Democracy is indeed under siege in states such as Georgia and Texas, but these states’ new voting laws aren’t the biggest assailants. Rather, it’s stakeholder capitalism — the new dogma demanding that companies no longer simply make products, but also craft our society’s moral norms.
Stakeholder capitalism is now in full bloom in the Peach State and beyond. Over 100 companies spoke out against Georgia’s new voting rules. This past weekend, dozens of CEOs gathered on Zoom to plot what Big Businesses should do next about voting laws under way in Texas and other states. A formal joint statement is expected soon from companies ranging from PayPal to PepsiCo to T. Rowe Price Group.
“The legislation is unacceptable. It is a step backwards and does not promote the principles we have stood for in Georgia,” declared James Quincey, CEO of Coca-Cola. “Our focus is now on supporting federal legislation that protects voting access and addresses voter suppression across the country.” Delta CEO Ed Bastian added: “The final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values.” But why should Americans care about whether an election statute matches the values of a private airline company or a soft-drink manufacturer? Mr. Bastian didn’t say. Apparently he holds such truths to be self-evident.
More surprising was Republican governor Brian Kemp’s implicit admission that Georgia’s legislative process grants these companies an unofficial veto power: “At no point did Delta share any opposition to . . . exactly what this bill does,” Kemp retorted. “Today’s statement by Delta CEO Ed Bastian stands in stark contrast to our conversations with the company.” Evidently, it would be par for the course for Georgia’s lawmakers to seek Delta’s blessing before passing voting laws. Mr. Quincey’s response to criticism that Coca-Cola didn’t speak out fast enough was also instructive: “The reality is many things are done and achieved in private.” Comforting.
Liberals are no longer just cheering as CEOs wade into politics. They’re demanding it — or else. In recent weeks, activists staged a “die-in” at Coca-Cola’s museum in Atlanta. Bishop Reginald Jackson, an influential Atlanta pastor, used a bullhorn on the street to call for a boycott of Coca-Cola. Protestors gathered at the Delta terminal in Atlanta airport and demanded that Mr. Bastian “kill the bill.” The co-founder of Black Voters Matter declared, “If you can’t get involved in the business of fighting for democracy, then we’re going to have to get involved in your business.”
This recent reversal of progressive dogma on the role of corporations in politics is astounding. Al Gore once railed against lawmakers who are “now incapable of passing laws without permission from the corporate lobbies and other special interests that control their campaign finances.” Kamala Harris called on voters to “take a stand against corporate influence in politics.”
Democrats used to abhor the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC because it permitted corporations to influence elections. Yet now they demand even more: Delta and Coca-Cola weren’t simply influencing one election, but the very laws governing how a state will conduct all elections in the future. Those who once argued that “corporations aren’t people” are now demanding that corporations act more like, well, people. This isn’t “Jim Crow on steroids,” as President Biden called it this month. It’s Citizens United on steroids.
Meanwhile, Major League Baseball’s decision last week to move its All-Star Game away from Atlanta reveals the opposite problem: Partisan politics is now infecting private institutions that were previously apolitical. The existence of apolitical spaces is a necessary precondition for social solidarity in a divided polity like ours, providing arenas where all Americans can come together irrespective of their politics. MLB used to offer one of those rare sanctuaries. Fans were bound together by their love of baseball — whether black or white, Democrat or Republican.
But that era is now long gone. The rise of platforms such as Parler and Gab marked the dawn of right-wing social media. Black Rifle Coffee Company and MyPillow signal the rise of a nascent right-wing economy. Is alt-baseball next? This may offer a good opportunity for right-wing entrepreneurs, but it is a searing indictment of the health of American democracy.
Democracy loses twice: the loss of integrity in lawmaking because of corporate influence on one hand, and the loss of social solidarity through the disappearance of apolitical institutions on the other. Woke capitalism poisons democracy, politics poisons capitalism, and, in the end, we are left with neither.
Playing politics through corporate boycotts is a rich man’s game: The more market power you wield, the more impact your boycott has. In classical capitalism, each dollar is like a vote. That’s usually a good thing when dollars vote in the market to decide which goods and services rise to the top. But the marketplace of ideas in a democracy is supposed to follow a different principle: one person, one vote. When we normalize using dollars to win battles over laws and ideas, we cede control over society’s values to those who control society’s dollars. Monetary force displaces public debate. That’s not democracy; it’s corporatocracy. Now similar pressure is being applied in Texas too, where companies such as American Airlines and Dell are copying the actions of Delta and Coca-Cola in Atlanta.
Progressives say they oppose new state voting rules precisely because they care about preserving the integrity of a one person, one vote system. Yet their new playbook of co-opting corporations to do their political bidding violates that very ideal. Suppose the tables were turned and America’s largest corporations supported Georgia’s new law instead of opposing it: Liberals would instantly see the procedural problem, just as conservatives do now.
Our democratic process is far from perfect, but the right answer is not to force democracy and capitalism to share the same bed. What we really need is effective social distancing — to prevent each from infecting the other. Without it, America will soon suffer the spread of this new political virus that even the best of science won’t be able to cure.