The myth of the "woke corporation"

In the pages of the New York Post on Monday, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) engaged in one of the Republican Party's new favorite pastimes — decrying "woke" corporations. Rubio, without citing any evidence, claims that corporate leaders no longer value "love of country, free speech, and traditional faith." But what really grinds Rubio's gears is that some corporations are speaking out in favor of voting rights, which Rubio compares to dumping toxic waste in a river.

And taking aggressive positions on woke cultural issues that tear at our national fabric might seem like an easy way to avoid boycotts from activists. But those of us charged with keeping America strong recognize that these positions are the greatest threat to our long-term viability. 

No policymaker would allow a company to dump toxic waste into a river upstream of a thriving town he is charged with governing. Yet corporate America eagerly dumps woke, toxic nonsense into our culture, and it’s only gotten more destructive with time. These campaigns will be met with the same strength that any other polluter should expect. 

But the notion that corporations have cast aside their alliance with the Republican Party and are using their power to protect voting rights — or other progressive policies — is a myth. Yes, some corporations have affirmed their commitment to voting rights and expressed a broad opposition to unnecessary voting restrictions. And a few have taken more substantive action. But, for the most part, it's still business as usual. 

To find out what is really important to corporations, pay more attention to what they do than what they say. 

Hundreds of corporations and CEOs, for example, signed a letter stating that they "believe the very foundation of our electoral process rests upon the ability of each of us to cast our ballots for the candidates of our choice." Further, the signatories said they "oppose any discriminatory legislation or measures that restrict or prevent any eligible voter from having an equal and fair opportunity to cast a ballot." But the letter did not express support or opposition to any specific legislation. 

Patagonia took a different course. The company announced it was taking a series of actions to support voting rights and called on other companies to join them.

1. "Fund the activists working to challenge the recently passed laws in Georgia." Patagonia gave $1 million to the New Georgia Project and Black Voters Matter. 

2. "Send a letter to the senators that represent the state(s) where you conduct business, calling on them to pass the For the People Act (H.R. 1) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA)." Patagonia is advocating for federal legislation that could permanently protect voting rights in Georgia and across the country.  

3. "Commit to reaching out to business partners to facilitate speaking out against further state laws that would restrict voting access." Patagonia is asking businesses to use their connections to oppose specific bills, not sign onto general statements. 

How many companies have followed Patagonia's lead? So far, just one. Bad Robot, JJ Abrams' production company, announced it was donating $1 million to the Democracy Docket Legal Fund, an organization that challenges voter suppression laws in court. 

Patagonia has no PAC. But no corporation with a PAC has pledged to withhold support from state legislators pushing voter suppression legislation. 

Instead, most corporations, while publicly claiming to support voting rights for all Americans, are using their power to defeat federal legislation to protect voting rights. 

What business does when they mean business

The Chamber of Commerce (the Chamber) is the lobbying organization for nearly all major businesses in the United States. It spent more than $81 million to influence federal policy in 2020. And on the same day that hundreds of companies signed onto a vague letter supporting voting rights, April 13, the Chamber issued a letter to the United States Senate with a lot more bite. 

The Chamber announced that it "strongly opposes S.1, disingenuously named the 'For the People Act of 2021.'" It warned that it "will consider including votes related to this bill in our annual How They Voted scorecard." In other words, Senators that vote to protect voting rights and reform the electoral process may be deemed enemies of the business community. 

Note that the Chamber does not speak in general terms. When businesses want to impact an outcome, they know to be very specific. The Chamber's letter focuses on new disclosure requirements for dark-money groups and how it might impact the ability of corporations to engage in politics.

But S.1 would provide fundamental protections for voting rights including, national no-excuse voting by mail, a minimum of 14-days early voting, and automatic voter registration in every state. The Chamber does not discuss these provisions. Instead it asserts that "changes enacted on a partisan basis are the most likely to erode access and security and undermine public confidence and the willingness of the American people to trust and accept future election outcomes." 

In place of actual protections for voting rights, the Chamber calls for a "bipartisan national commission" to study the issue. It is a cliche that when Congress does not want to do something, it creates a bipartisan commission to study it., an advocacy group, identified 25 companies — including Citi, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, American Express, and Deloitte — that signed the letter in support of voting rights and are members of the Chamber. 

Asked about the contradiction by CNN, most companies refused to comment. Ford downplayed its relationship with the Chamber. "We work with many coalitions, trade groups, and industry associations on a broad range of topics," a company spokesperson said. 

This is the point of the Chamber. It allows big businesses to spend millions lobbying for specific outcomes while each individual company gets to avoid responsibility. 

Defeating a strawman

In practice, corporate executives are using their support for vague principles to avoid substantive conversations about voting rights. For example, on a shareholder call, a right-wing operative asked Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla about why the company "condemned" Georgia's new law restricting voting. 

Pfizer has joined the rush to condemn Georgia’s voter-integrity law, a law designed to stop election fraud, as by requiring voters to provide ID. Could you explain in detail how requiring voters to show ID when they vote undermines any voting access or voting rights, and which other specific provisions of the bill you object to and why?

The questioner, Davis Soderberg of the Free Enterprise Project (FEP), had his facts wrong. Pfizer had never "condemned" Georgia's law. Few companies have done so in Georgia — and those that did waited until after the legislation was signed into law. (Soderberg was also wrong about the impact of Georgia's law.)

Bourla dealt with the question by supporting the concept of voting in the broadest possible terms and declaring the company neutral on any specific legislation. 

I firmly believe that all eligible voters should be afforded equal access and opportunity to cast their ballots… We are not taking a position on specifics, on specific laws, but we are clearly stating our basic principle that access to vote is very important for democracy and it’s very important for us as a company that operates in the health care sector.

Bourla is articulating the public position of nearly every corporation in America. Corporations are not "woke" and seeking to impose their left-wing vision on America. They are using platitudes and trying to avoid controversy, while supporting Republican efforts to block reform through trade associations.