When Ronnie Chatterji dug deep into motivations for corporate CEOs to take public stands on hot-button social and cultural issues, he tracked levels of public polling support for issues from marijuana legalization to pay equality.
In hindsight, he admits he made a glaring omission from that list: voting rights.
“Voting rights weren’t even on the chart in 2018,” says Professor Chatterji, who studies corporate activism at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina. “Now they are so salient that CEOs must respond.”
He can perhaps be forgiven for the oversight.
Just a year ago, the right to vote was not a highly contentious, polarized political issue. Then came an extraordinary period in American history: A president, without hard evidence, claimed an election was “rigged.” His supporters, egged on by his words, rose in insurrection and bashed their way into the U.S. Capitol.
Now Republican lawmakers in many states are pushing “voting integrity” bills that they say are necessary to restore confidence in election machinery. Yet the courts, election officials, some Trump appointees, and even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky say that much evidence shows the 2020 elections were clean and fair. Democrats – and some in the GOP – say that “election integrity” really means making it more difficult for Democratic constituencies, including Black voters and other minorities, to cast ballots.
Ballot access controversy is thus exploding in many states – and corporations are finding it is an issue that is hard for them to ignore. After Georgia passed a voting bill, Major League Baseball yanked the All-Star Game out of Atlanta, infuriating the Georgia GOP and launching calls for a retaliatory baseball boycott.
Coca-Cola and Delta, big companies located in the state, publicly condemned the new legislation. Hundreds of firms, including Amazon and Google, signed onto a general statement released Wednesday opposing “discriminatory legislation” that makes it harder to vote.
Sensing that bottom lines are likely safe, and keen to express diversity values to recruits, employees, and customers, corporations are increasingly willing to go chest-to-chest with Republican leadership over questions of rights and justice. Here in Atlanta, it reflects a broader regional reckoning around voting rights and whether political uproar and tweaking of democratic norms will cool corporate enthusiasm for the New South.
“This is a tough call for corporate leaders, because, in fact, they can’t win,” says Richie Zweigenhaft, a professor emeritus of psychology at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, who studies the impacts of sports-based activism on society. “CEOs know that if you’ve got a country split 51-49 in terms of politics, they’re going to offend some customers if they do something or if they don’t do anything.”
Business and politics have always mixed, of course. Corporate lobbying has been a major influence in American politics since at least the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. Corporate-linked campaign contributions have filled candidate and party treasuries for decades, primarily for lower tax, less regulation-oriented Republicans.
But in recent years some state legislation has pulled corporations into taking stands that oppose conservative social issues. A 2015 Indiana law that allowed businesses to deny service to same-sex couples; North Carolina’s 2016 “bathroom bill,” a now-sunsetted law that required transgender people to use public facilities that correspond to their sex assigned at birth; and a 2018 Georgia law banning abortion after doctors can detect a so-called fetal heartbeat are among the items that have sparked corporations and sports leagues to react.
Corporate boycotts of particular states are effective in that they do send messages to other states that controversial laws do have a monetary cost, say experts. In short, no longer do all CEOs heed basketball star Michael Jordan’s famous admonition to boycott-seeking activists that “Republicans wear sneakers, too.”
As corporate activism has stepped up, it has forced Republicans in some ways to choose between a conservative voter base that is angry about an American culture it believes increasingly leans left, and the need to ally with customers and employees who want to defend against what they see as attacks on core American values, like voting.
Call it corporate activism 2.0, says Professor Chatterji. That’s perhaps the dynamic sweeping through boardrooms at the moment and pushing business executives to talk about changes in electoral procedures.
“I do not know if CEOs would be talking about these issues if they weren’t elevated from ... [a national] conversation about race and discussions around the 2020 election, including the false narrative that it was stolen,” says Professor Chatterji. “That’s how you get the connection between these laws in Georgia and Texas and the stolen election narrative and race.”
From the corporate point of view there is much to be gained from speaking out clearly on cultural values. The risks of consumers angered by their stances organizing a costly boycott of their products is fairly low. The benefits are more tangible, especially when it comes to recruiting younger workers, says Professor Chatterji, co-author of a 2018 Harvard Business Review article on the subject. About half of all millennials say they are willing to make consumer and employment choices based on corporate values, he says.
In general, the social and cultural stances of public corporations have leaned left. They have supported the progressive side of LGBTQ rights, immigration, and racial justice. Conservative activism chiefly comes from privately held, family-owned corporations, such as Chick-fil-A, whose founder S. Truett Cathy was a devout Southern Baptist.
Georgia as test case
Still, there are risks for CEOs.
“There is ... a risk that you’re seeing in Georgia, which is backlash from legislators who feel companies are not occupying their correct role in civic discourse, so they’re [threatening to revoke] tax incentives or increasing the heat of rhetoric,” says Professor Chatterji.
