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Companies Can't Win American Culture War

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By the standards of modern activist campaigns, it was an unobtrusive press release. Color of Change, a racial justice group, released a statement last week calling on businesses to stop funding politicians who limit women’s access to abortion.

Color of Change allows fake businesses to attack reproductive rights while offering to cover travel expenses for employees in need of treatment outside the state after the Supreme Court terminated its constitutional dismissal last month It’s far from the first progressive organization to blame for doing so.

But what impressed me about the petition was that many of these companies were being attacked from the right at the same time. Republican-controlled state conservatives have threatened to sign contracts with companies such as Citigroup, and they see them helping women end their pregnancies.

As the issue of cultural wars came to dominate US political discourse, business leaders became increasingly aware that they were in such an unbeatable position and caught between the two sides on topics they never wanted to discuss. Has been done.

Disney is the most visible target and was beaten by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis after employee pressure urged condemnation of state plans to limit discussions of sexuality and gender identity in primary school. rice field.

However, the number of companies being dragged into cultural wars is increasing rapidly. Apple and others are at odds with Texas Governor Greg Abbott over an order to compare gender-verifying medical interventions to transgender minors to child abuse. West Virginia has warned that it may suspend transactions with companies such as BlackRock and JPMorgan Chase because of its recognition of a fossil fuel “boycott.”

And as Democrats blamed high executive compensation for corporate profits and inflation, Republicans even named the credible free market Chamber of Commerce “awakened.”

The idea that executives should take a stand on controversial issues from immigration to vaccination has been normalized. Last week, one C-suite networking group, World 50, reported that 95% of its members felt pressure to do so increased over the past three years. But now there is a backlash against corporate activity, growing suspicion of corporate funding in politics, and changing political debates.

For decades, US companies have been checking access to politicians on both sides to buy access and promote their interests, says the author of Joe Zamit Lucia. New political capitalism.. But he adds: “Things related to corporate selfishness are now an aid to cultural wars. So you may be buying access, but what access? .. .. to the abortion debate No one wants to spend $ 10 million to buy access to join. ”

Instead of gaining influence with those in power, companies are becoming “political agents,” warns Vanessa Bulbano, a professor of business administration at Columbia University. Whether some business leaders now lie low, perhaps because Burbano’s research suggests that official statements by companies on the polarization of political topics also tend to produce more hits than approvals. I’m wondering.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., Chief Executive Officer of the Human Resources Management Association, said members of the board “probably have to withdraw.” “More and more CEOs have returned to their previous state after the Disney incident.”

In particular, according to the Conference Board, only one in ten large US companies issued an official statement after the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion. It is most preferable to quietly adjust their healthcare interests. Paul Washington, who runs the ESG Center, argues that businesses should focus more on the “bread and butter issue of economic fairness and security.”

However, reducing the number of press releases does not guarantee a quiet life. Business leaders also need to seriously consider activists’ claims that funding has enabled a political style that many mainstream executives personally dislike.

“If these companies want to stop becoming political punching bags, they need to align their political donations with their stated values,” said Evan Feeney, Deputy Senior Campaign Director at Color of Change. Insist. Too often, he says. “There is a severance where companies say they support access to abortion. [or] They support democracy, but fund candidates who oppose those values. “

According to recent polls, even Republicans are more concerned about corporate influence corrupting politics than taking a “awakened” position. This suggests that CEOs may lose less by reducing political contributions than perpetuating troubled consumer habits rather than influence.

With fierce elections approaching again in November and 2024 this year, it would be naive to think that the American cultural war will soon subside or that businesses can win.

However, navigating the territory requires new political skills from business leaders, different approaches to the money spent on politics, and fresh thinking about what to demand in return.

andrew.edgecliffe-johnson@ft.com

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