Our 2022 eBook, The Rise of Conscious Capitalism and the Fall of Woke, is available now, featuring the following foreword by Richard Levick.
“Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”
— General George Washington, December 23, 1783
Welcome to the 7th edition of our annual Year in Review. The years fly by and while they are always interesting, no others in the past nearly 80 years qualify for the “Year That Saved Democracy.”
You will notice that three quarters of the way through the year we had to put In House Warrior — our daily podcast for the Corporate Counsel Business Journal — and many of my weekly columns on hold due to a cancer diagnosis. While cancer is always unfortunate, it ultimately pales in comparison to the threats we faced in 2022.
A Hero Not a King
Two months after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, ending the Revolutionary War, General George Washington resigned his wartime commission as commander-inchief of the Continental Army. He spoke the words above to the Confederation Congress, in the senate chamber of the Maryland State House. Eighteenth century artist John Trumbull captured the moment in a painting which famously hangs in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. As many times as I have seen the painting in person and on the Internet and television, I never fully appreciated the moment.
A war hero, Washington could have been king.
And with it, our experiment in Athenian democracy would have come to a screeching halt. Washington, benevolent to the point of sacrificing his wealth, family and health to support this nascent concept, could look into the future and see the end, just after the beginning. Rather than be a 247-year-old experiment, democracy would have been a short story. No elections, no power to the people. A monarchy.
December 23, 1783 is perhaps the most important of a litany of dates that have established, defended and expanded our democracy. July 4th, 1776, the celebrated signing day of the Declaration of Independence; September 17, 1787, the Philadelphia Convention approving the U.S. Constitution; April 1789, George Washington being elected the first president of the United States; January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation; April 9, 1865, the end of the Civil War, followed by President Ulysses S. Grant’s two terms as president, salvaging critical parts of the Reconstruction Era; February 3, 1870, the passage of the 15th Amendment granting African American men the right to vote nationally; August 18, 1920, the passage of the 19th Amendment finally granting women the right to vote nationally; May 8, 1945, V-E Day; August 15, 1945, V-J Day; August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; December 22, 2022, when the Select January 6th Committee released its Final Report, investigating the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol.
None of these historic moments and more, defending, defining and expanding democracy occur if Washington — at the peak of his power — does not humbly resign, recognizing the fragility of democracy. A fragility most of us, myself including, took
Add to this list of moments and heroes former Congresswoman Liz Cheney, former Congressman Adam Kinzinger and my old friend, law professor and Congressman Jamie Raskin. Though important, it is not as much their conclusions that make them heroes but their unique courage and willingness to put country above party and personal ambition.
As Adam Kinzinger said, ‘As a child I dreamed of standing alone against the crowd for what was right. Until this moment, I didn’t know if I had the courage.’ They certainly do. Who among us can say that?
The Center Re-Emerges
If the 2022 mid-term elections taught us anything, it is that despite all the gerrymandering, voter suppression, institutionalized racism, screaming from the fringes and election denialism, the center of the country is re-emerging, not just here but in a number of other countries as well.
We are ultimately not whole or happy without putting our families, communities and country first, above our own self-interest. We may think we are — endlessly either engaging in consumerism or feeling resentment for not being able to — but chasing those things that temporarily make us happy pass like new car smell. It is in the service of others where contentment reigns.
For those angry — often violently so — on the far right, I have to admit to not fully understanding their rage, hard as I try. As someone who has traveled the world and represented more than 30 other countries, I marvel at our imperfect successes — a social safety net, a school system, potable water, a vast power grid, a national highway system, grocery stores and so much more. It is not that these things could not be improved upon or that so many things seem out of reach, but we are blessed with them, and improvements are within reach. But certainly not by storming the Capitol, attempting to kidnap governors, banning books or denying elections.
Meanwhile, many on the left take critically important movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter and turn them into personal grievances, not about racism or sexism, but as tools for personal power. How many executives are petrified to provide helpful constructive criticism for fear of being accused of “microaggression” or sexism or racism?
