For decades, chief executive officers studiously avoided wading into controversial issues of the day. There was no possible upside, only risk. But the apolitical CEO is one of the many norms shattered by Donald Trump. In many respects, the 45th President has made it easy for corporate leaders to be more outspoken. It’s sort of a no-brainer to speak out, as National Association of Manufacturers president and CEO Jay Timmons put it on Jan. 6, against “armed violent protesters who support the baseless claim by outgoing President Trump that he somehow won an election that he overwhelmingly lost.”
There are a number of factors driving CEOs’ new embrace of the bully pulpit. For one, insurrection, sedition and violence in the streets is bad for business. Big organizations require stability. Tear gas and bear spray make it hard to achieve the “visibility” into future earnings much prized by Wall Street. “With our country in the midst of a pandemic, business leaders recognize that ongoing division and distrust in our political system threatens the economic recovery and job creation our country desperately needs,” says the Business Roundtable, an organization made up of the CEOs of the nation’s biggest corporations including Apple, JPMorgan Chase, GM and Walmart.
On its most basic level, Trump’s persistent assault on the rule of law and the degradation of a federal election risked undermining the foundations of the system that made the American economy the most dynamic and successful on earth. The primacy of U.S. capital markets and the nation’s standing as a safe haven for global investors were at risk with Trump’s attacks on the norms of good governance. An authoritarian government and a free market can’t co-exist. At its heart, the capitalist system requires honoring contracts, which made Trump’s flouting of rules a profound threat to financial institutions, capital markets and corporate governance. “We believe in investment in the rule of law, not the law of rulers,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of leadership studies at the Yale School of Management. “CEOs say that about investing abroad—now that has to apply that at home too.”
Defending that system helps explain in the week after the Capitol attack, a who’s who of the nation’s most prominent blue-chip companies, including Marriott, AT&T, American Express and Amazon, said they would halt campaign donations to members of Congress who voted to challenge the presidential-election results. Unsentimentally, Hallmark Cards, which is based in Kansas City, Mo., took the additional step of asking Republican Senators who objected to certifying the results to refund the company’s previous donations. Other companies, including JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, called a temporary halt to donations to both Republican and Democrats.
“We are taking a pause on federal contributions and using this as an opportunity to really evaluate the candidates that we have supported and do their actions and values align with ours,” Lynn Good, CEO of Duke Energy, said in an interview with TIME. “We felt like this was an important one for us to weigh in on as a company.” Good said the decision came after careful deliberation and was informed by the strong reaction of many of the company’s employees and customers. “Everyone was watching with some degree of dismay and shock,” says Good. “We are not a supporter of violence being used as a way to voice an opinion on an important topic.” (One could ask whether corporations should play such an outsize role in funding candidates, but that’s a separate topic for another day.)
Additional moves may be forthcoming. Sonnenfeld, who has convened three emergency summits with CEOs since the election, said the majority of CEOs at a recent meeting said they would “reconsider their investments in states of seditious Congressmen.”
Business leaders are stepping in to fill a void left by the erosion of trust in government and other institutions. Communications firm Edelman, which annually measures trust in institutions including government, NGOs, business and media, found in its new study that business is the “only trusted institution … and the only institution seen as both ethical and competent.” The report concluded, “The heightened expectations of business bring CEOs new demands to focus on societal engagement with the same rigor, thoughtfulness and energy used to deliver on profits.”
One marker of a sea change is the emergence of a new vocabulary. Deplatforming—kicking bad actors off the tech infrastructure—has become a mark of corporate activism. Twitter, Facebook and most recently YouTube have deplatformed President Trump. On Jan. 12, YouTube said in a statement, “After careful review, and in light of concerns about the ongoing potential for violence, we removed new content uploaded to the Donald J. Trump channel … We are also indefinitely disabling comments under videos on the channel.”
Other tech giants up and down the digital food chain took similar steps in the wake of the Capitol attack. Amazon’s immense cloud-services businesses (in the most recent quarter, they generated nearly $10 billion in revenue) kicked right-wing social network Parler off its web-hosting servers earlier this month. (Parler has sued for breach of contract.) Apple and Google, which removed Parler’s app from its app stores, have moved to dismantle the infrastructure of hate. And Stripe, a high-flying fin-tech startup, said it would no longer process payments for Trump’s campaign website in the wake of the Capitol riots for violating its policies against encouraging violence.
Whether this was a bold act of corporate leadership—or the equivalent of closing the digital barn door after the rabid horse had already kicked the stable manager in the head and flung its rider to the ground—is a complex question. The deplatforming largely resulted in a collective short-term sigh of relief, but was a stark demonstration of the inordinate and lightly regulated power of a handful of tech giants based in Silicon Valley. Global leaders, including the heads of state of Germany and Mexico, expressed concern over private companies’ ability to censor speech. Forging a new paradigm around the complicated questions of free speech, market concentration and tech regulation will be one of the most consequential global policy debates of our time.
A final driver forcing CEOs to come off the sideline is the expectation of today’s more politically engaged younger workers. The Edelman survey found that 86% of respondents expected CEOs to speak out on societal issues. “We govern with the consent of the governed, and the governed are restless,” one CEO of a small firm told TIME, voicing concern over the expectation that a CEO statement was now considered de rigueur after any development of note. Speaking out is fine on big issues like climate change or illegally closing the borders to people of one religion, according to the CEO. But there is a growing unease about where it will lead, particularly with issues that hit closer to home, like executive compensation and the wealth gap. In a post-Trump Joe Biden world, “no comment” is no longer an option.
What are your thoughts on CEOs weighing in on political affairs? Have you personally become more outspoken in work settings about political and social issues? I welcome your observations at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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