Business Needs to Hit Election Deniers in the Wallet
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Early Wednesday afternoon, as the siege of the U.S. Capitol building was underway, Jay Timmons, the chief executive officer of the National Association of Manufacturers, issued a remarkable statement. The association represents more than 1,000 industrial companies, including Exxon Mobil Corp., Caterpillar Inc. and Dow Inc. Like most business lobbying groups, it generally stays away from purely partisan issues. But Timmons, clearly outraged by what he was seeing on television, expressed a fury that many Americans were feeling.
“Armed violent protestors who support the baseless claim by outgoing president Trump that he somehow won an election that he overwhelmingly lost have stormed the U.S. Capitol today, attacking police officers and first responders, because Trump refused to accept defeat in a free and fair election,” he began.
This is not law and order. This is chaos. It is mob rule. It is dangerous. This is sedition and should be treated as such. The outgoing president incited violence in an attempt to retain power, and any elected leader defending him is violating their oath to the Constitution and rejecting democracy in favor of anarchy. Anyone indulging conspiracy theories to raise campaign dollars is complicit. Vice President Pence, who was evacuated from the Capitol, should seriously consider working with the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to preserve democracy.
Though Timmons’s bluntness set him apart, he was hardly alone in condemning the efforts of the dozen or so Republican senators — led by Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri — and the more than 120 Republican representatives who planned to challenge President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory. The effort “undermines our democracy and the rule of law and will only result in further division,” the Chamber of Commerce said. The Business Roundtable said that the rioting was “the result of unlawful efforts to overturn the legitimate results of a democratic election.” On Monday, some 200 top executives — most of them CEOs — signed on to a short, pointed statement calling on Congress to “certify the electoral vote.” It added, “Attempts to thwart or delay this process run counter to the essential tenets of our democracy.”
Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co., Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone Group Inc., Larry Fink of BlackRock Inc., David Solomon of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and other top executives issued individual statements condemning the violence and calling for the peaceful transfer of power that has long been the hallmark of American democracy.
The day before Wednesday’s trauma, Yale School of Management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld convened a virtual meeting of some three dozen executives, including Robert Iger, the chairman of Walt Disney Co., and Merck & Co.’s CEO Ken Frazier. During the meeting, Sonnenfeld took a poll:
- Is President Trump attempting to overturn democratically run elections to stay in office? Yes: 88%.
- Did President Trump break federal and/or state election laws in pressuring Georgia officials to change vote tallies? Yes: 91%.
- Are 50% of GOP House members and 25% of GOP Senate members aiding and abetting sedition? Yes: 88%.
But here’s the question that really caught my attention: Should CEOs warn lobbyists privately that their companies will no longer support election deniers in Congress? This answer was unanimous: Yes.
“We have to create some level of cost,” Tom Glocer, a director at Merck and Morgan Stanley, told the Wall Street Journal. “Just coming out with another public letter isn’t going to do much. Money is the key way.”
There’s no doubt Glocer is right. Over the last few days, as Hawley, Cruz and the others made it clear they would object to millions of legally cast votes in the states that were critical to Biden’s victory, nobody paid much attention to the statements made by executives. Although the GOP was once the party of big business, those days are long gone; on issues from climate change to shutting down the government, Republican ideologues have shown themselves to be indifferent to the entreaties of CEOs.
What they are not indifferent to is money. A decision by companies to withhold contributions to the campaigns and political action committees of lawmakers who were involved in objecting to the certification of Biden’s election would make a huge difference. It would show that there are severe consequences for defying the Constitution and democratic norms.
But what are the chances of this actually happening? On Wednesday morning, a website called Popular Information listed the 20 largest corporate contributors to the campaigns of 13 senators and 126 members of the House who it said were attempting to “subvert democracy.” The companies included AT&T ($2 million between 2014 and 2020), Amazon.com Inc. ($598,000), Microsoft Corp. ($505,000) and Comcast Corp. ($1.74 million).
The authors of the article called a handful of the companies to ask whether they would be withholding future contributions from them. Not a single one said yes. Some, like Amazon, declined to comment; others issued statements like this one from Pfizer Inc.: “Pfizer supports candidates and elected officials from both sides of the aisle who deal with decisions important to our industry.”
That statement was made before the assault on the Capitol building; maybe the shock of those Wednesday afternoon images will cause companies like Pfizer to reassess. Because somebody needs to hold those who voted to defy the Constitution accountable. The body politic lacks the means — and the will — to do so. In too many cases, voters won’t either because they believe the lie that Trump has peddled ceaselessly that the election was somehow “rigged.”
That leaves companies. Glocer told the Journal that the proper functioning of democracy isn’t only a political issue — it’s a business one, too. “Respect for the rule of law underlies our market economy,” he said. The rule of law and the smooth functioning of democracy are underpinnings that companies have long taken for granted. Now, like the rest of us, they know how fragile the system is.
Ultimately, it’s in their own self-interest to ensure that events like Wednesday’s travesty never happen again. Withholding their money is the best weapon they — and we — have.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."
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