that going and how it’s going to unfold. I think you’ve given us sort of a container as to how it should be working.
Bill: Yes. Well, one of the groups that people like to demonize is these billionaires, the top 1%. The narrative on that is that this top 1% is getting all of the tax breaks and all the money and all the benefits and throwing costs on the people. Well, numerically, yes, that’s actually what is happening. But it’s much more complex than people realize, and it’s generally, hard as it is to believe, not the intent even of the billionaires to produce that outcome.
It is an outcome that comes from all kinds of people doing their jobs, all around the circle, that leads to a very dangerous social outcome where wealth is so unevenly and unfairly distributed that everybody is unhappy with it, even the folks at the top. And the impulse there is to say, “OK. Well, let’s get government to come in and take the wealth from these people and give it to these people over here. That would be more just.” And that couldn’t be a bigger mistake either.
So, what really needs to happen is we need to disrupt all these business models so that there is a fairer distribution of wealth. And so that’s what we’re about doing — allowing the evolution of our gummed up, old industrial political establishment so that we have a more organic, real, authentic, and just distribution of wealth and well-being. We all have different priorities. Some of us want to be millionaires. Some of us want to just have a great impact, raise good families. We’re not all going to have exactly the same wealth, but we all deserve to fully express our potential and to lead rich lives, however we define that.
Denver: You said at the outset, if we take a look at our citizenry, there’s maybe 15% who are hyper-partisan on the left, 15% who are hyper-partisan on the right, but there’s 70% who are pragmatic partisans, who are solution voters, who are bridge builders. How do you find them? That’s always been a difficult group to identify.
Bill: Yes. The political industry has been pretty lazy about this because they’ve got a formula that works, and their formula is this: They identify the base because they know that an ideological Republican or Democrat is always going to vote for that party. So all they have to do is get them in the voting booth, and they’re going to vote straight line their party, even if they don’t like the candidates, because they’ve been taught to hate the other sides’ candidates so much.
So they’re perennially dissatisfied. It’s like, “Why did they nominate this person? Well, but he’s better than this person. And next time, we’ll overthrow the system and get our choice.” Well, that’s never going to happen. But it’s a useful, cost-efficient device to get a clear base, and then you basically soften that rhetoric a little bit so you can pull in the other 35% that are either left or right of center. And that’s how you win elections.
In that model, only about 2% or 3% of voters are swing voters because most people just hate the other side, and there is only a small number that will actually switch. What we have found, thanks to the investments of some of those 1% that were disgusted by that outcome, we’ve discovered that you can speak to that middle 70%, and that it requires that you speak to them about solutions that they really care about.
And so we’ve developed an alternative business model, if you will, for politics that allows us to reach people and motivate people to vote because they want solutions, because they’re hopeful, because they’re disgusted with the hate. We understand from polling and focus groups and so on what they care about most, and we’re able to bring them together with other people who also care about solutions.
So, we’ve been able to win elections here in California consistently, and shifting 17% of folks out of their traditional party boundaries to vote for problem solvers. That’s just unprecedented. But it’s not that hard; it just requires a completely different approach.
This is a model that has an ethical foundation that people can be proud of and that we can win elections, not by necessarily choosing between parties but choosing between solutions. This is a model that can ensure that we nominate people who are bringing solutions to the table.
Denver: And also, I would imagine it’s aided by big data, which is probably making it easier to identify who those solution voters might be.
Bill: Yes, that’s for sure. It used to be that identifying these solution voters was at least two and a half times as costly as identifying the easy-to-provoke voters. But now, we can do it for at or even as much as 70% less.
So this is a model that has an ethical foundation that people can be proud of and that we can win elections, not by necessarily choosing between parties, but choosing between solutions. This is a model that can ensure that we nominate people who are bringing solutions to the table. And then we can choose between “Is this a solution that I prefer, the one that Republican is offering? Or do I prefer the one that Democrat is offering?” And that is a much healthier dynamic than the one we have now.
Denver: Let’s talk about the one we have now, and you brought up the party. So how much of a problem do you believe comes from our two-party system? And it is a system in which they have pretty much together prevented any other entrants as a result of the rules that they’ve established.
Bill: First of all, it may be just natural that we evolved to two parties. I am not blaming the parties or their strategists or anybody for this outcome, but it is an outcome that serves them pretty well and generates some good incomes. And on each side, they can come into the system and quite sincerely say, “We’re engineering the best outcome that we can for the people. And by the way, we’re picking up 15% commissions on our ad sales and media and contributions, and all of that is enabling us to have a really healthy lifestyle. It’s a win-win. The public gets good engineered solutions. We get a healthy income, and we feel very powerful.” And that’s a heady feeling.
So, but yes, the problem is that business model. We can’t afford to engineer solutions by paying off a set of interest groups that range from the ones that the left idealizes to the ones that the right idealizes. You got the left railing against corporations, so they hate the corporations. And you’ve got the right railing against social service and government organizations. And they each cancel each other out and guess what? All those institutions remain protected but protected from their own need to adapt. The only ones that come out of this clean are the power brokers in the middle that take the money from those institutions in order to provide them with protection and with policy opportunities.
