Most Americans don’t want CEOs to be involved in politics. A poll conducted by Golin and Ipsos last week found that only 41% favored favorite CEOs in controversial elections and only 43% wanted them to speak out on impeachment. On the flip side, 74% say CEOs should demand unity and a peaceful transfer of power, and 57% think it appropriate for CEOs to speak out at the Capitol following the January 6 riot. That’s pretty much in line with the behavior of most CEOs and corporate groups since Election Day. They kept their powder dry until all legitimate ways to grapple with the elections were exhausted, and then strongly supported the election results and attacked efforts to undermine them. Relatively few supported the impeachment. (You can see the poll results Here.)
But how about political contributions? That is the question raised last week as a multitude of companies – Marriott, AT & T., American Express, Best buy, Cisco, Comcast, Dow and Amazon among them – suspended campaign contributions to members of Congress who questioned the election results. Another big group – Microsoft, Boeing, Blackrock, Coke, JP Morgan, Ford, GM, UPS, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup – temporarily stopped all political contributions to members of both parties. (Quartz has a more comprehensive list of corporate activity Here.)
Some business leaders are even considering closing their political action committees permanently and ending the game of money altogether. But without a major overhaul of campaign funding – which is unlikely in the foreseeable future – I think that’s a mistake. Most large corporations remain even players in the money game, dividing their dollars roughly evenly among the members of each party. Walmart, for example, has kept its contributions at exactly 50-50. Their strategies have less to do with trying to influence the results than with making sure they have access to whoever wins.
The more important question for 2021 is how big companies use this access. There are a multitude of issues where companies have the potential to generate positive results for the US economy and society: economic stimulus, infrastructure, employee training, climate change. In each of these areas, leaders occupy the center and can help bring the parties together to resolve pressing issues.
However, companies will play defense, especially when it comes to tax and regulatory issues. And they will be tempted to use whatever leverage they can muster to seek tax breaks and regulatory exemptions that are not in the broader public interest. This is where the commitment to stakeholder capitalism is tested. The nation desperately needs business in government. However, more than ever, business needs to use its leverage to focus on solving long-term challenges.