The term “woke” has always bothered me because, for starters, it is past tense and judgmental. It implies ‘I am more self-aware than you, see things you don’t and have done all the personal growth I need to.’ As the Dalai Lama says, ‘being aware is my full-time job and I still don’t get it right.’
Perhaps a more accurate term might be “awakening” as in, I understand some history though I need to learn much more. I have seen some injustices but need to be sure I study them rather than first rage on social media. I have strong points of view but need to examine and discuss them with people who see things differently, rather than canceling them, a tool of authoritarian governments with no place in alleged progressive movements.
Rather than a grateful nation, we have become an entitled one. When I watch black and white film of the Greatest Generation marching through Europe they mightily helped to save, I am endlessly captivated and cannot take my eyes off the screen. The courage, humility, sacrifice and commitment to democracy, country and doing the right thing is so…so President Washington-like.
2023 is the year we all need to take more personal responsibility. Democracies die either by revolution or indifference. And it is personal. What we do matters. Just like the World War II GIs.
If you did not do an adequate job on your assignment at work, you cannot race to HR with a complaint. If you are in HR, you need to start your investigation by getting the entire context of the situation, not just play pronoun police. If you are a politician, you need to reach across the aisle and get things done — as this historic December was for this U.S. Congress. If you are a journalist, tell us what is there, not just what isn’t. For a generation or two fueled on judgment, start with a mirror. Judgment of others without self-reflection is a sin as old as the Old Testament.
We have done the impossible. Our forefathers and foremothers took a 2,500-year-old concept and, however imperfect their Constitutional draft, put it into action for an experiment now longer than the ancient Athenians themselves. In our work, we have had the honor of representing multiple benevolent monarchies. They are remarkable governments and countries, in some cases, with so much oil revenue that work is optional and in other cases with no personal income taxation. But still, people complain. Life will never be perfect.
Perhaps our goal for 2023 is more self-reflection, reaching out to others and recognizing that the loudest on social media is neither a valuable read of popular opinion nor a leader.
For business executives trying to avoid Tesla/Twitter’s fate — selling cars largely to those left of center while embracing the far right on Twitter and watching advertisers flee and stock values drop — it is still going to be a difficult year, with pressure to weigh in on social issues. It will always be a company-by-company and case-by-case decision as much based on timing and context as corporate history and who your adversaries are.
But largely, keeping a low profile on social issues often remains a smart decision, though sometimes impossible (e.g., health care). Integrated corporate teams — IR, HR, brand, legal, communications, etc. discussing “what if;” understanding corporate history; competitors’ positions; potential adversaries’ social priorities; changing attitudes and more will help inform wise decisions. It is always easier to tamp out a match than a forest fire, so advanced planning is critical.
Much as they are historic, all movements have an arch and there is now increasing pushback to those who have weaponized #MeToo, #BLM and #AAPI for their own personal gain. We all know people whose careers and families were ruined by verifiably false accusations. What some on the left dismissively refer to as “collateral damage.” A few years ago, the falsely accused were intimidated into silence with their epitaphs authored by their accusers. This is increasingly less the case.
In law school, I was the first male to ever work in the Women’s Rights Division of AFCSME, then the largest union in the AFL-CIO. As an early advocate, I marveled at how the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) and various statutes could balance the playing field. But I also feared for future victims whose positions would be weakened by posers using the Commission and laws for their own personal gain.
Life is very short. We go from high school to AARP membership faster than we imagine until we get there and wonder how 50 years have gone by. Franco Harris, Anita Pointer, Pele, Kristie Alley, Gaylord Perry and so many more that we have recently lost. I saw and listened to all of them in their prime. And now they are gone. What makes us think we will be any different?
Looking at life through today’s eyes is easy. Looking at life through our future eyes, now there’s the ticket. Our future selves looking back always knows the truth, courage and the right thing. Live 2023 and beyond with those eyes. It isn’t easy, but it is a great place to start.
Enjoy the read.
Richard S. Levick, Esq.