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The Failure of Business to Help Save Democracy

Public officials need the private sector to step up and use its moral and financial clout to counter the right-wing extremists who are bent on ending the American republic.

Dimon, Bezos among CEOs pledging to hire 100,000 New Yorkers
Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co.
(Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images/TNS)
It is time for American business leaders to get off the sidelines and become actively engaged in defending our democracy. An ever-growing group of angry and paranoid Americans, abetted by cowardly and complicit politicians at all levels of government, seems bent on ending the American republic as we’ve known it. Key leaders of America’s private sector, if they were to speak in unison and use their financial clout to threaten or actually defund the campaigns of errant politicians, could make a huge difference.

The slim majority held by Democrats in Congress prevents them from protecting democracy by reinstalling guardrails removed during the Trump administration. Meanwhile, the Republican Party of today won’t distance itself from its former leader or curb his followers’ abuses to democracy that are apparent to most Americans. Moreover, Trump and his allies have marginalized and labeled the news media as purveyors of “fake news” and an “enemy of the people,” making it more difficult for them to fulfill their historic role as the fourth estate — the independent voice of journalism that often influences changes in policies.

What a difference a year makes. A year ago, corporations, reacting to the murder of George Floyd and other cases of Black Americans suffering at the hands of police, were tripping over each other to proclaim their commitment to racial justice. Now it feels as if we are back to business as usual. Not only have businesses failed to make significant reforms on the racial-hiring front, notwithstanding the reported pledge of businesses led by JPMorgan Chase of $35 billion toward racial equity, but their voices are hardly heard at all in countering the anti-democratic sentiments and practices among a small but growing minority of right-wing extremists.

The anti-democratic forces we face today are among our nation’s biggest threats since the Civil War. They and their politician allies have been busy rolling back democracy on several fronts: According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 14 states have enacted 22 new laws, while at least 61 other bills with restrictive voting provisions are moving through 18 legislatures. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act are two federal bills aimed at protecting voter rights. Both face grim prospects of getting through the Senate, where Democrats enjoy the slimmest of a majority but don’t seem to have the stomach to carve out of the filibuster a provision that protects the sanctity of the vote for each American.

If that weren’t bad enough, the Senate failed on a 54-35 vote to approve bipartisan legislation to establish an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. And The New York Times recently reported that the Justice Department under the former president secretly seized data of House Democrats, members of their families, staff and reporters in an effort to discover where leaks might have been coming from within the White House.

Throughout most of this, business leaders have been mysteriously silent. Even when some have tried to weigh in, they have been chided by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and others who told them in essence to keep quiet and limit their involvement in politics to making campaign contributions.

As a former Atlanta elected official, I know first hand the influence of the business community. They spend an enormous amount of time meeting directly with elected officials to explain their vested interests. I recall many one-on-one breakfast and lunch meetings at corporate headquarters where CEOs explained the importance of a specific road or economic development project to their businesses and the city. At these meetings, the business leaders were extremely persuasive and, conversely, they did not hesitate to let me know what pending legislation they disliked. If the leaders of major businesses in America would devote the same amount of time and effort toward both opposing anti-democratic bills and supporting legislation that protects or strengthens democracy, it would make a huge difference in the attitudes and behavior of public officials.
Four years ago, to have summoned business leaders to become engaged might have sounded a bit paranoid. Today, you would have to be naive not to be concerned and prepared to take action. All public officials should feel the urgency of these threats to democracy and appeal directly to business leaders to help just as they do when they solicit campaign contributions. Those public officials also should call on their constituents — customers who patronize these businesses and contribute to their bottom lines — to assist in gaining the attention of business leaders. Finally, business leaders who are already vocal and active should undertake a peer-to-peer campaign to recruit more of their colleagues to participate.

In America there has always been this not-so-subtle bias that the private sector does everything better than the public sector. Being in government as long as I have, I know by experience that this is just not always true. But one thing is for sure: Given the threatened state of our democratic institutions, we need all who have enjoyed the fruits of freedom and democracy to step up big time. Business leaders have the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that they care about more than just profits for their investors and stockholders. They can and must speak out loudly in defense of our republic, defund the campaigns of politicians whose votes and actions prove the contrary, and help return the nation to a path where its collective actions result in a certainly flawed but still more perfect union and democracy.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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