Corporate Big Beasts Stick Their Necks Out for Democracy

Can the actions of corporate America in the recent US presidential election inspire genuine global action on civil society space in 2021?

Expert comment Published 16 December 2020 Updated 23 March 2022 3 minute READ

In America, business leaders are no strangers to elections, whether contributing to and endorsing candidates, or trying to influence positions that may translate into policy. But the electoral process itself and its outcomes were largely taken for granted until the recent presidential election, when many felt compelled to make unprecedented statements supporting first the process, and then the outcome.

But can such a strong response by business to the pressures on the society in which they operate go further in 2021, and translate into action in support of civil society space at a time when it is fast deteriorating around the world?

In the run up to the US election, Donald Trump’s questioning of the mail-in balloting, attempts to restrict funding for the United States Postal Service (USPS), assertions the process was ‘rigged’, and refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, all stoked uncertainty and anxiety over the conduct of the election and the acceptance of its results – a concern shared by CEOs who identified with either or neither party.

Business leaders from the technology, finance, retail, and hospitality sectors were provoked to speak out on 14 October with the statement ‘America Has Held Successful Elections Amidst Crises Before. We Can and Must Do So Again’. But missing were the major corporate and Wall Street signatories — the big beasts of the American business jungle.

The call went out that ‘more CEOs must stand up to protect our democracy’, and one of the biggest beasts of all – JP Morgan Chase CEO, Jamie Dimon – felt compelled on 22 October to affirm what had always been taken for granted by saying: ‘The peaceful transfer of power – whether it is to the second administration of a president or a new one – is a hallmark of America’s 244 year-old history as an independent nation’.

Then on 27 October, the cause of election integrity received its most significant support from the Broad-Based Coalition of Business Leaders’ statement on the 2020 election. That ‘broad-based coalition’ was led by the Business Roundtable (BRT), the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), and the US Chamber of Commerce plus several other industry associations, representing essentially all corporate America, Wall Street and independent smaller businesses, known colloquially as Main Street America.

Their statement was an extraordinary endorsement neither of Trump or Biden, but of American democracy itself amidst extreme stress and crisis. Never before had such a statement been made – nor been made necessary.

Within hours of it becoming clear that Joe Biden was the winner, the BRT, the NAM and the Chamber each issued statements affirming the integrity of the electoral process and offering congratulations. Further statements came over the next two weeks, culminating in a letter organized by the Partnership for New York City and signed by some of the most prominent CEOs, urging the transfer of power and transition process to begin immediately.

But corporate America, Wall Street, and Main Street were not alone in taking a stand when it mattered – so did Silicon Valley, as the big tech platforms took unprecedented steps to support election integrity and reduce voter suppression. Twitter updated its civic integrity policy to ‘label or remove false or misleading information intended to undermine public confidence in an election or other civic process’, banned paid political ads, and launched automated ‘pre-bunks‘ on misinformation. Facebook blocked QAnon groups and, following the election, announced an indefinite freeze on political advertising, expanding its earlier decision to stop running ads about social issues, elections, or politics one week before an election.

Of course, these measures to protect the online public square only go so far. While Silicon Valley has been far more proactive now than in the 2016 US election, Big Tech has not made fundamental changes to the underlying drivers of electoral disinformation – the opaque algorithms and targeted advertising business models that amplify polarization and enable the spread of disinformation at scale.

And while the intervention by the American business community sent a powerful message about the importance of upholding electoral integrity, in newer democracies elections are being conducted in significantly more difficult circumstances, including attacks on protestors and the arrest of journalists. Such repressive measures highlight a disturbing trend globally – the rate at which civil society space is closing.

Civil society space – the set of conditions that allows citizens and civil society organizations to organize, participate and communicate without hindrance – has deteriorated in almost every country during COVID-19 and, although civil society organizations have been working hard to highlight and tackle the issue, this should not be left to them alone.

Measures by governments to impinge on civic space include the arrest and detention of activists, curbs on the rights of NGOs to advocate for specific issues, and the imposition of limits on the funding of civil society organizations. An annual study just published has found 87 per cent of the global population live in nations deemed ‘closed’, ‘repressed’, or ‘obstructed’ – a rise of four per cent from 2019.

Business should recognize its own stake in the shared space of the rule of law, accountable governance, and civic freedoms. Over the past few years, the corporate world has been increasingly, if intermittently – and for the most part inadequately – engaged on civil society space issues, with major multinationals registering at best a mixed, even patchy record on human rights issues more broadly.

But a healthy civic space, in which freedom of expression, association, and assembly are protected is essential to a stable and secure business environment. Business has a responsibility – in its own interest and that of society – to support the pillars of profitable and sustainable operating environments.

Insights from recent discussions held at Chatham House show some companies are becoming more aware of the increasing assaults on civic space, and the need for them to take more active stands, either alone or in alliance with other companies or NGOs, publicly or behind the scenes.

Businesses are also increasingly aware of expectations and demands that they become advocates - however reluctantly - as they navigate local and global pressures both from home and host country governments, local communities, their own employees, investors, and shareholders.

It is hoped the bold and unprecedented action of corporate America in the US election inspires similar action by business in relation to civil society space issues in 2021. But that willingness will increasingly be tested in the coming year as civil society space all over the world continues to come under pressure.