Does the corporate boycott of states pursuing controversial “religious freedom” bills undercut critiques of the American campaign finance system?
By Jared Keller
The Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO Robert Iger. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Toward the end of March, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal announced that he would veto House Bill 757, a controversial “religious liberty” billthat critics claimed furthered legal discrimination against LGBT Americans. The legislation would have permitted clergy the right to refuse to marry LGBT parishioners and allowed employers to reject job applicants on religious grounds. “This is about the character of our state and the character of its people,’’ Deal said in a statement. “Georgia is a welcoming state filled with warm, friendly and loving people…. We are working to make life better for our families and our communities. That is the character of Georgia. I intend to do my part to keep it that way.”
Deal’s veto wasn’t just about Georgia’s character, but also its checkbook. The National Football League had telegraphed to state officials that the legislation’s passage would have jeopardized Atlanta’s bid to host the 2019 Super Bowl in its new $1.4 billion stadium. And the NFL wasn’t the only one: Disney, AMC Networks, Intel, Dow Chemical, Time Warner, and several major film studios all threatened to boycott the state over the legislation. This sort of brinksmanship on the part of American companies from across industries stretches far beyond Georgia. Recently, more than 100 companies signed a letter eviscerating extreme new anti-LGBT measures in North Carolina, inspired by PayPal’s decision to pull 400 jobs over new legislation; even more are protesting yet another “religious liberty” bill in Mississippi.
That corporate interests are being celebrated by liberals for economically strong-arming elected officials with their economic clout raises some questions. Is it hypocritical for liberals to rail against Citizens United while lauding corporate boycotts? Aren’t both examples of corporate interests exercising disproportionate influence over the policymaking process? How do we reconcile the two amid the economic populism and antipathy toward business that’s elevated candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?
That corporate interests are being celebrated by liberals for economically strong-arming elected officials with their economic clout raises some questions.
Obviously, corporate political activism has been part of the American political landscape since the “right of petition” was affirmed in the First Amendment as a form of free speech, but the political economics of lobbying have come under a harsh spotlight in recent years. The most recent cousin of the current jousting in Georgia and North Carolina might be Arizona’s controversy over naming Martin Luther King Day a state holiday, where it took NFL threats to pull the 1993 Super Bowl to send local business interests into a panic and energize the lobbying effort.
But is there truly a substantive difference between influencing an election and influencing policy?
“Elections are a special sphere,” says Rich Hasen, a professor of election law at the University of California-Irvine School of Law. “Money buys the equivalent of extra lottery tickets — it gives the wealthy a much better opportunity than everyone else to influence policy outcomes. Even if we take away this level of participation, we still need ample opportunity to express their points of views without overwhelming the political process.” Policymaking, by contrast, has been open to special interests for the entire duration.
But how much say do everyday people have in the political process? If we’re talking about fulfilling democratic promises, it’s up to Georgia voters, and not multinational corporations, to make a choice about the nature of LGBT rights in their state, and Georgia voters are still strongly opposed to gay marriage—only 32 percent support it, and 60 percent are against it.
Arguably, an issue like LGBT rights is a human rights issue that transcends legislative and judicial affirmation, but if that’s truly the case, doesn’t the reduction of one’s identity and self to a neat synergy of business interests devalue this proposition? After all, even elected officials who benefit from the flood of post-Citizens United election spending still run the risk of being electorally defenestrated; term limits are themselves a democratic check on monied interests. But why even waste the money on running a campaign in the first place when economically blackmailing your statehouse is more effective?
This is what makes the victories of corporate activism so bittersweet: Positive outcomes for voters tend to be negative externalities rather than ostensibly democratic political objectives. Consider that, while Coca-Cola and Disney were fighting for equality in Georgia and North Carolina, General Electric threatened to move its corporate headquarters to escape Connecticut’s tax burdens, essentially blackmailing Governor Dannel Malloy into giving the company a hidden tax favor, a move that put a spotlight on the governor’s faltering administration and the state’s fiscal health. (GE bailed anyway for the greener pastures of Massachusetts, taking hundreds of jobs with it.)
Even Apple, which stood up to the Federal Bureau of Investigation over user privacy in February over law enforcement’s efforts to unlock a San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, made a choice fundamentally out of business interests. And what’s to stop business interests from abandoning the right side of history should it no longer make sense on a corporate balance sheet?
This isn’t to say that business interests don’t deserve some level of constitutional protection. Hasen points out that it’s because of corporate rights that the government can’t force Apple to turn over its assets, or the New York State legislature can’t simply pass laws messing with the New York Times. “Corporations before Citizens United had an important role to play in the U.S. political system — and they continue to play that role,” he argued last week for Reuters. “Thoughtful critics of Citizens United don’t contend that corporations should have no political rights. Rather, they claim, corporations should be able to take political stands but not to turn their immense wealth into disproportionate political influence.”
It would appear that, despite the protestations of the left wing of the Democratic party, corporations aren’t just people, but allies as well. With all the focus on how immense wealth translates into elections, there seems to be very little of the same concern applied to what happens after November comes and goes. Any why shouldn’t it? While outside spending on elections ballooned from $220 million in 2012 to $486 million in 2014 since Citizens United, the Congressional lobbying industry has jumped from $1.45 billion to $3.21 billion since 1998.
Corporate interests put the brakes on legislation in Georgia that would have drastically curbed the rights of LGBT Americans, but remember that, despite the facsimile of empathy in the form of corporate social responsibility, corporations aren’t people — and they most certainly aren’t our friends.