NICHOLS: Corporate Activism Has The Potential To Cause Major Positive Changes

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Jason Nichols Professor and progressive commentator
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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 corporate activism like that seen in Georgia over the state’s new voting law can be highly effective at bringing positive change. You can find a counterpoint here, where Adam Kissel and Andy Olivastro argue that corporate activism has undermined public confidence in elections.

Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp caused a major stir when he signed SB202, the state’s new voting law, behind closed doors and out of the view of his Democratic colleagues. Some corporations have criticized the law. While so-called corporate activism is criticized as performative virtue signaling, it can have serious economic consequences. Republicans are crying foul for the reaction to Georgia’s law but were silent when corporate activism favored conservative beliefs.

SB202 made significant changes to Georgia’s voting rules that many believe will disproportionately affect African American voters and was inspired by the dangerous and fabricated narrative of voter fraud in the state. While former President Donald Trump propagated the “Big Lie” that led to the infamous January 6, 2021 violent insurrection at the US Capitol building, his own officials like Chris Krebs remained steadfast that the system worked. The Organization of American States, an international elections watchdog organization, stated that it found no irregularities in the 2020 presidential election. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe also acted as a watchdog and said the 2020 election was “well managed.” As a result of how easy it was to vote in many places, electoral participation was at its highest level in more than a century. There is an old saying in African American communities; “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

However, the former president still bashed Kemp and other Georgia Republican state officials and made them subject to his rabid, angry base. Republicans were also subsequently thrashed in two Senate runoffs in Georgia due to large black turnout. Fearing for their political futures, they started tinkering with the laws in order to ensure GOP victories.  In all fairness, Georgia is just one of 43 states promoting restrictive election related bills, but it was the most high profile since Trump focused most of his efforts to overturn a free and fair election there.

SB202 is not the most restrictive voting law we’ve seen over the last several decades, and Republicans are quick to point out that it expands in-person voting. However, it will eliminate three quarters of the drop boxes in the Atlanta area and closes polls on the final Sunday before elections, a time when black churches organize “Souls to the Polls.” Both of those measures could cause black votes in majority black Atlanta to sharply decline.

The corporate community has responded  with Major League Baseball pulling its All Star Game from the state, Will Smith and Antwon Fuqua moving their movie production, as well as being admonished by Coca Cola CEO James Quincy, who called the law unacceptable. This reaction from the business community has prompted outrage from the political right, calling it “corporate activism.” They lament corporations getting involved in politics. These people seemed to be very quiet when the late Sheldon Adelson, the Koch Brothers, UFC President Dana White, and Beer CEOs Pete Coors and Richard Yuengling were very vocal about their political beliefs and candidates they support. When Hobby Lobby fought to withhold contraceptives from its employees they were defended by conservatives. Republicans like former presidential nominee Mitt Romney asserted that “corporations are people” and claimed that corporations and their representatives were allowed to hold political views and make decisions based upon them.

Perhaps most importantly, so-called corporate activism has been very effective. Private Colleges and Universities are nonprofit corporations that are subject to state charters. The divestment in South Africa played a role in the disillusion of Apartheid. Renowned historian Adam Winkler points out that the NAACP “was formed as a corporation” and it was instrumental to securing civil rights for all Americans. Corporate activism is also not rare. Between 2008 and 2017, 44% of the S&P 500 large corporations engaged in some form of corporate activism, often by contributing to activist groups.  One of the primary issues during that period was LGBTQ rights. It’s no surprise that in between that time same sex marriage was legalized.

At the end of the day, corporations are most concerned with their bottom line. They do a cost-benefit analysis before they make political moves.  They engage in corporate activism in part because it attracts young, liberal skilled workers. Also, they fear low morale among their existing employees or because they are facing employees that are encouraging them to take action. The conservative argument against the MLB and other corporations who have spoken out about SB202 are bad faith arguments because they aren’t consistent. It seems that their position is that corporations can do what they want, unless they disagree with them politically.

Jason Nichols is a lecturer in African American Studies at the University of Maryland and a prolific progressive commentator.