Opinion | Holding corporations to perfect political stands is a dead end


We’ve long known that the personal is political. Now the professional has become increasingly political, too.

Seemingly every major employer and public-facing business is being asked to take a stand — not only on matters directly related to their operations, such as where they source from or whom they hire, but on virtually every other polarizing cultural and political issue, as well. Including, most recently and most thornily, war in the Middle East.

Some of this is understandable. In the long run, though, it does not seem sustainable.

Boycotts, shareholder rebellions and other efforts to pressure companies to amend their behavior are not new. But relative to 10 or 20 years ago, there are increasing expectations for corporations to issue formal public proclamations about areas outside their core competencies and spheres of influence, or else face the wrath of customers and workers.

It’s hard to pinpoint the origins of these changing norms.

Maybe culture wars and identity politics have simply seeped into every aspect of American life. Maybe the politicization of private firms results from the declining influence of other civic institutions (churches, community groups, local newspapers) that once served as central forums for mediating social or political views. Americans spend less time with Elks, more with officemates; perhaps it was inevitable that traditional politics would get channeled into office politics.

There have also been significant generational and demographic shifts as millennials and Gen Zers have entered the workforce. As students, many looked to campus administrators to police speech, and validate or denounce various ideological stances. Increasingly, students have sought not just support but outright affirmation of their views. I once wondered what would happen when these student activists left the cocoon of college and entered the “real world,” where bosses presumably wouldn’t have patience for such demands.

In practice, perhaps this cohort of workers hasn’t been chastened by the “real world” so much as the “real world” has been chastened by them.

Whatever the causes, firms that once studiously avoided wading into divisive issues on gender, reproductive rights, race and geopolitics can no longer dodge them. Customers demand denouncements (of out-groups) or statements of solidarity (with the in-group). More important, workers do, too.

Many workers, quite reasonably, argue that their employer’s internal policies and public stances can affect working conditions. If firms want to retain women, for example, they must make clear how they will safeguard their employees’ health in states that have curbed access to reproductive care. Likewise if a company employs members of the LGBTQ+ community in a jurisdiction increasingly hostile to gay or trans rights. If bosses want to recruit more workers of color, they often must commit to measures promoting racial equity, in and out of the workplace.

In many of these cases, I’m sympathetic to the aims of those pressuring companies to act. Even when I disagree with the activists (as in the recent Bud Light boycott, motivated by anti-trans bigotry), I nonetheless believe workers — and consumers — are well within their rights to engage or avoid whatever firms they wish. That’s capitalism.

Firms respond to these incentives by adopting whatever stance will maximize their profits. Contrary to popular political claims, companies are generally not “woke” or “anti-woke”; they’re amoral and are simply trying to align themselves with the largest or most valuable constituency.

This calculation has grown challenging, though, as companies face pressure to weigh in on more complex and divisive issues, including ones further afield from their operations. Acting upon pressures from one stakeholder group could cause backlash from another; then a backlash to the backlash; and ultimately, authoritarian-style government interventions.

The Israel-Gaza conflict, which is particularly politically fraught, feels like a breaking point in how effective these pressure campaigns can be.

First, firms (as well as colleges and other institutions) were called on to vociferously condemn Hamas’s massacre. Once, few would have looked to C-suite executives for moral leadership or soothing words about an atrocity abroad. But now that organizations have already weighed in on everything from police violence to voting rights, silence on a modern-day pogrom risked resembling indifference or even an endorsement.

Almost immediately, employees sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians deployed the same logic against many of these same companies. At Google, Amazon and other firms, workers have demanded their bosses publicly express solidarity with Gazans, or even call for a cease-fire or other specific developments. Otherwise, activist employees argue, corporate silence following a statement of support for grieving Israelis implies prioritization of Israeli lives over Palestinian ones.

And so it goes. Will any of these expressions of performative solidarity make any difference in the war? Likely not. Will they tick off a lot of stakeholders? Absolutely. Especially if firms and corporate leaders are backed into restating their positions again and again, following every incremental development.

Whatever companies do, they will inevitably alienate some critical constituency — customers, workers, investors. At some point, firms will stop trying to appease the majority, and merely try to offend as few as possible. Which sounds a lot like the bland, corporate statements the public once took for granted — and which, these days, some might welcome again.

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