It’s not ‘woketivism,’ it’s good business

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
Greg Nash

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) should put away his worry beads about big business. Corporate leaders haven’t gone soft on liberalism. Instead, Republicans have gone “wobbly” on democracy and that’s not good for business.

Some Republican leaders have followed Donald Trump down the rabbit hole of conspiracy delusion. They’ve spent the first quarter of 2021 trying to hot-wire the engine of democracy to churn for them in the next elections by denying Americans free and fair access to the ballot. Maybe they should develop an agenda that appeals to a majority of voters instead.

After a delayed public reaction, corporate leaders are choosing sides. Democracy is the foundation for market competition; people of color are key consumers; and the reputational risk of silence is too great to abide. Many corporate leaders may secretly agree with the “Trumpy” politics of white grievance, but the business case is clear: Stand up for democracy or face the wrath of consumers, investors and historical judgment.

The country is less Trumpy than cable news might make you think. Fox News, the longtime cable news behemoth, won the 2020 ratings race, but voters told a different story. Donald Trump summoned 47 percent of voters to support his anti-immigrant, bellicose, big business-friendly agenda, but Joe Biden summoned more. The current president won more than 80 million votes, the first white Democrat to get the support of more than 50 percent of voters since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Kids born that year could be grandparents by now. 

While the fear of cultural and demographic change may be driving Republican politics off a cliff, most Americans aren’t as freaked out as GOP primary voters. Google, which knows as much or more about consumers than any other American company, found that most Americans feel positively about diversity and inclusion when it comes to advertising. Their 2019 survey revealed 64 percent “said they took some sort of action after seeing an ad that they considered to be diverse or inclusive.” The numbers improved with key demographic groups, especially younger consumers.

Danielle Austen, CEO of Fluent 360, a multicultural advertising firm based in Chicago, told me “Gen Z and millennials have an expectation of the brands and companies they do business with and it drives their business decisions.” Marketing research data back her up.

These consumers aren’t being passive. They also have the ability to strike back when a brand or company doesn’t live up to the commitments they’ve made. Austen says, “Gen Z needs and wants to have their voices heard,” and they have the platforms to do it. Young people are making diversity and inclusion a priority in choosing their workplaces too.

Delta Airlines faced a kinetic response from consumers after the company took a muted stance to Georgia’s Jim Crow-style voting bill. Activist Latosha Brown and others protested in front of the airline’s Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport ticket counter. Delta, Coca-Cola and companies based in states facing new voting laws have stepped up their statements of opposition to the bill following those boycott threats. 

Consumers aren’t alone and civil rights isn’t the only issue. Investors are demanding companies get serious about ESG (environmental, social, governance) policies. Larry Fink is CEO at Blackrock, which currently has $8.7 trillion in assets under management. Fink’s annual letter to CEOs is important to the business community the way an epistle from Paul was to early Christians. The 2021 letter highlighted climate change as an important corporate initiative and asked CEOs to divulge their approach. Just this month, 300 business leaders called on the Biden administration to cut greenhouse gas “emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.”

While these efforts are commendable, business leaders still have bottom-line corporate priorities in mind too. The Business Roundtable published a survey of its CEO members that found that “increases in U.S. domestic and international tax rates would have a negative effect on business expansion, hiring and wage growth, investments in research and development (R&D) and innovation, and U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.”

Business leaders reportedly are planning a major advertising campaign to push back on the Biden administration’s tax plan. If successful, this effort would blunt President Biden’s ability to pay for progressive priorities such as infrastructure, clean technology and child care.

Big business will continue to ignore Sen. McConnell’s warning to “stay out of politics” because the forces at work are bigger than the senator’s displeasure. But the new lines of engagement aren’t clearly drawn. Progressives aren’t picking out wedding venues just yet. Instead of pushing back, Republicans should get in line with corporate leaders and embrace the multi-ethnic democratic marketplace. That might help them win future elections without fixing the rules.

Jamal Simmons is a Democratic campaign strategist, CBS News analyst and hosts #ThisisFYI on Instagram and Facebook. Follow him on Twitter @JamalSimmons.

Tags Corporate Social Responsibility Donald Trump Ethics Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Mitch McConnell progressives trumpism woke culture

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