Andy Rappaport and his chief lieutenant, Jamie Daves, were sitting in a midtown Manhattan office one rainy morning last July. Around the table were representatives of Link TV, the Guerrilla Radio Network, a progressive book club, a funder of public radio stations, a producer of socially responsible films and an investment firm that does work on media reform.
Rappaport had called the meeting as part of his long-range plan to build a network of progressive media outlets. His intention is to create a liberal media machine to counter the influence of Fox News and its kindred right-wing media franchises. He also plans to make some money doing it.
Rappaport can afford to dream big. Like many entrepreneurs in the ’80s and ’90s, he made his fortune developing technology start-ups, a talent he now plies at his venture firm in Silicon Valley. An avid capitalist, Rappaport is also an ardent progressive and world-class philanthropist. His New Politics Institute (www.ndnpac.org/npi/) is a think tank devoted to charting a new course for progressive politics in the 21st century. Putting his money where his mouth is, Rappaport was the third largest contributor to Democratic candidates in the 2004 elections (that’s got to hurt).
Despite–or perhaps because of–that epic loss, Rappaport is convinced he’s seen the future of progressive politics in America, if there is to be one. And that future is in business.
Conservatives have done a masterful job, Rappaport argues, of creating a mutually supportive relationship among their commercial, ideological and political interests. Through their ownership of mainstream media outlets like Fox News, the Washington Times, the New York Post and a metastatic proliferation of talk show franchises, the right has both monetized its political base and energized it ideologically. In this reciprocal action of profitable media and ideological message, Rappaport sees a powerful engine for political leverage.
It would be a mistake, however, to limit the scope of Rappaport’s insight to the political dimension of media. His most fundamental point, which was the bottom-line “bullet” in his presentation, is that “we must realize commercial success to create social change.”
This is a deceptively simple prescription. It’s also a more urgent expression of the guiding concept of socially responsible investing in general. “SRI” has always been based on the radical notion that the profit-driven perspective of commerce and the value-driven perspective of non-profits can be successfully focused into a single, stereoscopic view. Rappaport’s point is that they also must be if the progressive political project is to be salvaged.
This is no mean feat. For it requires the progressive community to relinquish one of its most firmly held prejudices–namely, that profits are the enemy of progress and vice versa. This entrenched (if largely unexamined) view pits social progress and financial profit in a zero-sum contest where gains for one are losses for the other. This means, of course, that you can’t pursue both. You have to choose.
And so the entire realm of commerce is cast as inherently irremediable except from the outside–i.e., by the coercive forces of government or the gentler meliorations of non-profits. This stark, Manichean outlook has led progressives to position themselves on the sidelines of the economy, ceding its tremendous energies to the right while looking solely to government and non-commercial entities for solutions.
In his book, Achieving Our Country, the philosopher Richard Rorty traces this marginalization of the American Left to its takeover by academics and a shift in focus from the economic issues of the 1930s to the cultural concerns of the 1960s. While Rorty’s analysis has been reviled by many progressives, it’s hard to fault his conclusion that the left in American politics has become “spectatorial and retrospective,” a form of nostalgia.
Last October a now-famous article, “The Death of Environmentalism,” levied a similar charge against the world of institutional greens (www.grist.org/news/maindish/2005/01/13/doe-reprint/). Authored by lifelong environmentalists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Norhaus, the article accuses the environmental movement of acute nostalgia and a cavalier disregard for the economic concerns of ordinary people. Such disconnection has become a hallmark of the progressive agenda, according to Shellenberger and Norhaus. “The problem, of course, isn’t just that environmentalism has become a special interest…” the authors write. “The problem is that all liberal politics have become special interests.”
These are harsh words that no doubt overstate the case. But when you look at the near-total domination of electoral politics in the U.S. by the right, it’s hard not to wonder if these green Jeremiahs aren’t closer to the truth than we’d like to admit.
Shellenberger and Norhaus hold up the New Apollo Project as a model for a reconsidered environmentalism (www.apolloalliance.org). Inspired by President Kennedy’s Apollo Project to put a man on the moon, the New Apollo Project seeks to marshal the nation’s resources to achieve energy independence. A public/private plan for long-term investment in clean energy and efficient transportation, Apollo takes a new tack on environmental goals. From the Apollo Alliance Web site: “What inspires our mission is the conviction that working Americans do not have to choose between the economic well-being of their families, the environmental health of their communities and the security of their country.”
Apart from the specific merits of Apollo, Shellenberger and Norhaus think it offers a valuable new template for imagining environmental problems and their solutions. Rather than viewing the environment, jobs and national security as separate or even competing interests, Apollo casts them as mutually supportive elements in a web of desirable outcomes. In a word, it offers a progressive vision of a future that works.
This is what Andy Rappaport understands. So long as progressive concerns compete with economic prospects, they will come out the loser. The challenge for progressives then is to re-imagine commerce in our own image rather than disdain it. We have to learn that profits and progress can be allies instead of enemies.
The secondary gain from this joining of profits and progress is political clout. If you set a larger table, more people will join you. And when more people join you, political power follows. Until progressives can imagine a world where our social and environmental concerns create rather than limit economic opportunity, we will lack the political power necessary to fully achieve our goals.
Fortunately, this re-imagination is moving forward under many banners. “Social entrepreneurship” and “natural capitalism” are two current expressions of the project. And, of course, socially responsible investing has been re-visioning business for over two decades. But the central insight shared by all these approaches is expressed most elegantly in the concept of sustainability.
Economic vitality, environmental responsibility and social equity are the mutually supportive aspects of a truly sustainable society. They are separate only to the short-sighted. And they are competing only in the short-term. The challenge for progressives is to imagine a future where this is so.
Farnum Brown is senior vice president of Trillium Asset Management, the largest and oldest independent advisory firm devoted exclusively to socially responsible investing (www.trilliuminvest.com).