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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, May 25, 2024

The U-turn of corporate politics

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A Colin Kaepernick Nike ad is pictured.

Americans are now living in a country where corporate patronization and political affiliation become more intertwined each day. In our capitalist democracy, these two aspects are huge parts of cultural character. According to Siege Media, “Fox News” and “CNN” are up with “Starbucks” and “McDonalds” in 2022’s most Googled terms. It is no question how prominent companies and politics are in our daily lives, but there’s been a growing trend of mixing them together. 

The main reason that this has entered the realm of political contention is due to the perceived skew in agendas of popular companies. Republicans have declared a war on “woke” companies — those that advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion work — all while using critical race theory as a “bogeyman.” As a result, social issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and CRT are projected to be top concerns for 2024 election voters. 

There is some substance behind these claims of corporate bias. Since former president Donald Trump’s election in 2016, his controversial opinions led companies to take a stance, often under pressure from customers and employees. For instance, Nike’s national attention skyrocketed after a 2018 campaign featured quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose on-field protest was criticized by Donald Trump and conservatives nationwide. Prior to the campaign, Nike had also prided itself on previous social statements. Starbucks was one of many companies to come out against Trump’s travel bans, famously pledging to hire 10,000 refugees. Many other corporations have publicly disagreed with conservative policies, leading to a Republican pivot against big business. 

Despite this paradigm shift, nearly 70% of top executives are registered Republicans. This should be unsurprising, as Republicans traditionally favor business interests. Therefore, the decision to make social issues a priority is often measured in terms of investment and sales rather than quality of life and activism. Indeed, before Nike measured record stock prices after the Kaepernick ad, they were unsure whether continuing their partnership would help or hurt business interests. In most cases, there is little substance behind progressive corporate statements, so it is also important to examine statements on the other end of the political spectrum.

If Trump’s election and incendiary statements were the catalyst for these movements, it follows that now that he is out of office and largely deplatformed from social media that the public has been holding corporations less accountable. In the meantime, some corporations have even based their profit model on appealing to conservative ideals of what big business should look like. The Black Rifle Coffee Company has gained national attention for its military veteran ownership and defiance of “liberal latte” stereotypes with its responsive pledge to hire 10,000 veterans after Starbucks’ promise to hire refugees (and for its merchandise being present at the Jan. 6 insurrection). Their CEO has explicitly stated they are trying to corner the “blue-collar,” “shop at Walmart,” conservative market. The reunification of conservatism and big business was not anticipated to emerge in this form, but it is hard to deny the company’s rapid growth. 

It is also important to take notice of already established companies that reneged from previous values or statements. Google quietly expressed interest in taking Pentagon contracts after walking away from the Department of Defense years ago due to employee concerns. More directly, College Board removed “contemporary” lessons like Black Lives Matter and Black feminism from its proposed AP African American Studies topic after incredible conservative backlash, particularly from Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Twitter — perceived and documented as disproportionately used by younger liberals, according to Pew Research Center — was bought by Elon Musk, who restructured the company to great Republican cheer.

If the current trend continues, we will have arrived exactly where we started, but in an even better position for Republicans. They can return to their support of big business while maintaining the rhetorical battleground of CRT and ‘wokeness,’ praising the corporations that comply with their ideals. Moreover, if people settle for surface-level progressivism, it will make it harder to discount truly harmful conservative actions, such as erasing the identities and histories of Black Americans or Twitter’s free speech absolutism leading to a rise in hate speech.

Multimillion-dollar corporations have the potential to exercise immense political weight. Even purely monetary contributions could have a significant impact. Ideological change within an organization can affect not just the thousands of employees but also consumers and competitors. Therefore, it is important to push back on this great power being used for harmful purposes. Advocating for change is important, but the end goal should not be settling for an uncontroversial public statement or a market-tested advertising campaign that appeases investors. Holding businesses accountable will have much greater success in creating lasting change and activism will not rise and fall with controversial figures like Donald Trump.