I’ve long said that the standard corporate response to looming new legislation or regulatory moves is first to do nothing; then scramble and panic once the legislation or regulation comes to pass. Now we see Corporate America has held true to that strategy yet again, in response to Georgia’s voter suppression law. 

By now you probably know the contours of the mess here. State legislators in Georgia enacted a voter suppression law on March 25, in response to Democrats winning that state in the November elections and then electing two Democratic U.S. senators in January. The Republicans who pushed the law onto the books claim that it’s intended to “protect election integrity,” which is a lie. Conservative white lawmakers lost power to urban, diverse, Democrats; so they’re making it harder for that population — which includes plenty of black Americans — to vote. 

Now major corporations in Georgia and throughout the country are caught in the consequences of this mess because, frankly, they weren’t on the right side of this mess in the first place. It’s yet another example of the dilemma modern businesses have when they actually do need to stand up for all those ethical values they keep telling everyone they hold dear. 

For example, the day after Georgia enacted the suppression law, Delta Airlines — headquartered in Atlanta, and one of the largest private employers in the state — published a statement saying the airline had worked with legislators during the drafting, and praised the measure as “improved considerably during the legislative process.”

That statement didn’t pass muster with many Americans. At the same time, a group of black CEOs, led by Kenneth Frazier at Merck and former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault, published an open letter calling on all corporations to push back against voter suppression laws more forcefully. Which left other CEOs like Ed Bastian at Delta scrambling to reverse the mealy-mouthed statement he originally published. 

Bastian

So Bastian circulated a memo to employees earlier this week that was indeed much more forceful, calling the Georgia law “a sweeping voting reform act that could make it harder for many Georgians, particularly those in our Black and Brown communities, to exercise their right to vote. The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections.” 

Now Delta — and Coca-Cola, and the Atlanta Falcons, and other major Georgia businesses — are fully involved in America’s latest culture war. They oppose a voter suppression law; conservatives on social media then call for boycotts; others on social media call for more Georgia businesses such Home Depot and UPS to join the right side of history; and so forth. 

Corporate Ethics and Politics

This is what I feared five months ago, when Donald Trump lost re-election: that Trumpism would continue to infect the Republican Party, and Corporate America would end up with a big problem on its hands. 

That’s exactly what has happened. We have a political party that no longer supports American values such as democracy and equality under the law; and has no qualms about embracing to anti-democratic measures to maintain its social and political supremacy. 

Somehow Corporate America is still supposed to shoehorn that group into its consumer customer base, when a majority of Americans — including the ones responsible for a majority of economic activity in this country — want nothing to do with these Nouveau Jim Crow laws that Republicans are trying to pass. 

By the way, count me skeptical that CEOs such as Bastian weren’t aware of the brewing controversy here. If that were indeed the case, then the VPs of legislative affairs and public relations at these firms should be fired, because they did a grave disservice to the bosses. 

I suspect most CEOs knew well enough about Georgia’s voter suppression law, and just hoped to avoid speaking about it because they don’t want to take sides on a divisive issue. We should all credit the black executives of Corporate America for forcing other CEOs’ hands. 

The challenge for corporations is this: as Republicans pull our political system into further dysfunction, policies that the majority of Americans want to see become law keep getting thwarted. When government doesn’t act on these issues, people then bring their concerns along with them into the workplace, and expect companies to fill that leadership vacuum. Hence we see findings such as what’s in the Edelman Trust Barometer, that large majorities of Americans now expect their employers and CEOs to take bolder positions on issues such as climate change, social justice, and economic security.

Moreover, the real test for Corporate America is just starting. Republicans are also pushing voter suppression laws in Texas, Arizona, and dozens of other states. Even if Bastian, for example, truly didn’t know the point of the Georgia suppression law — he sees the point of these bills now. So he (and other corporate leaders) are going to oppose the next wave of suppression laws now that they know the true threat, right? Right? 

Obviously this isn’t a compliance or audit issue, or even a corporate governance issue. This is plain, simple corporate values. Either CEOs resist Republican attempts to disfigure American democracy, or they don’t. I understand that no matter what they do, they’ll be flayed on social media by some. 

But the funny thing is, sometimes, what companies and people say in the real world matters more. 

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