Looking around Florida these days, it's hard to find much "progressive" influence in the way the word has traditionally been defined — marshaling the government behind a cause. The Democratic Party, the sometime keeper of the traditional progressive flame, continues to lurch toward irrelevance, increasingly fossilized in the amber of dusty ideas and discredited problem-solving approaches. Environmental groups, another traditional progressive bastion, have mostly found they can be more effective by being flexible and pragmatic than with hard-line, just-say-no dogma.
The withering of "progressivism" is not to say, however, that there has not been progress on issues that have traditionally been the province of progressives. Ironically, much of that progress seems to be coming from initiatives and policies pushed by individual businesses and business groups. For example, 52 of the 100 "Best Companies" highlighted in this issue have adopted domestic-partner benefits. Many firms say no one at the company uses them, but all of those firms decided it was a good, practical idea to offer them — and other "progressive" benefits — as part of competing effectively in the 21st century business world.
Meanwhile, in the recent discussion of the wisdom of a high-speed rail link between Orlando and Tampa, the pro-rail forces included almost every major business group in the state. The various business supporters were doubtless motivated by the prospect of direct or indirect economic benefit rather than some ideological embrace of the virtues of public transit, but their support for transit was real nonetheless.
Another meanwhile: Many of the most innovative programs in the public schools these days originate in the business world. Witness, at a national level, the Gates Foundation, whose multimillion-dollar grant is funding a new approach to teacher training and retention in the Hillsborough County school system; or, at the state level, companies that partner with public school systems to offer programs like Harris Corp.'s engineering and technology academy in Brevard County. Or the Florida Chamber's selection of "talent supply and education" as one of its Six Pillars of Florida's Future Economy. And another meanwhile: The Jacksonville Civic Council, a non-partisan group of business leaders — I wrote about them last month — who've made race one of the major issues they will try to help their community address.
While few of these examples fit under the "social justice" banner waved so stridently by traditional progressives, they ultimately contribute to making our state a better, fairer place to live and work.
What concerns me is that while many businesses and groups are moving the ball in that direction, our state-level political and business leadership seems to be grafting hyper-conservative social attitudes into the concept of what it means for Florida to be "business friendly." Well and good to enact tax and regulatory policies that stimulate growth, but I don't think we can be "business friendly" while passing laws that most young people, particularly women, are bound to find oppressive.
What does it say about Florida that the state, even as it promulgates a woman's ability to start a business and choose a school for her children, strives mightily to restrict her choices about her own body and how many children she has? What does it say when local economic development groups fall all over themselves embracing Richard Florida's notion of the "creative class" — and policies they think will attract those workers — but then have nothing to say when their local legislator votes, for example, for measures to restrict flexibility in voting?
I have a personal stake in this because my daughter, who chose to go out of state for college, just entered her junior year, somewhat of a turning point in the progression from college to career. She's smart and wise and well-educated and religiously observant and ethical and the kind of person Florida should want in its workforce.
How does she — as a young woman who will likely have some choices in where she's employed — view the state as a place to work and live?
In her eyes, the state's reputation has taken a hit because of decisions like the requirement for women considering abortion to get an ultrasound. Like the rejection of high-speed rail. Like the shortening of time to gather signatures on a petition. She told me she doesn't expect to have an abortion or seek a constitutional amendment or commute on a high-speed train, but she says that she and her contemporaries value having choices and are concerned when a community or state restricts choice and freedoms in what they see as narrow-minded ways.
You may agree or disagree with her on those specifics, but at some point the definition of "business friendly" needs to go beyond being attractive to companies. It's also about being attractive to a new generation of workers as well. Many companies and business groups clearly understand that dynamic. More political leaders need to.
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