Delta Airlines is the latest corporation to get drawn into the fray of America’s increasingly pugilistic politics. On Saturday, Delta joined more than a dozen companies in severing its partnership with the National Rifle Association in the aftermath of the Parkland school massacre and the subsequent #NeverAgain movement. In response, the Republican lieutenant governor of Georgia, where Delta has its headquarters, took to Twitter threatening to kill pending tax legislation that benefits the company. As he explained, “Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.”
The pressure for corporations to modify — or maintain — their relationships with the controversial gun organization is only the latest political minefield businesses have had to face. Whether it’s Chick-fil-A’s opposition to gay rights, corporate support for nondiscrimination laws, Hobby Lobby’s fight over the contraception mandate or the campaign to end advertising on Breitbart, companies have joined — some eagerly, some reluctantly — some of the most heated political fights of the past few years.
This may seem like more evidence of the politicization, and polarization, of everything. As Derek Thompson put it in the Atlantic, “Corporations are no longer bystanders in the culture wars. They are on the front lines.” But that conclusion requires us to agree that companies were ever the bystanders in politics. In fact, they’ve been on the front lines for a very long time.
Take Coca-Cola, another Atlanta-based company. Though by 1960 Atlanta styled itself “the city too busy to hate” — an effort to cultivate a business-friendly climate in an era of civil rights and massive resistance — the city’s white elites held its most famous resident, Martin Luther King Jr., in disdain. When King won the Nobel Prize in 1964, white social conservatives in Atlanta refused to buy tickets to the integrated banquet being held in King’s honor.
The story threatened to become an international embarrassment for Atlanta. So the head of Coca-Cola stepped in, berating the city’s business leaders for risking the city’s reputation by snubbing King. “The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta,” he said. “You all have to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company.” The economic threat worked. Within two hours, the dinner was sold out. The King banquet featured a packed house and positive coverage in the international press.
Political Cartoons on the Economy
The push for divestment in South Africa over apartheid likewise forced companies to take sides. At the start of the divestment campaign, more than 300 U.S. companies did business in the country. The campaign forced them to choose: either withdraw and support the anti-apartheid movement, or remain and signal support for the apartheid government. Under economic pressure as universities withdrew their investments and political pressure as Congress moved to curb business opportunities in the country, major corporations like General Motors and IBM chose the side of anti-apartheid.
And Coca-Cola? The corporation dominated cola sales in South Africa and was one of the largest U.S. employers in the country. Its announcement in 1986 that it was withdrawing from South Africa was notable for two major reasons: it was the first corporation to announce its withdrawal was an act of political opposition to apartheid, and it further pledged to sell its remaining operations in the country to black investors.
By the 1990s and 2000s gay rights would replace segregation and apartheid as the major moral and political issue on which companies felt moved to take a stand. But those corporations were building on an already lively tradition of corporate activism. Some corporate leaders eagerly entered the fray, others were dragged into it far more reluctantly, but they wound up on the front lines all the same.
Which is not to say there is nothing new about today’s corporate activism. A changed media environment has vastly accelerated the speed with which corporations are expected to respond, with activists able to grow their networks and intensify their pressure at genuinely surprising paces. The Sleeping Giants campaign cost Breitbart 90 percent of its advertisers in just two months. The Parkland shooting was less than two weeks ago, and already 20 companies have cut ties with the NRA. Increasingly, corporations feel the need to act — and act quickly.
But the underlying dynamics remain the same. Corporations may not be people (sorry, Mitt), but they are peopled. They have owners and boards and employees and customers. As a result, they are part of our politics in ways that go far beyond issues of taxation and zoning and regulations. They are part of our social as well as our economic lives, and as such, they are on the front lines of our political battles, whether they like it or not.