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Big companies should get more involved in politics, not less

Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told big companies to butt out of messy political battles like the one over voting rights in Georgia. “My advice to the corporate CEOs of America is to stay out of politics,” the Kentucky Republican said in an April 5 news conference. “Don’t pick sides in these fights.”

Businesses and corporate interest groups have donated at least $66 million to McConnell during his Senate career, with the biggest contributions coming from finance, health care, energy and agribusiness. Total business contributions to candidates in the 2020 elections may be impossible to calculate, but it’s surely in the hundreds of billions of dollars and could top $1 trillion.

So McConnell is basically saying to the Republican party’s corporate backers, “give us your money and shut up.” It’s like a teenager telling his parents they’re not the boss of him, then asking for the car keys and a credit card.

Corporate America finds itself with unscrupulous allies as the so-called party of business devolves into an anti-democratic mob of grifters and kooks. Republicans still stand for low taxes and light regulation, long-term business priorities. But a majority of House Republicans supported the illegal attempt to negate Joe Biden’s legitimate victory in the 2020 presidential election, and Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere are now trying to pre-empt voting if it will help them hold or gain power.

Instead of backing off, America’s big companies should get more involved in preventing this kind of chicanery, and Georgia’s repressive law illustrates why. On March 25, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a new law that would make it harder to request mail ballots and find ballot drop boxes and impose other restrictions. Republicans control the state government, yet Democrats swept the 2020 presidential and Senate elections in the state. Voting-rights groups have howled in protest and President Biden called the new law “sick.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., responds to a reporter's question during a news conference at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Lexington, Ky., Monday, April 5, 2021. At right is University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., responds to a reporter's question during a news conference at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Lexington, Ky., Monday, April 5, 2021. At right is University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., responds to a reporter’s question during a news conference at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Lexington, Ky., Monday, April 5, 2021. At right is University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

If big companies based in the state such as Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola and UPS lobbied against the bill while Republicans were drafting it, it’s not apparent. But angry customers of these consumer-facing companies called for some kind of boycott once the bill went into effect, forcing all three to issue wan statements about how they love democracy and support voting and blah blah blah. But only Major League Baseball has really flexed any muscle, by moving this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta to someplace else not yet determined.

All these organizations would obviously prefer not to have to take a stand on issues sure to piss somebody off, whether liberals or conservatives, socialists or wing nuts. But the way to do that would be preventive action behind the scenes that prevents medieval legislation that reeks of racism from ever seeing light of day in the first place. Georgia’s big companies surely have some sway over what happens in the state capital. If they don’t, who does?

Companies can’t go around the country policing every regressive effort to disenfranchise voters. They should at least know what’s going on in their backyards, however. And with everything so touchy these days, it’s not enough just to have a corporate rapid-reaction force that responds to crises. It’s time to put those predictive analytics to use sniffing out repressive government actions likely to prompt boycotts or other branding problems and simply stomp them out.

This is not what companies are supposed to do. Agreed. Coke makes drinks. Delta transports people. Yet the corporation has always been a social entity to the extent the values of the times require it. Most companies that provide health care benefits aren’t in the health care business, but they take care of workers because of a World War II anomaly that stuck. When customers or other “stakeholders” make demands, companies can either meet them, ignore them, or pretend to meet them and hope nobody notices fakery.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a news conference at the State Capitol on Saturday, April 3, 2021, in Atlanta, about Major League Baseball's decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over the league's objection to a new Georgia voting law. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a news conference at the State Capitol on Saturday, April 3, 2021, in Atlanta, about Major League Baseball's decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over the league's objection to a new Georgia voting law. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a news conference at the State Capitol on Saturday, April 3, 2021, in Atlanta, about Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over the league’s objection to a new Georgia voting law. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Companies are inherently averse to controversy, yet it’s absurd to assert that businesses are apolitical, or should be. Business interests have been an elemental participant in government for as long as either has existed, including the Medicis, the East India Company, the Rothschilds, and here in the United States, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers and the Kennedys. They might have wanted people to think they stayed out of politics, when in reality they were politics.

It’s not clear the United States has a pro-business party anymore. Republicans have become a false-outrage machine that doesn’t stand for the smooth or efficient functioning of anything. Democrats back an important good-government bill and seem to offer better stability, but there’s still an excessive soak-the-rich mentality among a liberal wing that acts like it wouldn’t mind causing a recession as long as the wealthy suffered.

Corporate America may have a role here helping build a new middle ground, where the profit motive serves a new pursuit of fairness meant to redress what is becoming obscene wealth inequality. Big business could start by outlining anti-democratic laws and policies it won’t support under any circumstance, and pulling all funding for any politician who does. Better to upset a few people now than more people later.

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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