CS Insights: Lost in Translation

Ed Hammond

June 26, 2024

It’s election season on both sides of the Atlantic. For business leaders, that means answering questions about “who’s going to be better for…”.

Business leaders have valid opinions. They represent important constituents and are, generally, thoughtful; their companies and industries play structural and usually long-term roles in what we might broadly call a functioning society. We should care what they think.

So why do so many CEOs dread the election question?

Partly, it is a problem of style. Stumping politicians bend debate inward, forcing questions as irreducible as immigration and foreign relations into talking points, and in doing so create an alternate, contracted world of absolutes. A world, in other words, profoundly unlike that in which most businesses operate.

Sacrificing discussion, less it contradicts the clickable certainty of campaign messages, also forces political candidates to do more with less. If you elide nuance, and the possibilities it offers for idea development, you are limited to repeating and inflating your existing claims; fixes become panaceas, reductions become annihilations, fences become walls. This kind of alchemy is risky for CEOs to underwrite because they can’t know what an idea will grow into.

This is especially true here, in the US, where the ideological tone of the current contest had made agreement tantamount to weakness. If Biden commits to levying more onerous terms on an industry, Trump can either go further or stake out the opposite position. The middle isn’t a thing.

The CEO being asked about the meaning of an election outcome on this or that aspect of their business is, then, really being asked to handicap competing visions for operating environments based on an as-yet unbaked series of hypotheticals. These are dangerous grounds.

Even the basic format of electoral politics is inimical to how business works.

Like movie trailers, political campaigns require that we suspend our disbelief. We know the intensity promised is unsustainable, probably undesirable, too, and we accept the trick. But while the trailer is a sexed-up thumbnail of what’s already there, politicians pledge highlights packages– tight borders, cheap energy, taxed billionaires - from material not yet made.

We know all this. Know, too, that the saccharine foretold on the trail rarely survives the mill of in-office policymaking. But some of it does- and that’s a problem for soft targets like business, which can be slapped during campaign season for being too big, too predatory, too embedded in our lives, too much like Elon or Jamie or Warren or Tim, too polluting, too exempt.

Business is complex enough to be misrepresented, present enough to be resonant, and inanimate enough to lack the association to human life of, say, immigration or war. These characteristics make it an ideal mark for whoever wins the election to prove out their campaign hyperbole. The dead mergers, jilted foreign investment, and unworkable regulation that follow changes of government attest to it.

Trying to factor all that into an answer would fill most of us with dread, too.

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