Beating the Religious Right with Corporate Power

Beating the Religious Right with Corporate Power April 4, 2016

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Red-state legislatures around the country seem as if they’re competing to pass the cruelest and most inhumane laws. But even by that standard, North Carolina’s HB2 stands out. Rushed into passage with the haste and secrecy of a coup d’etat – it was introduced in the legislature, voted on, sent to the governor and signed into law all in a span of less than twenty-four hours – it can only be described as deliberately mean-spirited and spiteful. It bans transgender people from using public restrooms of their choice, overrules all local nondiscrimination ordinances that protect LGBT people, takes away private citizens’ right to sue over racial and sexual discrimination, and bars cities and localities from raising the minimum wage.

This horrendous law was condemned all over the nation and attracted the expected opposition from progressive politicians and human-rights groups. Governors of blue states like Andrew Cuomo of New York, Dannel Malloy of Connecticut and Peter Shumlin of Vermont banned business travel to North Carolina from state employees. However, opposition also came from a different and possibly unexpected quarter: the CEOs of over 100 major corporations, including Apple, Google, Facebook, Kellogg, Citibank, Pfizer, Microsoft and Starbucks, signed an open letter opposing the law and warning that they’ll cut back on investment and hiring in the state if it’s not repealed:

The business community, by and large, has consistently communicated to lawmakers at every level that such laws are bad for our employees and bad for business. This is not a direction in which states move when they are seeking to provide successful, thriving hubs for business and economic development. We believe that HB 2 will make it far more challenging for businesses across the state to recruit and retain the nation’s best and brightest workers and attract the most talented students from across the country. It will also diminish the state’s draw as a destination for tourism, new businesses, and economic activity.

While HB2 hasn’t been repealed, Gov. Pat McCrory appears to be feeling the pressure, as he’s released a defensive video complaining about the criticism.

It’s not just North Carolina where the business community has taken a surprising stand against mean-spirited laws backed by the religious right. In Georgia, a similar bill that would have granted wide latitude for discrimination against LGBT people looked set for easy passage, until major corporations spoke out against it:

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said the company “can’t have a program in Georgia” if the bill were to become law. Disney said it would stop filming in the state, and Unilever said it would “reconsider investment” if the legislation were signed. Coca-Cola
spoke out against the bill, as did Home Depot and several other Fortune 500 companies based in Atlanta.

The NFL said the bill could cost Atlanta the opportunity to host the Super Bowl. Time-Warner, the parent company of CNN, also opposed the legislation.

Bowing to the opposition, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the bill, infuriating religious conservatives. Business opposition also played a role in beating back pro-bigotry efforts in Indiana and Arizona.

Last but not least, the Republican Party’s 2016 national convention seems likely to be such a circus, their usual corporate sponsors are getting nervous about being associated with it. If they pull out entirely, it’s possible that the party could be left scrambling over how to pay for it – yet another woe for a party that’s already threatened with fracture and conflagration over the candidacy of Donald Trump.

Most American liberals and progressives are suspicious of corporate power, with good reason. When it comes to environmental protection, living wages, safe working conditions, and other reforms that make people’s lives better, corporations have historically have been no friends of ours.

But that’s no reason to turn down their help where it’s offered, nor should we refuse to ally with them on issues where we do agree. The nature of democracy is that victory requires building the broadest coalition and the biggest tent you can. And it can’t be denied that they’re powerful allies, nice to have on your side. Business intervention has been very effective in beating back these vicious and regressive laws, especially in states where liberal politicians are consistently outgunned.

Granted, these businesses aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. With a few rare exceptions, corporations don’t do anything out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re amoral by definition, created for the specific purpose of maximizing profit. But this just means that, while they’re not pure good, they’re not pure evil either. For better or for worse, they do what they believe the public wants. That means that when the pendulum of popular opinion swings in our direction, as it has with gay rights, corporations can be a powerful ally. Their support is like a force multiplier, making it more costly for religious-right politicians to push harmful social policies.

Besides, it’s undoubtedly true – and many CEOs and business leaders know it – that sanctioning discrimination is bad for the bottom line. Precisely because they’re focused on profit, corporations want to attract the best talent, regardless of where it comes from or who it looks like. This is especially true for large multinational corporations that do business all over the world. Appearing to condone intolerance can hurt their image in ways that go well beyond what happens in one state.

Corporate leaders may never see eye-to-eye with progressives on a $15 minimum wage. But they can be surprisingly effective allies when we’re dealing with religious right lawmakers who want to chip away at social progress or reverse the course of equality. I say we should seek out their help where we can, rather than insisting on the futile and self-destructive strategy of only working with people who agree with us about everything. If you think of politics as coalition-building and harm reduction, as opposed to a quest for ideological purity, it makes perfect sense.

Image credit: Katrina.Tuliao, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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