Why should business leaders care about authoritarianism?
There is a long-standing recognition among many American business leaders that fostering a democratic political environment is in the interest of American businesses. The research is clear: Democracy is good for business. Populism, polarization, and rising authoritarianism undermine a free market economy, punitively and inefficiently politicize tax and regulatory policy, and create significant political risk. While supporting political leaders who undermine democracy may yield short-term benefits, it does not provide the foundation for stable business growth. Multi-national companies have well-developed responsible business principles and best practices for engaging foreign governments and civic groups in fragile democracies, but the sector is just recently turning needed attention to the alarming rate of democratic decline in the US.
Beyond the general advantages of fostering democracy, individual companies have much to gain from leading in pro-democracy work. In a survey of 3,000 Americans, 76% said they would prefer to work at companies that promote democracy, and 81% said they were more likely to recommend those companies’ products.
Thus far, much of the work to promote democracy by businesses has been limited to areas such as get-out-the-vote programs, civic engagement partnerships or depolarization initiatives, all important efforts, but with limited impact given the problem’s scale. As a resurgent debate about the role of business in society becomes increasingly politicized, especially around issues of ESG and DEI, there is a dedicated authoritarian faction deploying tried and true tactics to divide the country while undermining core democratic institutions. This dynamic has opened criticisms of the “politicization of business” and calls for corporate restraint in politics. There is an urgent need, however, for corporations and business leaders to distinguish between normal politics and attempts to roll back democracy. Partnering with others to take courageous stands in the face of these anti-democratic forces is critical, requiring better alignment and coordination with the diverse, trans-partisan pro-democracy civil society ecosystem in the US.
How can business leaders support the pro-democracy ecosystem?
- Business leaders can be powerful persuaders for democracy through making public statements condemning anti-democratic practices and upholding the rule of law. Such statements are particularly powerful when made in concert with social movement leaders and other “unlikely allies.” For example, the US Chamber of Commerce joint statement with the AFL-CIO on the day of the 2020 election sent a powerful signal that American society was united in its demand for a free and fair election, and a statement by over 70 Black executives condemning a 2021 Georgia law restricting voting rights helped show corporate America’s support for democratic rights.
- Statements can send powerful signals but are typically insufficient when not backed up by concrete action. Beyond statements, business leaders can refuse to cooperate with authoritarian practices, cutting off their normal patterns of interaction with political leaders and organizations that undermine democracy to continue. For instance, after the January 6th insurrection, nearly 150 companies ended their campaign contributions to the members of Congress who refused to certify the 2020 election.
- Businesses can also provide material support for key activities by social movements and civil society organizations working directly to advance democracy. Charitable donations are just one piece in a much larger tactical repertoire, and often not the most effective piece. Businesses also have deep resources of technical expertise, insider knowledge, and human capital that can be leveraged to support pro-democracy work. Several American companies have provided their employees with paid time off to vote, protest, or dedicate time and resources to pro-democracy actions.
- Business leaders can play a key role in bridgebuilding and negotiation. Business leaders can leverage their relationships to political elites to advocate for democracy in private, and, when appropriate, act as trusted intermediaries between movements and government leaders. For instance, during the Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter sit-ins in the civil rights movement executives from the Burlington Fabrics company organized a committee of civic leaders that, through their negotiations with lunch counter business owners, helped give greater legitimacy to the Black student-led sit-ins and facilitated Greensboro’s desegregation.
The Horizons Project’s Work
The Horizons Project recognizes the importance of the business community as a force for democracy and is engaging with many diverse business leaders and coalitions to help establish a common framework to understand and combat the authoritarian threat; and link the corporate sector more strategically with the pro-democracy civil society ecosystem. We are reaching out to or partnering with organizations such as the Civic Alliance, Leadership Now, the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, Business for America, the American Sustainable Business Network’s Business for Democracy working group, the Business Roundtable, and the Ethical Capitalism Group.
- Research and Analysis: As part of its larger pillars of support project, Horizons is examining how businesses have helped protect democracy both in the US and in other countries during democratic backsliding, and the most effective ways for businesses to leverage their unique position to do so. We will be working with business leaders to share the results of this research, providing practical tools and ideas to help shift priorities and collective action to pro-actively protect democracy from the current authoritarian threat. Horizons will be producing short, action-focused publications and, together with partners, hold a series of salons on Business and Democracy in 2023.
- Relationship-Building: Research shows that business efforts to promote social good are most effective when done in concert with social movements, and that protecting and restoring American democracy will require united effort across a wide range of sectors. Horizons is building connective tissue between business leaders and other key nodes in the pro-democracy ecosystem to strategize how efforts at protecting democracy can be most effectively coordinated both at the state level and nationally. We plan to organize both formal events and informal conversations between business leaders, grassroots organizers, and others in the pro-democracy space to help build the foundations for united action to protect democracy as we move towards the 2024 election and beyond.
*This article was written by former Director of Applied Research Jonathan Pinckney.