Greed, Fear, and Corporate Progressivism

July 18, 2019 Updated: July 22, 2019


Remember the time when the left, starting with President Barack Obama himself, denounced the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision?

It was, they said, a blow to democracy and the public interest. It meant that corporations could act is if they were legal persons for certain purposes (as had been the case for several centuries). They could “buy” politicians and use their money and power to subvert and dominate democratic processes. They would corrupt politics with their political activity.

We don’t hear much about all that, now that corporations are truly subverting democracy—using their economic power. They threaten to relocate planned business expansions and sporting events—for example, to pressure governors to back down from enacting laws that protect religious freedom. Their pressure led to the ouster of the governor of North Carolina for supporting a “bathroom bill” that aimed to protect the privacy of women and children by requiring adults to use bathrooms, changing rooms, and showers corresponding to their biological sex.

The pro-LGBT New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, in 2015, celebrated the use of corporate power to impose progressive politics on unwilling citizens and their elected representatives.

The scope of this corporate intervention has been wide—from the removal of the Confederate flag to Nike pulling its plan to launch sneakers bearing the Betsy Ross flag—the first flag of the new American nation—on the Fourth of July of this year. Corporations fell over each other in their eagerness to celebrate Gay Pride Month in June and sported the rainbow flag everywhere. They have been strong supporters of redefining marriage—what they call “marriage equality”—to include couples of the same sex.

Bruni mocks those (who, until recently, included most leftists) who have issued “fevered warnings” that “big corporations will soon rule the earth” with the comment, “Fine with me.”

Greed or Fear? New York Times vs. Wall Street Journal

There are two kinds of explanation for this powerful move of big corporations into identity politics of LGBT activism—in particular, the politics of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). One, emphasized by the columnists of The New York Times, sees greed as the key motivation. Bruni’s 2015 column was titled, “The Sunny Side of Greed.”

The Wall Street Journal, by contrast, saw the immediate caving of Nike, to the apparently nonexistent concern that the flag was about slavery, as an expression of corporate fear, and of timidity and pusillanimity. “The remarkable thing about Colin Kaepernick’s banning of Nike’s Betsy Ross flag sneaker to commemorate the Fourth of July isn’t that it happened but how easily it happened,” Daniel Henninger wrote.

Corporate motivation is thus understood in terms of the two motivations said to drive markets and to underlie irrational and dramatic price movements on stock exchanges: greed and fear.

No one gives much credence to the notion of a sincere change of heart, a conversion to social liberalism on the part of the rich and powerful who run large corporations.

Another New York Times columnist, David Leonhardt, points out that many firms that enthusiastically supported Pride Month in the hope of gaining market share and goodwill from LGBT customers also give money to what he calls anti-LGBT politicians, meaning socially conservative, pro-family Republicans. It is, after all, normal practice for big corporations to donate to both political parties. Take their money, but don’t trust them!

The Case for Greed

Firms appeal to their customer base and seek to expand it. It seems an odd kind of calculation that could persuade Nike to listen to a famously unpatriotic (in the view of many football fans) former NFL player about scrapping a patriotic gesture timed for the Fourth of July. Nike adviser Kaepernick objected to the same 1777 Betsy Ross flag that Obama, apparently unaware that it was a symbol of racism and/or of the alt-right, had chosen to adorn his second inauguration. Why would any American buy Nike products after that?

Nike must have calculated that, even if they alienated most Americans across the country, they appealed to—and made their money from—a particular demographic that was young, rebellious, and anti-traditional.

Some corporations are insulated from public pressure by their near-monopoly status. Many of us do our shopping on Amazon, our online searching via Google, and our social media participation via Facebook. Alternative social media only work if people know and use them. Even the once family-friendly Disney feels able in its films to embrace the prevailing sexual politics that most parents have considered unsuitable for children.

The Case for Fear

In terms of consumers and public relations, no company wants to be the subject of an activist campaign against it on grounds of racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia. It’s safer to present the corporation as being at the forefront of social change, even, it seems, when the change sought contradicts or cancels earlier gains by different groups. A case in point is the threat that transgender demands pose to women’s sports or to the privacy and safety of women and girls—Title IX used against Title IX.

LGBT Pride Month, as Obama nominated June each year he was in office, spurred hundreds of corporations, anxious to stay on the good side of activists, to add rainbow logos and rainbow-themed products to their merchandise.

But Does It Work?

Does all this corporate activism, however motivated, make a difference? Is it good marketing or effective in pressuring politicians to act as the corporations want?

The evidence is mixed. Requiring athletes to wear the LGBT symbol on their uniform serves the purpose—if that’s the purpose—of forcing Christians and others who support marriage and family in traditional terms off teams and damaging their careers.

Corporations have and use real power to coerce conformity to the new orthodoxy and to punish those who refuse actively to affirm views that violate their consciences. Silence is not enough. As the philosopher Robert P. George has said on Facebook and Twitter, “Ordinary authoritarians are content to forbid people from saying things they know or believe to be true. Totalitarians insist on forcing people to say things they know or believe to be untrue.”

We live in a time of increasingly aggressive totalitarian enforcement of orthodoxy and of intolerance even of silent dissent.

Threats against states and their governors can be effective in reversing democratic processes and decisions. Most recently, the governor of Arizona responded to Nike’s decision to pull its Betsy Ross sneakers by withdrawing the promised public subsidy for the firm’s expansion in the state. But in less than two weeks, he had reversed himself, and welcomed the firm and jobs it would bring. Earlier efforts by the legislatures and governors of Arizona, Arkansas, and Indiana to protect religious freedom were quickly abandoned in the face of corporate economic pressure.

As a kind of public relations virtue-signaling, on the other hand, corporate adoption of the rainbow symbol was enthusiastic but probably worthless. As the brand consultant and author Mark Batey puts it, “When you hitch your brand to a cause or movement that nearly every other brand is co-opting, you are not differentiating but rather genericizing your brand. That’s anti-branding. And when the cause or movement you choose has political overtones, you end up alienating, dividing, and disappointing your customers.”

The result is lost business from customers who don’t share the firm’s political stance (think NFL, Target, Arby’s, Dick’s), failure to differentiate the brand from all the others who are pushing the same image and ideology, and the contempt of activists who see a cynical and hypocritical appropriation of their cause by big business.

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Paul Adams
Paul Adams
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i, and was professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of "Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is," and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.