[Francis Wilkinson] Liberals can hold corporations accountable

By Bloomberg
  • Published : Dec 26, 2018 - 17:04
  • Updated : Dec 26, 2018 - 17:04

As US political parties diverge ever more distinctly into a defender of the old and the past versus an advocate of the young and the future, corporate America -- at least the parts with consumer-facing business -- is increasingly two-faced.

To the multiracial, cosmopolitan younger America with money to spend, it shows the face of the future. Meanwhile, to secure its tax preferences, deregulation and clampdown on labor rights, it spends its political money on the party of Fox News.

It’s amazing that corporations have gotten away with it for so long.

Cheerios had a social moment back in 2013 with an ad featuring a mixed-race family. Racists didn’t much like the idea of little rings of oats dunked in milk being swallowed by race-mixers, and they used the lowest common denominator of social protest -- the internet -- to vent. YouTube comments linked to the ad, Adweek reported, included references to “racial genocide.”

Cheerios seemed unfazed. “At Cheerios, we know there are many kinds of families and we celebrate them all,” a Cheerios spokesperson said. That’s nice, isn’t it?

Then, in 2016, when the Republican Party chose a presidential nominee who demonized Mexicans, repeatedly linked blacks with violent crime and earned enthusiastic support from Nazis, Cheerios maker General Mills gave more than twice as much money to Republicans as the company gave to Democrats.

Like a lot of companies, General Mills seems to like Democratic consumers and Republican voters. It’s a familiar dichotomy.

Nike went all in on the former with its big Colin Kaepernick TV ad, celebrating the rebel football quarterback who has been blackballed by NFL team owners as surely as the Hollywood Ten was blacklisted by McCarthy-era Hollywood. Nike sales, dependent on the young, spiked in the wake of the Kaepernick ad.

Yet Nike employees, along with the company’s political action committee, generally combine to give more money to Republicans than to Democrats. “Believe in something,” the Kaepernick ad demands. Or, if necessary, pretend to believe in something while investing your political money in diametrically opposed beliefs.

What rationalizes the hypocrisy, of course, is the pursuit of profit. Fund Republicans to win a debt-financed tax cut and a green light for pollution. That’s good for the corporate bottom line (and accentuating executive wealth). And design your advertising to appeal to the multiracial, cosmopolitan consumers who would be uninspired by your political spending. That’s good for the top line.

Democratic politicians are unlikely to drive a wedge between these two positions, because many still depend on corporate donations themselves -- especially as labor money is pinched by Republican policy and court decisions.

But with the liberal grassroots still basking in their midterm election victory, they might want to commit some of their energy in 2019 to naming and shaming the companies that fund the Republican Party assault on everything from climate science and gun regulation to majority rule.

There are stirrings. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt recently wrote about Walgreens’ role in funding the Republican attack on democracy in Wisconsin, where Republican legislators have been busy undermining the results of the November election by denying power to newly elected Democrats.

On Twitter, liberal writer and activist Judd Legum successfully shamed corporations that had donated to Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who casually joked of public hangings while running for office in a state notorious for lynchings, and to Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who seems eager to be known as the most racist member of the US Congress.

But if liberals want to force more corporations to align their political actions with their self-avowed principles, they’re going to need a sustained campaign. Boycotts worked against advertisers on some of the greasier Fox News programs. (Fox host Tucker Carlson just last week lost another advertiser that’s embarrassed to be associated with him.) But after the fury faded, some of those same advertisers quietly slinked back to Fox.

Given the sewage that flows from Fox on a daily basis -- the white nationalist performance artist Ann Coulter recently let loose another stream of racial invective -- it’s remarkable that so many American companies feel they can fund its programming without consequence.

“The racism runs deep,” Soledad O’Brien tweeted in response to the Coulter segment. “But I am curious how all the corporations who advertise on @foxnews can tout their diversity and inclusion strategies -- and support this overt racist and bigoted content.”

It’s a good question, isn’t it? As liberal activists prepare for the 2020 election, it would be worth building a campaign dedicated to securing answers.

Francis Wilkinson
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and US domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. -- Ed.