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Counting the votes on Wall Street 

What to do about the election? From all the e-mails on voter fraud in Ohio it seems many comrades have made it only to the first of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' Five Stages of Dying. That would be "Denial."

Others appear to have moved on to "Anger," "Bargaining" or--my personal favorite--"Depression." But few seem to have made it all the way to "Acceptance" of the grim fact that Bush beat us and did so (largely) fair and square.

It's a harsh and alienating reality, like being exiled in your own country. It forces us to wrestle with a question that borders on rhetorical: If the election was indeed a national referendum on "Values," where do we members of the Blue Nation go to express and realize ours--you know, the values that lost?

(Note: "Canada" is not the correct answer.)

Mindy Lubber, executive director of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES) and formerly of the EPA, was quite blunt recently about one place we shouldn't look for support. Speaking to a group of environmentally concerned investors, she said, "As head of an environmental non-profit, I'm writing off the federal government for the next four years. They will not be part of the solution; they will be part of the problem."

The same could be said of a whole spectrum of issues where the federal government has at times worked to further a progressive agenda. A recent study, for instance, found that the Justice Department pursued a third fewer civil rights prosecutions during Bush's first term compared to the previous four years, despite the number of civil rights complaints remaining constant. This is a trend that will continue.

So where does Lubber recommend we go to find a sympathetic ear and have our progressive voices heard? To the stock market. Yes, that's right, to Wall Street, where money never sleeps and the engines of capitalism turn.

Lubber isn't on crack or mentally unstable. She's simply acknowledging what careful observers have seen developing for well over a decade--that progressive shareholders are getting things done in the private sector that are dead on arrival in the political arena. As sad or encouraging as it may be, the plain fact is that the American business community is more dynamic, more open to change, more progressive on a number of fronts than the federal government. And they've proved it repeatedly by adopting corporate policies that would never make it out of committee in Congress.

I don't for a second take this as evidence of a truly more liberal outlook on behalf of business leaders. I think it rather reflects the fact that the preferences of the American people regarding the environment and personal lifestyle are better reflected in the marketplace than they are in national elections. And business leaders play to the marketplace.

How else do you explain the fact that while 11 states just passed referenda in favor of banning gay marriage, the largest retailer in the world and that most American of corporations, Wal-Mart, last year adopted a formal non-discrimination policy for gays and lesbians in the workplace? In doing so, the company joined 318 other members of the Fortune 500 who have adopted such gay-friendly policies. Some 227 of those companies go further and offer domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian couples. When progressive shareholders urged the management of JC Penney to adopt such a non-discrimination policy at the annual shareholders' meeting this past spring, 93 percent of the shares voted were in favor. And yet in 36 states it is still perfectly legal to fire an employee on grounds of sexual orientation.

How else do you explain that at a time when our president proposes increased logging to reduce wildfires in national forests, do-it-yourself colossus Home Depot agreed to phase out its use of old-growth timber products while lumber giant Boise Cascade pledged to stop logging virgin forests in the U.S. and endangered forests in Chile and Indonesia? Citigroup, the largest financial services firm in the world, formally declared it would no longer finance logging in tropical rainforests as office-supply mega-chain Staples agreed to triple its use of recycled content in its paper products.

These actions aren't the result of enlightenment suddenly dawning in boardrooms across America. They're rather the cumulative result of years of cooperative effort by issue-oriented non-profits on one hand and progressive shareholders on the other. Their goal has been to translate the social and environmental concerns of the former into the bottom-line concerns of the latter. And to then take those concerns to one of the few places progressives can still get something done in this country: the annual shareholder meetings of major publicly held corporations.

It's ironic, I know. But it's also a fact, if one you've likely heard little about. Shareholder activism is one of those "when worlds collide" phenomena that conflate all our neat categories. Perhaps we'll hear more about it now that Al Gore has embraced the trend with his career move from presidential candidate to chairman of the board of Generation Investment Management, his new socially responsible investment firm.

Farnum Brown is senior vice president of Trillium Asset Management, the largest and oldest independent advisory firm devoted exclusively to socially responsible investing. www.trilliuminvest.com.

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