It’s unmistakably true. It started already a few years ago, in 2016, when PayPal canceled plans to open a global operations center in North Carolina in response to a law restricting transgender bathroom rights. In 2018, after the mass school shooting in Florida, Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods voluntarily raised the age for gun sales despite NRA opposition. American companies then increasingly backed changes to address climate change, even at a cost to their own business. These weren’t only words; they were real actions.
In 2021 the trend mushroomed. On January 6th, as the siege on the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. was underway, the National Association of Manufacturers condemned those who supported it and called for President Trump’s immediate removal from office. A few months later, in response to several U.S. state’s new requirements to restrict voting, major corporations denounced the laws as designed to impede minority voters. More than 100 business leaders then participated in an online meeting to discuss what actions they should take for similar anti-voting bills being considered across the country.
When the guilty verdict in the George Floyd murder trial was announced, many American companies made public statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and in favor of stronger steps to end racial discrimination of all types. These were not typical corporate political issues like taxes or pollution controls. These were strong moral stances about potentially controversial political views expressed in clear and certain terms.
American companies, big and small, are standing up for American ideals: democracy, justice and equal treatment. In essence, America’s business community is demanding that the United States become better for everyone, not just for business.
Why? And why right now?
Not too long ago it seemed that U.S. business, especially big business, stood on the opposite side of such issues. Obscene wealth and a parody 1950s-esque white values had become commonly accepted in America. Poorer non-whites and their problems were nuisances to ignore. What changed that?
It isn’t just a generational thing. Younger people may be more progressive, or at least more accepting of diversity than older generations, but the far right isn’t exactly a geriatric crowd. So it’s not only age. Some politicians say that U.S. business is caving in to a mass conspiracy that will rise against them if they don’t look left-leaning enough. A more moderate view is that companies are just trying to “look cool” in the moment with no real intention to follow up or take action beyond today’s slogans.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, others believe that corporate America has undergone a spiritual awakening. They say we are about to enter a new world of benevolent and moral commerce. That view naively ignores how the same companies haven’t said a thing about their medieval labor policies or that they don’t pay anywhere near their fair share in taxes. It’s wishful thinking that doing the right thing will become business-as-usual in the United States anytime soon.
The real reason for the American business community’s recent stand is more mundane than any of these explanations: business is good when the nation has stability and predictability, not disruption or chaos. American business – along with the rest of America – tried a shake-things-up approach for four years to see how that would work. It didn’t, with Mr. Trump’s unpredictable outbursts, abrupt changes in policies, personal peeves against certain companies, as well as immigration bans and a trade war that hobbled many industries. The election changed much of that, and the new Biden administration is justifiably very popular even among businesspeople, but the country remains precariously divided by politicians seeking to perpetuate distrust and hate.
So business finally said “enough is enough”. CEO’s have plenty of power, monetary and otherwise, bolstered by court rulings that protect business interests far beyond what is really necessary. Business leaders are now using their power to step up and be the adults in the room. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone…. except apparently to politicians in Washington.
How has Washington reacted?
Washington’s response so far has ranged from comical to confused, and just plain non-existent.
Republicans warned business to stay out of politics, while inexplicably expecting their campaign contributions to continue unabated. Progressive Democrats remain skeptical of everything corporate, sharing their concerns via profit-making social media platforms on their new I-phones delivered by Amazon. Neither side has offered an enlightened response to corporate America’s newly found voice. The Biden Administration has remained mostly silent, avoiding public engagement except for some private phone calls from White House staffers and a few low-key targeted meetings.
What’s up with that? Why doesn’t the President instead boldly and broadly embrace the support of American businesses for the ideals and “the soul of America” that he so ardently campaigned for? He could then add a clear call for business to act upon their words, to simultaneously line up support for everything else he wants to do. C’mon, seize the moment!
Tom A. Lippo is a Finnish-speaking American lawyer. Educated at Yale, the University of Jyväskylä and Stanford Law School, he is the founder of FACT LAW, an international law firm established in 1985. FACT is the first law firm with offices in both Finland and the United States. Tom has been a lawyer in Washington, DC based on Capitol Hill for nearly 40 years.