American democracy is facing an immense test in 2020. This is also a test for American business.
Amidst a pandemic that renders some forms of in-person voting dangerous, a wide array of actors is exploiting both social and mainstream media to spread rumors, conspiracy theories, and outright lies concerning both the campaign and whether votes will be counted accurately. The FBI continues to make clear that there is a concerted effort from Russia, and to a lesser degree other countries, to sow chaos and interfere with both the electoral process and faith in the outcome. The U.S. Postal Service has undermined its ability—and commitment—to enable mail-in voting to proceed on a timely basis. And in a time when the persistence of systemic racism demands action, steps have been taken in many states to suppress access to voting, particularly for people of color who have faced serious restrictions throughout American history.
And, shockingly, for the first time in American history, the incumbent President is consistently undermining public trust in the electoral process. By hinting loudly that the courts rather than the American people will decide the election; making dishonest, unfounded claims of voter fraud; and most importantly, refusing to abide by the results of the election; this President is proving his commitment to his own power rather than protecting citizens’ right to vote.
No business can afford to stand by while this happens. No boardroom can say this is a matter for elected officials, journalists, and political analysts.
American business has thrived over the past 75 years in no small part because of the relative stability and predictability of the American political system. CEOs know well from their operations around the world that business is hindered by the political instability that all too often has roiled countries around the world. Business leaders invest in political risk analysis for good reason. Until now, the U.S. has not been viewed the same way as other countries roiled by coups, general strikes, and corrupt courts.
Process matters to business. Rule of law matters to business.
No company operating in America will want to face a society—and a workforce—that is torn asunder by even more profound polarization and the prospect of growing civil unrest in the wake of an election that is illegitimate or seen as illegitimate.
With all this in mind, the time is now for American business to align on the side of American democracy. As Ronald Reagan said in 1964 (in a very different context), this is “a time for choosing.”
In addition to the steps that many companies have already taken to enable voting and to promote free and fair elections, there are five additional things that business should do to sustain a healthy democracy.
- Take preventive action: In advance of Election Day, companies can convey to elected officials how essential it is that democratic processes be protected. This may be most effective for companies and CEOs who have good lines of contact with GOP Senators. They should understand that the business community is watching and will not support officials to support or enable election interference.
- Work through trade associations: Companies can leverage their voice and find strength in numbers by working through trade associations. If trade associations stand only for the narrow self-interest of their members, their purpose is highly questionable. Very specifically, this is a test for the Business Roundtable’s 2019 statement of purpose. There is no better way to demonstrate that it has real meaning than by using it as the basis for pro-democracy views.
- CEO coalitions of the willing: Like-minded CEOs could band together to be prepared to speak up should things go off the rails. This is what happened in advance of the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. CEOs can convey their views to the White House and make clear that election interference is not only wrong but bad for business.
- Communicating with employees: We have seen multiple examples of employee activism in recent years. In the event of a contested election or interference with vote counting or the right to vote, companies will need to be ready to speak with their employees, who will want to know where their companies and their CEOs stand on American democracy. While companies need to respect diverse political views in their workforces, support for democracy is a basic principle that should not be presented as partisan.
- Partnering with NGOs: Aligning with pro-democracy organizations for advice and support is also valuable, whether the ACLU or younger organizations such as NationSwell and Business for America. Business partners with NGOs around the world for similar purposes: why not in the United States also?
And in all these cases, business should also take care to address the fact that voter suppression all too often restricts access to the ballot for Black Americans and other people of color. The workforces of Fortune 500 companies are more representative of America than the U.S. Congress. In a year when many companies and business leaders are straining to demonstrate their commitment to their BIPOC colleagues and customers, calling for an end to voter suppression laws and regulations is a great step.
The test we face is a binary choice. It is not, however, a choice between Democrats versus Republicans. It is true democracy versus a degraded system that will undermine American society and American business. History will cast a keen eye on what happens over the next few weeks.
BSR’s founding Chairman, Arnold Hiatt, who served as the CEO of Stride-Rite Shoes for many years, said this at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in 2002:
Business is the most powerful force in our society—particularly if it is willing to accept moral, civic, and financial leadership. Business has the tools, the energy, and the will to fill the growing leadership vacuum in government.
This leadership is badly needed in 2020. Will business pass the test?