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Corporations take to the ramparts

25 Jan 2021
Read: 3 min

One action not to be overlooked was the decision by some of America’s largest and – in many cases – most conservative corporations to suspend political contributions to the 147 Republican members of Congress who voted against certifying the election results that finalized Joe Biden’s victory. These companies and trade organizations come from nearly every sector of the economy. Even the US Chamber of Commerce, normally closely aligned with the GOP, joined this group.

And this couldn’t have been an easy decision for any of these companies. The fact is that a large percentage of the American public – the customers of these companies – still chose to believe that Donald Trump was the rightful winner of the election.

But, while this is possibly the most obviously partisan, and most widespread involvement of corporations in political debate, this is of a trend that has significantly increased over the past four years.

Business being engaged with government policy is hardly a new thing. Lobbying has been around since well before the construction of the lobby of the Willard Hotel, long rumored to be the venue that spawned the term (President Ulysses S. Grant was known to frequent the lobby of the famed Washington, DC hotel, where he was often approached by people seeking favors). There were always politicians who coveted the money businesses were willing to dole out in return for a few favors.

Even from the beginning, when businesses would often take a more paternalistic view towards their employees, some of those needs would include government programs that would serve their home communities. Nonetheless, the bulk of a company’s interest in government was self-interest, following the broadly held belief that a company’s first and primary interest was in maximizing return to shareholders.

But in the past few decades, more and more companies have felt impelled to become engaged in a broader array of public policy issues ranging from the environment to social justice.

The rise of ESG investing – and the pressure it has placed on many companies to improve their metrics – has been one factor that has led to this. At the same time, policy changes by governments that have swung to the right have put corporations that once fought government regulations in the odd position of advocating for the reinstitution of much of the regulatory framework that their employees and much of the public favored. Anti-democratic activities by many of these same governments involving immigration and civil liberties, to take two examples, also resulted in companies becoming advocates of social justice causes.

In the US, during the years of the recently departed Trump administration, this led different groupings of corporations to oppose the US departure from the Paris Accord, to take a stand against anti-immigrant policies and to become active supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, just this past week more than 400 companies – including many of the largest US corporations - joined together at the World Economic Forum to form a new private sector climate initiative intended to go beyond the goals set by the Paris Accord.

This level of corporate participation would have been unthinkable a decade ago, in large part because the government’s own efforts in these areas have long been sufficient, allowing corporations to avoid taking a leadership position or a position at all on these issues.

And I’ll add one final factor that I believe has had a significant impact on this most recent decision by corporations to boycott the 147 Republicans who opposed certifying the election of Joe Biden. While the debate over the results of the election was going on – more of a debate on democracy than on vote counting – much was made of the complicity of German business in the rise of Hitler. The fact that most businesses either supported the National Socialists or stayed silent during their rise is viewed by many as a major factor in the Nazi’s success in taking control of Germany. I’d like to think that a lot of these companies came to a decision of conscience – that they didn’t want to find themselves on the wrong side of history.

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