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Bridging the Divide in Washington: Take a Cue From Big Food

Hank Cardello

Washington’s political divide shows no signs of healing,from the 47 Republicans’ controversial letter to Iran to the partisan bickering that has delayed even noble goals such as a human trafficking law and the confirmation of a new attorney general. The problem has gone beyond a healthy difference in philosophies to an ideological stalemate that has wearied the American public and threatens progress on urgent matters—the economy, the environment, foreign policy, immigration, gun violence. But lawmakers can learn much from the experiences of two once-polarized groups: Big Food and its activist detractors. These two sides, once as unbridgeable and as dominated by rigid ideologies as Congress is now, have found ways to work together and turn the tide on obesity.

Rancor and polarization in Washington are nothing new, and indeed are deeply rooted. Psychologists have noted that hard conservatives tend to be traditionalists predisposed to maintaining the status quo at almost all cost, while extreme left-leaners want and demand “change.” In other words, the far left lives for change; for traditionalists, it’s a four-letter word. Is it any wonder they can’t get along?

You can see this in liberals’ well-intended idealism about income equality and other social progress, without regard for the financial consequences. You can see it in conservatives’ unrelenting cries for an unfettered free market, without regard to the social consequences. Nothing gets done when these two unmovable sides cling to their extreme views.

With the radical fringes shaping the debate and shouting over the more reasoned and pragmatic voices, what’s missing is a stronger, more vocal group in the middle, one that focuses on the issues, finds strategies that have been proven to work, and identifies ways both sides can get some of what they want. For a role model, look no further than how Big Food and some of its most vocal adversaries have worked together to make progress on obesity over the past five years.

Not too long ago the faces of each side in the nutrition debate, like the extreme right and left in Congress, were polarizing figures with all-or-nothing attitudes that turned a lot of people off. Consider that Rick Berman, a colorful, cigar-smoking food industry lobbyist known among health activists as “Dr. Evil,” once derided the beloved children’s movie Charlotte’s Web because it made eating bacon look bad. His nemesis was the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has threatened to sue restaurants and food companies about health claims on packaging and promotions to children, and has pushed for taxes on all kinds of treats. The money, resources, and noise expended by these two extreme factions have accomplished little and have only made us more confused. Their thinking, like Congress’s, is that ceding any ground is tantamount to total loss.

A key turning point occurred with the convergence of public health and industry interests. Three organizations realized that it was time for a win-win strategy; recognized that introducing better-for-you food options was superior to all-or-nothing; and found a way to have a beneficial impact on both America’s health and the food industry’s financial well-being. The three are the non-profit Partnership for a Healthier America, the food company sponsored Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, and the public health champion Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

These groups offer a refreshing change from the extremist tactics of the so-called “food nannies” who would ban and tax anything they regarded as unhealthy and the unapologetic cheerleaders for unlimited fats and sugars in the name of “choice.”

The strategies that have worked for the three organizations are far more effective and collaborative. The results so far: Both food company shareholders and activists are benefiting from fewer calories sold and increasing sales of lower-calorie products. Last year the Centers for Disease Control reported that obesity among 2-to-5-year-olds had declined 43% in the past decade. And while adult obesity is still a huge health issue in the U.S., CDC statistics show that the adult obesity rate is leveling off. Companies are discovering that healthier food options also make them money. Nutrition and public health activists deserve credit for focusing our attention on this health problem. But engaging the food industry in finding the solution has been necessary too.

We still have a long way to go before the obesity crisis is over, and Big Food and public health advocates will always lock horns on some issues. But organizations that serve as middle builders are generating practical solutions that respect and address the needs of both business and public health. These middle builders insist on using hard data and measuring progress to ensure that real solutions are achieved.

Think of how a similar approach could address such intractable issues as income inequality, climate change, and Iran negotiations. Polarized parties look through a win-lose lens. They play a zero-sum game. Said another way, their Venn Diagrams don’t overlap, and neither side understands what the other side needs. So instead of screeching, for example, that companies pollute too much and must be fined, it would be far more effective to demonstrate the hard business case behind how desired environmental changes will serve a company’s best interests. Show polluters numbers that prove the damage they’re doing to both their reputations and their market capitalization. Show them quantifiable evidence that their now and future customers the millennials, 80 million strong, want a more sustainable world and will balk at purchasing their services. Show Wall Street analysts that their investments are at risk if change is not made. Just wagging the moral finger won’t get the job done anymore.

Here are some pointers for bridging the divide in Washington:

  • Recognize that the clock is ticking on the tired I-win-you-lose model. The fringes with their ideological rigidness are not accomplishing anything, and a large and growing segment of consumers (and voters) are demanding not only better-for-you foods but better-for-you government. The party that does not cater to their needs will end up on the outside.
  • On the far left, acknowledge that enlightened self-interest isn’t such a bad thing. The profit motive is the biggest fuel for prosperity in our capitalist society; companies depend on revenues and profits for their very survival. Liberals need to quantitatively demonstrate to conservatives how the free market can thrive by doing the right thing.
  • Conversely, conservatives must look for the opportunities hidden in the liberal point of view. Like the innovator activists in the food wars, the far left can be a harbinger of new business opportunities. Once both sides can respect the strengths in the other’s ideas, they can identify areas where both can win and the points they can afford to concede, and then focus on what they can accomplish together.

As the efforts to fight obesity demonstrate, we can attack urgent problems collaboratively, respectfully, and effectively. In an increasingly polarized and rancorous Washington, that’s the only way progress will be made. We can’t do it without the practical, clearheaded thinkers in the middle. It’s time to give them a voice.

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