Are American business leaders ready to defend democracy? If you look at recent opinion polls, the answer might seem to be a resounding — and reassuring — “yes”.

Take a survey published in May by the Business & Democracy Initiative, a Washington lobbying group. This found that 96 per cent of business leaders think that “a well-functioning democracy is important to a strong economy” and 81 per cent agree that “businesses should act to ensure safe and fair elections”.

More striking still, 77 per cent “agree that businesses should speak out about threats to democracy”. And just over half of these leaders are more likely to encourage their staff to champion democracy and work in elections than they were five years ago. Only 8 per cent are less enthusiastic than before.

But if you ask business executives in private how they might turn such statements into action, the picture is one of growing uncertainty and profound angst. 

Yes, these leaders can see the existential threats highlighted by this week’s revelations about former president Donald Trump’s efforts to subvert the 2020 election results. They know that a third of the public thinks that this election was marked by fraud — and that a similar proportion thinks that “the nation’s [election] system is fundamentally unsound,” as one Monmouth poll says. There is also mounting alarm about gerrymandering and voter suppression.

But few know what to do. Consider Delta and Coca-Cola. When the Georgia state legislature introduced an SB202 law last year, which essentially restricts voting rights, the two giants initially kept quiet. Then, when black campaign groups voiced fury, they denounced the law. But this came too late to stop it — and local activists say that the companies are still funding some of the politicians behind SB202.

Or, for another example, look at Allstate, the insurance group headquartered in Illinois. A few years ago, its executives realised that gerrymandering was undermining democracy in their state. “Fifty four per cent of our state house elections in Illinois are not contested, which means that 4.7mn people did not get a vote,” Tom Wilson, CEO, told me at the Aspen Ideas Festival this week. “If we had a fair and balanced [system] then 1.7mn more people would vote in just Illinois.”

So the company raised funds to fight gerrymandering and recruited other businesses to the cause. But it has since wound down this campaign, Wilson says, because, “We realised that we didn’t have agency or competence in this area” — ie, it could not change the gerrymandering. Instead it is now pouring campaign energy into three areas where Wilson thinks it does have “agency and competence” — climate change, racial equity and data privacy.

Should companies sit on their hands? In my view, absolutely not: there are at least three moves that executives could — and should — get ready to take. One obvious step is to ensure that employees can vote (which is not always an easy matter for low-income workers given that elections happen on weekdays). This means offering them paid time and support to get to the polls, and backing those who want to work as electoral officials. 

Second, companies need to speak out loudly in favour of democratic processes — and, more importantly, criticise backsliding (such as with the SB202 law) when they do occur. 

A third, even more important move, is to provide proper transparency around political donations and lobbying — and ensure that these are consistent with a company’s public statements on democracy. That means refraining from making donations to candidates who are trying to overturn the electoral processes or encourage voter suppression.

Devotees of Milton Friedman might argue that these moves are impractical or risk distracting executives from their jobs. After all, those business leaders who have recently waded into political controversies face growing repercussions. When Citi expressed dismay about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion, Congressional Republicans threatened to stop dealing with the bank. And when Disney challenged the Florida legislature’s stance on gay rights, Ron DeSantis, state governor, removed tax privileges.

And what makes political issues doubly difficult for the C-suite to deal with is that their own employees are often also politically polarised. The CEO of one big company recently observed, in private, that his company had initially planned to make an immediate strong statement about the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling — but backed away when a staff poll showed that attitudes were more split on the issue than top managers had realised.

But even if it seems challenging for executives to speak up, the reality is that staying silent on election threats will be even more damaging, not just for a company’s reputation but for America’s political economy too. So let us fervently hope that the 96 per cent of companies who say that democracy is good for the economy are actually ready to defend it. Particularly given that these threats are likely to only mount; and that the Edelman Trust barometer shows that the public now has more faith in business leaders than politicians — by a big and widening margin.

gillian.tett@ft.com



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