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Partisan Politics Is Hurting US Competitiveness

Feb. 5, 2021
Is the lack of cooperation among America’s leaders widening a U.S. progress gap?


From time to time, businesspeople like me have been known to wish that government could be run more like a business. 

Of course, running a business and governing a country is not an “apples to apples” comparison. But one thing they both have in common is a need for strong leadership and mutual respect among all parties. Without these qualities, one cannot foster consensus among diverse people nor drive progress toward a common vision of the future.

The situation facing President Joe Biden underscores this point. Huge challenges confront the nation, starting with a raging pandemic, a battered economy, and painful shortcomings in equality and justice for all people. Biden promises a more bipartisan approach, but the old battle lines are still all around us.

Indeed, the country’s never-ending political warfare has eroded mutual respect to the point that seemingly little can be done to fix America’s problems. Compromise is viewed as weakness that will be punished by partisan voters. Conflict makes for better TV ratings. At one of the most critical turning points in the nation’s history, there is very little shared bipartisan vision or desire for “win-win” solutions. Partisanship is as entrenched as the pandemic.

As an engineer by training, I find this infuriating. I love designing solutions to complex problems and making good things even better. In theory, that is what our political leaders are elected to do, as well. And yet the political discussions I hear are not about problem-solving or betterment. They are usually just another tit-for-tat cycle in a petty game.        

What’s even more concerning for me, as an American leader of a global business organization, is that the lack of respect and cooperation among America’s leaders is opening up a progress gap in which the United States is losing its global competitiveness.  

For example, consider the ambitious legislative and regulatory efforts underway in the European Union to accelerate Europe’s migration to a more digital, environmentally sustainable economy. European policymakers are years ahead of their American counterparts in building consensus on these complex subjects. They widely accept that the world is changing, and that their people’s future depends on leading the way to that future, not just arguing about it.

Granted, there are some risks for business in these European initiatives. Many companies are concerned that the policies intended to make them more competitive in the future will undermine their success in the short run. But to their credit, European officials actually respect and engage with diverse stakeholders. I am consistently impressed by the respect our industry leaders are given by EU policymakers when we, out of respect for them, offer quality data and considered advice.  

Likewise, many countries in Asia—including China, India, and South Korea—have clear, long-term, government-backed plans to assert leadership in global industries. One might argue that China’s one-party rule makes it easier to develop and stick to a long-term plan. But the main point remains: Despite significant diversity among the Asian nations, what many have in common is an orientation to working together to achieve ambitious, long-term goals for the good of their peoples.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has no coherent, long-term strategies to spur investment in key industries. There is very little discussion of what to do beyond the next election cycle, much less in the next 10 to 20 years. Over the last four years, we experienced an economic strategy that claimed to be for “America First” and yet increased our trade deficit, created new uncertainties for business, and yielded multilateral leadership to Europe and China.   

The Israeli politician Abba Eban said, “Nations do act wisely when they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” His quote was both pessimistic and optimistic, acknowledging human weakness while placing faith in redemption.

I, too, believe in redemption, but we must not delude ourselves that it is inevitable.  

Ask any chief executive of a multinational company, and he or she will tell you the global economy is fiercely competitive, and other governments are moving aggressively to assert leadership where the United States has retreated. Other countries are hungry for the prosperity that the United States takes for granted and risks losing.  

I am hopeful that President Biden can work across the aisle to advance policies that help all Americans. He has a record of respecting his colleagues and balancing his partisan instincts with a search for consensus and higher values.

As the chief executive of an association for the electronics manufacturing industry, I will do my part to make his presidency successful, just as I’ve sought to do with prior administrations. I may not always agree with the sitting president, but I am obligated—as we all are—to be a constructive, respectful partner.  

John Mitchell is president and CEO of IPC, an association based in Bannockburn, Illinois, that represents all facets of the $2 trillion global electronics industry, including design, printed board manufacturing, electronics assembly and test. IPC is dedicated to the competitive excellence and financial success of its nearly 3,000-member company sites, and has offices in the U.S, Europe, and Asia.

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