In Georgia some Republican lawmakers feel they were misled. The GOP met with corporate leaders when they were crafting the bill, and didn’t hear strong objections. Some of the most controversial parts of the original legislation were discarded as too incendiary, including a proposed ban on Sunday voting, which would have disproportionately affected Black church “Souls to the Polls” events.
It was only after the bill’s passage that Georgia-headquartered firms like Delta and Coca-Cola made stronger statements. Then MLB moved quickly to pull the All-Star Game plug. Actor Will Smith has also said he will pull his production company out of Georgia.
“Republican leadership may well have thought that they had watered down the bill sufficiently and ... that they wouldn’t get blowback from business,” says veteran Georgia watcher Charles Bullock, a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia in Athens.
But the new law still contained provisions that Democrats say are directly aimed at suppressing the turnout of Black voters, such as a ban on giving refreshments to voters waiting in long lines, which are prevalent in many lower-income communities.
“It was a bad move strategically for Republicans to put in criminalizing water and snacks. ... It just comes off as mean-spirited,” says Professor Bullock.
Meanwhile, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, has criticized “woke” corporations and the media for labeling the new law as racist. He says that some provisions actually expand voting rights, and that the new law makes it “hard to cheat” in Georgia elections. Audits run after the 2020 Georgia vote detected no widespread cheating.
Former President Donald Trump and Minority Leader McConnell have both issued sharply worded statements telling corporations, in essence, to butt out of the controversy. In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott backed out of throwing the first pitch at the Texas Rangers home opener, in protest of MLB’s All-Star Game switch.
These moves reflect the reality that polls show Republican voters generally believe former President Trump’s false statements about fraud in the 2020 election. GOP trust in elections plummeted.
“I think the Republicans – with both legislation and political messaging – have created a real different perspective on voting, so it’s become a political issue in a different way than it used to be,” says Professor Zweigenhaft, at Guilford College.
Jim Crow’s legacy
There’s a good reason Atlanta is at the center of this storm. It embodies the “New South” ideal of a place where corporations partnered with political leaders to build a new Southern economy. An implicit part of this deal was that politicians would reject the state’s racist legacy. Beginning in the 1960s, one Atlanta slogan was that it was “the city too busy to hate.”
The success of this business/political partnership helped power the South’s revival from its long post-Reconstruction economic slide, leaving Georgia as a relatively diverse and vibrant Southern state, with Atlanta as its flag-waving capital.
This legacy is a reason why even some Democrats in Georgia bristled when President Joe Biden called the new law “Jim Crow in the 21st century.” The real “Jim Crow,” the system of laws and informal rules backed by violence that separated the races after Reconstruction, was much, much worse, they say.
“Saying that this is racism, it’s turning back the clock to Reconstruction; if you look at the facts you can’t sustain that. But it plays well,” says Dr. Bullock at UGA. “Democrats are beating their drum because it works. But Republicans are doing the same thing.”
How fallout from the voting bill affects Georgia in the future will have an important effect on the South and national politics as a whole. The state narrowly went to Joe Biden in 2020, then elected two Democratic senators in a January 2021 runoff clouded by Mr. Trump’s continued false statements about fraud.
Is Georgia now a purple state? Or is it still a red state where Democrats triumphed due to a confluence of unusual circumstances? The answer could influence the outcome of the 2022 midterms and determine the 2024 presidential election.
The Georgia GOP did well in state races in 2020 and is poised to turn the state back into solid Republican territory, says Jay Williams, a Republican strategist in Alpharetta. The new election law will be part of that recovery, he says.
“It feels like a tipping point where you have to stop indicting white people for all the problems in the world,” says Mr. Williams. “You can’t say that because the governor is white he is passing a law that’s Jim Crow or racist. People just don’t want to listen to it anymore.”
Others have a different, perhaps nuanced, view.
Baseball diamonds in history have been places where players have had to field both ground balls and racism. The Atlanta Braves great Hank Aaron, who died in January, was known for the hitting prowess that made him baseball’s all-time home-run king, and his unrelenting work on behalf of civil rights.
Perhaps that is why the moving of the Atlanta All-Star Game to Colorado seemed to strike a particularly sensitive place in Georgia. Governor Kemp called it “an attack on our state.”
“What happens in sports has a lot of resonance,” says Bruce Adelson, author of “Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor League Baseball in the American South.”
That means the empty Atlanta stadium at baseball’s annual All-Star break in midsummer may stand as a powerful symbol.
“These players who broke the color line had a real sense of what was happening around them,” says Mr. Adelson of the men he interviewed for his book. “They told me, ‘We understood the times and we knew what our role was in moving forward.’
“I think the same would hold true now,” he says.
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