One of the driving forces of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was what the late Derrick Bell dubbed “interest convergence.” African Americans and white elites saw value in ending Jim Crow. The Soviet Union utilized images of racist violence in its efforts to recruit non-aligned countries made up predominantly of people of color into its orbit. The march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., with televised images of the attacks on peaceful protesters beamed into living rooms across America and the world, was a critical moment in the struggle of the 1960s. It led, directly, to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This type of interest convergence exists today. Corporations must see the need for voting rights and election integrity as central to the preservation of our democracy. That democracy has, at least until now, created the greatest economy the world has ever known. As researchers Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson explain in their epic work “Why Nations Fail,” nations that are unable to maintain democratic institutions will not survive for very long. While much has been made of corporations stating that they will consider withholding support for state efforts to roll back voting rights, advocates should use this convergence of interests to pressure corporations to stop funding elected officials in the U.S. Congress who will not support voting rights at the national level.
Despite the 56-year-old Voting Rights Act, a core component of the civil rights struggle of the 21st-century centers around ongoing efforts to suppress the votes of communities of color. State efforts in Georgia, Texas and elsewhere have met with some resistance from advocates but also from an array of the nation’s largest corporations, some of which are based in those states.
Statements issued by the leaders of those and other companies expressing concern over new restrictions designed to make it more difficult to vote for working people, the elderly and the disabled are helpful, but real reform is needed. Congress has pending legislation that will make voting easier, more transparent and less susceptible to fraud. Corporate statements of support for voting rights, similar to those expressed in favor of equity and inclusion in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in the late spring of 2020, are nice, but corporations have a real opportunity to back meaningful reform by putting their political muscle where their wallets are: by denying donations to any legislator on Capitol Hill who will not back the “For the People Act. This legislation would recommit the nation to the principles of democratic participation and full and fair voting rights.
Some of the nation’s biggest corporations are purportedly discussing ways to influence legislation in particular states that are seeking to roll back voting rights. For business leaders, this does not seem like a very efficient way to deploy their money. Companies could simply withhold financial support from members of Congress who will not vote in favor of voting rights legislation that would create a minimum national standard that all states must meet. Such an approach is much more straightforward and would go farther than state-by-state fights that amount to a high-stakes game of political whack-a-mole.
This legislation has the added bonus of being politically popular. When the components of this legislation are presented to voters in a non-partisan way, it has strong bipartisan support, not just because it protects the right to vote but also because it ensures election integrity in meaningful ways. This has led the billionaire class to seek what has been called “under-the-dome” strategies: that is, they will have to apply direct, insider pressure on elected officials and will not be able to engage in media campaigns designed to convince working-class voters to support programs that benefit only the wealthiest among us.
In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, several prominent companies committed to withholding political donations to any elected officials who refused to vote to certify the results of the presidential election. While cracks in that front have emerged, and some companies have made donations to entities that will certainly end up funneling support to those same elected officials who the companies claim they refuse to support, this sort of corporate resistance could be directed towards efforts to strip voting rights from millions of Americans.
But how can the public convince corporations to take such action? Consumers should demand that corporations refuse to make political donations to those who will not support broadly popular and meaningful voting rights reform. Corporate social responsibility platitudes and hashtags are largely meaningless when those same companies support elected officials who would strip people of color and others of the hard-won right to vote.
While white elites saw it critical to support civil rights at home in the 1960s because the Jim Crow system’s operation had ramifications for U.S. interests abroad and the ability of the American economy to thrive then, today’s voting rights struggle has real implications for the ability of the United States to operate as a democracy. And corporations should see that their future success is intertwined with having a functioning democracy, which, in turn, ensures we will continue to have a strong economy.
With the events of Jan. 6, the connections between racial justice, voter suppression and insurrection are now laid bare, even though they were always just below the surface for everyone to see. The continuing insurrectionist energy designed to undermine our democracy does not wave a Confederate flag or storm the U.S. Capitol. It now comes dressed in a business suit and casts votes in state legislatures to do what the mob could not: destroy our democracy. And its lifeblood is corporate cash.
If the private sector cares about democracy and racial justice, it should also care about voter suppression. America’s largest corporations should withhold political donations from those who oppose robust protections for and meaningful expansion of voting rights. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHoyer signals House vote on bill to 'remove' debt limit threat Biden signs bill to raise debt ceiling On The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan MORE’s (R-Ky.) recent statements that corporations should, essentially, shut up but put up – “stay out of politics” but keep giving to the Republican Party – were remarkable for their brazenness and cynicism.
There is a real opportunity for the private sector to support racial justice and democratic values in meaningful ways: by supporting only elected officials who agree to put a stop to voter suppression with the passage of a powerful, popular, national law that will ensure that everyone who wants to vote is allowed to. Nothing short of the future of our democracy depends on it.
Ray Brescia is a professor of law at Albany Law School and the author of “The Future of Change: How Technology Shapes Social Revolutions” (Cornell University Press 2020).