Again, it’s almost impossible to blame anybody because everybody is such a small part of the process that they’re just taking the next step. It’s like, “Well, I got to pay my lobbyist to protect us from this tax increase,” and nobody is the diabolical devil. And if there are any, they usually get tossed out because you’re really more successful if you just let the machine operate.
We all are one. We are all part of the system. We all need to step out of our comfort zones and engage with people that we thought we either hated or who were irrelevant to us. We all need to step together and change the system together. It’s the only way.
Denver: As you say, it’s the system. They’re just saying, “This is the system, these are the rules, and all I’m doing is playing within the rules,” never thinking that perhaps, like you’re thinking, we could change the system.
Bill: Right. So we all need to change the system. The worst thing we could do is to just find somebody new to blame …that will blame the political industry, because everybody in this circle is just doing their jobs.
So we all — it sounds sappy-happy to say “in this together” in this political environment in particular, but it really is true. We all are one. We are all part of the system. We all need to step out of our comfort zones and engage with people that we thought we either hated or who were irrelevant to us. We all need to step together and change the system together. It’s the only way.
Denver: You’re in a pretty precarious position because you’re in the middle, and you’re trying to change the system and, as you just said, their vested interest in not seeing that system change. I’d be curious as to what has been the history of bipartisan efforts in this country seeking common ground? I can recall Simpson-Bowles in fiscal reform, and then there was Warren Rudman. He started, I believe, it was The Concord Coalition. Have they been successful, and are there lessons from them that you can take, which will help this effort gain traction?
Bill: Here’s the role that those kinds of commissions tend to play. They produce white papers that really do lay out good solutions for the most part that would be better if people took them seriously. But, for the most part, those white papers are put on a shelf. Or when they arrive in the Capitol, they are labeled “dead on arrival.” That’s one of the most popular terms of people who are sophisticated in politics as well. “That’s just dead on arrival.”
“Dead on arrival” means that it’s a policy that is low-cost and highly effective, and those are two deficits that block legislation from being passed. Anything that’s low-cost — first of all, if it’s lowering current costs, it’s going to take that money from an interest group that’s now getting it, and it doesn’t provide a revenue stream to pay the gate fees, the toll gates at every stage of the political process. So if it doesn’t cost a lot, it’s not going to get passed. And if it changes the business models that the political industry is in business to protect, it’s also not going to pass.
So that’s why these things are “dead on arrival” because they don’t serve the bottom-line interest of the political industry. They do, I believe, serve the bottom-line interest of almost every other institution because every other institution needs to adapt to change.
So, if you’re stuck on the 1950s business model that Congress has codified, that feels good for a while, but while the world is changing, it’s undermining your future, and eventually, you’re going to collapse. So smart business people know that they need to have a political system that adapts with the times just as their product lines do, and they don’t have it right now.
Five million people is 5% of the presidential electorate. That is enough to shift the balance of power from the extremes to the broad center…people who stand for their causes and realize they need to work together to get to solutions. So that’s all it takes — 5 million people… they will work with the other side to solve problems, not carry out a war with the other side to try to annihilate them, which is pointless.
Denver: Well, this is a powerful message, Bill, and one I believe that many Americans are more than ready to listen to. And unlike those white papers, you have a call to action. What would you like people to do and do immediately if it were possible?
Bill: This is a coalition between what we might call the 1% and the 99%. There are a lot of donors that are opting out of this system right now. They’re saying, “We are not going to make any more political contributions that go into this machine that divides us, but we want to follow the people.” So we have a set of donors about 30 high-net-worth donors who have said, “We want to follow 5 million people who are willing to step across the lines and work in this together to save democracy, and to enact real solutions to issues like climate change and the environment and other issues.”
So we have launched In This Together. We have a group of 20 NGOs with a combined membership of almost 2 million that are a part of that, and we are asking for 3 million more citizens to join us, to work in this together, to cross partisan solutions to all the problems that we face.
Why 5 million? Five million people is 5% of the presidential electorate. That is enough to shift the balance of power from the extremes to the broad center. It doesn’t mean I’m a mushy center that doesn’t stand for anything. It means people who stand for their causes and realize they need to work together to get to solutions.
So that’s all it takes — 5 million people. But those 5 million need to be cohesive. They need to know that they are a community, and they need in their districts to essentially make it a requirement that any candidate that wins a primary or general election is a “solutions candidate.” That means they will work with the other side to solve problems, not carry out a war with the other side to try to annihilate them, which is pointless.
Denver: And finally, tell us about your website, where people can go to join and also about your Declaration of Interdependence.
Bill: The website is inthistogetheramerica.org. You can sign the Declaration of Interdependence, which is a declaration that we have all made, that we — in fact, the left and the right — we have our differences, but we are not at war. We are engaged with each other. We make no excuses. We allow no delays. We are working together for solutions. Sign that declaration. I think it’s as historically important a document as the Declaration of Independence, and it’s a recognition that while we are independent, we are also interdependent with each other.
Denver: And while you’re at it, pick up the book. It’s called In This Together: How Republicans, Democrats, Capitalists, and Activists are Uniting to Tackle Climate Change and More. I want to thank you, Bill, for being here today and for this hopeful message and plan. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Bill: Thank you, Denver. I really appreciate it. And I appreciate the time of your audience and their follow-through.
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