Are You Really Going to Fight for Voting Rights, Corporate America?

Social activism doesn’t come easily to corporate America. Business titans have spent decades avoiding direct involvement in political issues, preferring to nudge or strong-arm legislators quietly rather than hammer them publicly. Also, they’ve had a longstanding affinity for Republicans, made tangible in corporate donations and policy preferences.

Donald Trump’s presidency, and the racial confrontations, political machinations and insurrections that came spilling out of it, may have changed all of that. The political battles that lie ahead will test how ready the business community is to adapt.

Prominent business leaders have come out against voting restrictions engineered by Republicans, opposition that surfaced most recently on Wednesday via a letter signed by hundreds of executives calling for the protection of voting rights nationwide — which appeared as advertisements in the Washington Post and the New York Times. (Michael Bloomberg, the founder and chief executive officer of Bloomberg LP, signed the letter.)

“We Stand for Democracy,” the letter asserts. But it’s unclear how long the business community will be willing to take such a stance, especially as challenges to voting rights gather steam and as landmark federal voting-rights legislation winds its way through Congress. Veteran business observers say the Trump years have sparked a significant shift in corporations’ relationships with Republicans and the political process.

“Since the 1950s, if not going back to Hoover, we’ve seen big business as a captive of the GOP,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management who has convened groups of executives to discuss voting rights and other civic issues. “Now it’s like a return to adolescence. These people are trying to decide what their identity is, independent of parentage of party.”

Sonnenfeld says that the only real policy alignment between corporate America and Trump was around the huge tax cut his party passed. On almost every other significant issue, he says, there were deep differences — including how best to deregulate businesses. Trump’s fascination with pitting corporate executives against one another in public unsettled the business community early in his term, Sonnenfeld says.

That discomfort only grew after white supremacists instigated a deadly riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and Trump equivocated in response. Shortly after that tragedy, leading chief executives, including Merck & Co.’s CEO, Kenneth Frazier, resigned from a number of White House advisory councils. The Black Lives Matter movement, Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and the recent voting rights challenges — which primarily target Black voters — further forced executives’ hands.

Prior to the Georgia legislature’s recent decision to restrict voting rights, Atlanta-based companies such as Delta Air Lines Inc., Coca-Cola Co. and United Parcel Service Inc. all soft-pedaled their distaste for the move. The public backlash that erupted afterward pushed the companies to become more outspoken, and that lesson wasn’t lost on other corporations in Texas, Michigan and Arizona, where restrictive legislation is also in motion.

Corporate America also views voting rights as nonpartisan — a bulwark of a democratic country, not a political ping-pong ball that can be batted around until the social fabric unravels.

“When you look at democracies around the world that have slipped into authoritarianism — or avoided slipping into authoritarianism — one of the key forces preventing that from happening is the engagement of the business community and its commitment to core democratic values,” says Mike Ward, a co-founder of the Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan business group that has been coordinating the response to voting rights restrictions and other issues.

Some companies, such as Starbucks Corp., have been active around these causes for years. But the real push for an agreed stance against voting restrictions came from two prominent Black executives, Frazier and Kenneth Chenault, the former CEO of American Express Co. Both men were guiding forces behind the letter published Wednesday.

So what’s next? As I noted in a column last week, it’s not clear what weaponry business leaders are prepared to use in this battle. Taking a public stance is vital and important, and will certainly influence core corporate stakeholders such as investors, employees and customers. But some prominent executives balked at signing the letter, and the letter itself doesn’t go beyond a statement of values and outline more practical steps.

Corporations have said they will withhold political donations to federal legislators who supported Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, though some seem to have backtracked on that promise. Big business is in a trickier position with Republican state legislators, who may have the power to more directly hamstring a company’s operations if they don’t like the company’s politics.

Voting rights are also going to continue to occupy center stage nationally.

In Congress, the For the People Act, or H.R.1, aims to buttress voting rights, along with overhauling campaign finance, partisan gerrymandering and federal ethics guidelines. The legislation passed the House of Representatives last month and now sits in an evenly divided Senate, where debates about its merits will keep voting rights in play. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, or H.R. 4, which seeks to revivify the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is likely to be introduced this summer or fall and will spark similar congressional and public debates.

If corporate America really has reached a watershed moment in its relationship with the commonweal, then the weeks and months ahead are going to offer a litmus test of that commitment.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.