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David Sirota Headshot

The Threat of Tone Deafness

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Right now, I'd say the number one short-term problem facing the Democratic Party is sheer tone deafness (longer-term problems include corporate cronyism, cronyism and lack of vision). We've seen this from the Obama administration in its gentleness towards the financial industry and we've seen it from Congress in its coddling of the health insurance industry. It's as if it's the late 1990s and Information Age hagiography was still (falsely) explaining a supposed economic boom.

What's troubling, of course, is that this tone deafness may not be confined to Washington. I say that after catching this amazing quote from Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, as he told the Denver Post yesterday the rationale for his potential Colorado gubernatorial candidacy in the wake of incumbent Bill Ritter's retirement:

"If you ask me, there should be a lot more people in government who come out of the business community."

Just on the substance, I disagree with this. I don't think we have a problem where there aren't enough people from business in state and federal governments, which are literally teeming with people who go back and forth between the private and public sector. This is an age in which the revolving door between corporations and government is spinning faster than it ever has.

So I don't think the big problem in government is that there aren't enough businesspeople inside our public institutions. In fact, when you look at how cronyism and collusion between government and corporations has created so many serious problems (deregulation and the Wall Street meltdown is just one example), I'd say the problem is exactly the opposite: We don't have enough devoted public servants in public office - we have too many people from the profit-at-all-cost sectors of our economy running the show, people who are so vested in the profit-at-all-cost sector that part of their time in government is spent leveraging their public office for their next private sector job.

Then there's the political tone deafness of Hickenlooper's argument. Here we are at a zenith of public awareness about corruption, cronyism and the problems inherent in having a government that is too close to the private sector it is supposed to be watchdogging. Here we are with polls that show the public fundamentally understands that its government has been the victim of a hostile takeover by business. And here we have a Democratic candidate, from the start, basing his potential statewide run on his believe that "there should be a lot more people in government who come out of the business community." To say this kind of analysis is tone deaf is an understatement.

That's not to assert that we don't need a diversity of experience among those serving in government. I'm not saying that at all. It is merely to say that if the government lacks in diversity, it is not lacking in people coming from the corporate class. Put another way, it is merely to say we don't have a problem with business interests being underrepresented in government. Arguing to the contrary is like going to the Republican convention and saying that party needs more ultra-conservatives in the name of ideological diversity.

Likewise, I'm not arguing that everyone who works in business is unfit for government service, nor that everyone who is a career public servant is automatically better than people with some private sector experience. I'm saying that this is not a moment where - at least according to the public opinion data - most Americans believe one of the big problems facing our government is that there aren't enough businesspeople running the show. And it is to say that if this is the basis for Hickenlooper's and other Democrats' 2010 campaigns in the face of renewed (though inauthentic) Republican populism, it could be a very, very bad year for Democrats in Colorado and all over the country.