TONELSON: The Boycott Wave Has Only Just Begun

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Alan Tonelson Contributor
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that boycotts like the one against Georgia can be highly effective and may cause a wave of similar boycotts. You can find a counterpoint here, where former Republican Georgia Rep. Bob Barr argues that the boycott will not be effective in changing state policy.

To understand the strength of the case that boycotts can and have changed government and business policies during U.S. history, let’s begin even before America’s official beginning. In 1765, the latest in a series of new British levies on the American colonists called the Stamp Tax triggered a consumer revolt against British goods up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Under pressure from suffering London merchants, Parliament repealed the tax the following year. But rather than pacify the colonists, the victory emboldened them to resist subsequent instances of taxation without representation and other perceived abuses of power.

Imagine if these 18th century activists had access to social media – or telecommunications of any kind. Or transportation better than horses. They might have spurred even more powerful opposition to increasingly high-handed British rule, and either ignited full-fledged armed revolt sooner, or pressured the Crown to grant an acceptable degree of independence peacefully. For the record unmistakably shows that, as technology has advanced, boycotts in America have increased both in numbers and effectiveness – at first slowly, and now exponentially.

The early 19th century offers intriguing, if indirect, evidence of technology’s central role. The antebellum period saw no shortage of attempted boycotts – most against goods produced by slave labor. But not only were no means available to set up organizational networks quickly, or show slavery’s hardships or humanize the victims first-hand in real time and send them viral. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s hugely influential abolitionist classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin wasn’t even published until 1852, and the first movie true to its message was still decades off. By the late 1850s, the boycotters’ energies appeared to have been exhausted by repeated failures, and the national dispute over slavery had turned increasingly violent.

Once transportation and especially communications began deserving the adjective “mass” in the late 19th century, boycotts – used especially often by the early producers’ organizations, the Knights of Labor – took off once more. In fact, they started achieving enough victories that only a combination of lawsuits filed with a business-friendly judicial system and intensifying conflicts between the Knights and employee-focused trade unions eventually broke their momentum. Receiving much of the blame for the 1886 Haymarket Square bombing and riot didn’t help, either.

The 1920s and 1930s brought new waves of boycotts that achieved varying degrees of local and even national success – notably against automotive magnate Henry Ford for publishing anti-Semitic screeds in a Michigan newspaper he owned, and against businesses in numerous big cities that were happy to sell to African-Americans but not to hire or promote them (“Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work”)

The 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott helped spark the nation-wide civil rights movement, but this campaign was hardly the only consumer action mounted by opponents of official discrimination during that and the succeeding decade. Through the end of the century, moreover, boycotts became a primary, and effective, weapon in wider-ranging efforts – to improve employment conditions for farm workers in California (1965-1970), their African-American counterparts in Food Lion supermarkets (1984), and Asians (including children) who labored in Nike’s sweatshops (the 1990s), against Nestle for marketing infant formula unethically (the late-1970s), and against PepsiCo for its dealings with Burma/Myanmar’s military government (1997). (See here for brief descriptions.)

Small wonder that, with the internet established as a crucial part of everyday life by the turn of this century, boycotts became headline news regularly and achieved ever more impressive results. Not every one worked, as the founders of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions movement against Israel found out, and at least one backfired loudly – the “Great American Boycott” that was part of the “Day Without Immigrants” on May 1, 2006, during which large crowds of illegal aliens in numerous American cities bragged “We Built America,” waved Mexican flags instead of the Star Spangled Banner, and thus no doubt set back the cause of an amnesty-friendly immigration reform bill.

But well before the current uproar over Georgia’s new voting law, examples of boycotts that worked mushroomed, and U.S. states also started coming under pressure – and knuckling under, as in the cases of Arizona and its various crackdowns against illegal aliens, Indiana and its supposedly anti-LGBT law, and North Carolina’s transgender bathroom policies. In fact, such greater ambition arguably was a no-brainer after victories like those against Chick-fil-A restaurants’ own allegedly anti-gay activism; against Kimberly-Clark for its forestation practices; against Sea World for its treatment of marine mammals; against several fashion giants’ use of natural fur; and in the ongoing anti-sweatshop movement.

Boycott Georgia support seems to have foundered for now – largely due to the objections of Democratic Georgia politicians and others who note that the main victims will include Georgia workers and small businesses. Admissions that boycotts can be genuinely two-edged swords have been all-too rare. Whether they cause significant second thoughts by boycotters remains to be seen – along with whether boycott targets will follow the example of Georgia’s leadership and push back more aggressively against their antagonists.

An even bigger question: Will boycotts staged by conservatives become as common as those coming from the left of center? So far, some such actions have some produced desired changes – like the Southern Baptists’-sparked 1996-2005 action against Disney for promoting a gay agenda and overly sexual content and a 2016 protest against Target stores against their allegedly lax transgender lavatory policies. Protests about woke political stances taken by the National Football League (over players sitting and kneeling during the national anthem), and during various entertainment awards shows seem to have damaged ratings – especially of the latter.

Corporate criticisms of the Georgia voting law, moreover, may ratchet up such activity. But so far, Major League Baseball stands alone among major economic actors actually deciding to shun the state. Meanwhile, other potential targets of conservative ire – like social media and its censorship practices – currently seem too powerful to boycott successfully.

Still, it’s conceivable that the sheer number of boycotts being conducted now and the pervasive buzz they’ve generated via the 24/7 news cycle will eventually produce substantial boycott fatigue. The future of overtly partisan boycotts seems especially uncertain. But at this point, it seems far likelier that, if only because of ever-mounting signs of corporate sensitivity, and the comparable spread of ethically, socially and environmentally responsible investing, a Golden Age of Boycotts is just beginning.

Alan Tonelson is the Founder of RealityChek, a blog covering economic and national security issues, and the author of The Race to the Bottom (Westview Press, 2002), a study of globalization’s impact on the U.S. economy.