Democrats Have Corporate Power. They Should Use It.

For decades America has used its soft power as an essential tool in the battle against authoritarianism abroad. Now the Democratic Party and supporters of democracy must exercise a variation of soft power in the struggle against authoritarianism at home.

The past two weeks of rage against election math have confirmed how thoroughly illiberal the Republican Party has become. But some institutions that aid and abet the party’s assault on democracy have been shamed into ending their support. Such efforts, and similar extensions of cultural and commercial power, will be necessary to raise the cost of anti-democratic behavior.

Two powerful law firms, Jones Day and Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP, abandoned their support of President Donald Trump’s dispute of the 2020 election results after internal conflicts over the role the firms played in attacking democracy became public. The reputational damage to the firms was twofold: First, they were exposed as assisting efforts to undermine faith in the election, which Trump’s own administration called the “most secure in American history.” Second, because their legal claims had no factual basis, the firms could be accused of shoddy lawyering. The firms surely understood that commercial damage might flow from reputational self-harm.

Stanford University experienced similarly unwelcome attention when it was asked to comment this week on Scott Atlas, the radiologist whom Trump has elevated to prominence on the White House coronavirus task force. Atlas, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, had urged Michigan residents to “rise up” against public health measures designed to combat the spread of Covid-19.

“Dr. Atlas has expressed views that are inconsistent with the university’s approach in response to the pandemic,” reads Stanford’s statement, emphasizing its support for social distancing and face masks.

Shaming, not surprisingly, has grown more frequent in the last four years. Trump himself is incapable of shame, but institutions and people who advance his agenda may prove susceptible. After former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was slated to participate in Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women Summit in 2019, other women — including Hillary Clinton and singer Brandi Carlile — dropped out in protest. That sent a message to institutions about what to expect if they showcase a high-ranking conspirator in Trump’s vicious abuse of children and parents at the border. (For similar reasons, partners at the corporate law firm King & Spalding should expect that the presence in the firm of former Trump Justice Department official Rod Rosenstein will repel some potential clients.)

Shaming will soon have its D-Day, as thousands of Trump officials seek to hunker down in the private sector. The most prominent among them, such as press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, should be rendered unemployable outside the right-wing griftosphere and disinformation ghetto. Waging war on democracy and truth should not be a stepping stone to respectability.

Shaming, however, is not the only soft weapon in the democratic arsenal. In the 2020 election, according to the Brookings Institution, Joe Biden won counties representing 70% of the nation’s GDP. You can oversimplify a data point like that, but the cities and suburbs where Democrats predominate unquestionably possess a lot of economic power. Some of it can be deployed on behalf of democracy.

Many corporations seeking customers in democratic America are simultaneously propping up authoritarian America, funding the Republican politicians who either stood by while Trump attacked democratic norms and rule of law or, worse, joined in the attacks. Sporadic boycotts of Fox News advertisers, usually in response to some outrage muttered during the network’s prime-time white-power bloc, have had limited success.

A more determined effort, with more vigorous promotion on social media, can increase pressure on companies such as Nike. In 2018, the athletic wear behemoth was criticized for ostentatiously supporting blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick while funneling contributions to the party that demonizes Kaepernick for political gain.

If Nike wants to fund Republicans, it should. (Unlike in previous years, Nike donations in 2020 overwhelmingly favored Democrats.) Corporate leaders don’t need to identify with Democrats, but they should identify with democracy. Republicans such as Utah Senator Mitt Romney and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, each of whom courageously stood up for the rule of law, are worthy of support. Authoritarians and their sycophants aren’t. 

Public shaming and campaigns to enlist corporations to support democracy are not the usual stuff of electoral politics. But America is beyond that now. The Republican Party is increasingly authoritarian, and its use of counter-majoritarian levers, like its destruction of norms, provides a powerful advantage.

Democrats have cultural and commercial strength that remains untapped. Letting that soft power go to waste is a luxury that democracy can no longer afford.

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

Francis Wilkinson writes about U.S. politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously executive editor of the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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