There’s nothing like a corporation doing something “wrong” to get people all riled up. In the US, one of the surest ways to rouse the masses is to accuse a corporation of giving money in support of or against an issue one cares very strongly about. Anger escalates into outrage that must be defended for its own sake, probably through boycotts.
Is that fair? Well, yes, actually, it is. Living in a democracy means people are free to make economic decisions based on their values, regardless of whether anyone else thinks that decision is sensible.
Corporations are not, despite the legal fiction now enshrined by the US Supreme Court, people. They exist for one purpose only: To maximise return to shareholders. They do that by maximising profits and minimising costs. There’s nothing inherently evil in that, even if some corporations act evilly in the pursuit of those goals. However, they’re ultimately accountable only to their shareholders.
If a corporation spends its money in support of or in opposition to the ideology or values of consumers, why shouldn’t they take their business elsewhere? This question entered the blogosphere because it was revealed that US “big box” discount retailer Target used the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited corporate spending on campaigns to give $150,000 to an organisation supporting Tom Emmer, a rightwing Republican candidate for Governor of Minnesota (where Target is based). Emmer wants, among other things, a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage—and civil unions, too.
Emmer, in turn, has given money to a rabidly anti-gay radio host and member of a Christian “punk rock” band who once spoke approvingly of Muslims executing gay people (among other viciously anti-gay things). Emmer said of the band, “These are nice people" which apparently makes their hate speech all okay. The band—which is actually a fundamentalist “Christian ministry”—has been at many Republican functions in the state, so the Minnesota Republican Party clearly approves of the band’s stridently anti-gay message, and so, obviously, does Tom Emmer (even after the call for executions had been made, Emmer stood by the band).
However, it appears that none of Target’s money went to the bigot, though support for a clearly anti-gay politician is bad enough. What the heck was Target thinking? It has a 100% rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s “Corporate Equality Index” (which, by the way, doesn’t even look at campaign contributions), it offers “domestic partner” benefits, sponsors Twin Cities Pride and the Out & Equal Workplace Summit, among other things. CEO Gregg Steinhafel said in a letter to staffers: “Target's support of the GLBT community is unwavering, and inclusiveness remains a core value of our company.”
What’s going on then? How can a pro-gay company support a clearly anti-gay politician who supports anti-gay hatred? “Target has a history of supporting organizations and candidates, on both sides of the aisle, who seek to advance policies aligned with our business objectives, such as job creation and economic growth,” Steinhafel told staff. In other words, corporate interests trump “unwavering” support for the GLBT community as well as “inclusiveness”.
Evil company! Boycott them, right? Well, not so fast.
Remember their sole obligation? To be blunt, being gay–supportive doesn’t maximise return to shareholders, backing conservative politicians who’ll back corporate interests, corporations believe, will. There’s nothing unique about a business looking to advance a political agenda to help it accomplish its mission, but it IS unusual for a company to have pro-gay policies. Think of competitor Wal-Mart, for example, which is NOT committed to either “support of the GLBT community” nor is inclusiveness a core value of the company (they’re also stridently anti-union, but that’s another topic).
It may seem schizophrenic for a company to support GLBT workers on the one hand while using the other to give money to support politicians who aim to make life worse for those same GLBT employees. Keeping the workforce happy while making things friendlier for advancement of the corporation are actually consistent. In both cases, the goal is to maximise return to shareholders, and the needs of the workers are secondary. That’s the way it is in corporate business.
So, what’s a consumer to do? People who care about GLBT equality generally, or marriage equality specifically, may want to refrain from shopping at Target, at least until this campaign is over. That is absolutely their right, and I support anyone who chooses that stance, even if they walk away permanently.
However, for other people the fact that Target supports its GLBT workers (at least within the context of the workplace and some limited ways outside of it) may be more important than the money given to elect an anti-gay politician. Such people might continue to shop at Target, and I support that right, too (although, personally, I think they should make a donation to Emmer’s opponent).
The bottom line, so to speak, is that until the law changes, corporations have the right to spend as much money as they want in any election campaign—and consumers have the right to “vote with their wallets” and shop elsewhere because of that campaign funding—or not.
If I lived in Minnesota, I suspect that I’d refrain from shopping at Target until the election was over AND give money to Emmer’s opponent. If I lived elsewhere in the US, I’d probably just do the first.
Target is a pretty gay-friendly company, after all, but I couldn’t in good conscience give them my money so they could help elect a candidate who was against my interests and only for theirs. If enough people did the same, they’d have to decide if promotion of corporate interests over their “unwavering support” and “core value” of diversity is worth it.
So: What would you do?
Related: We talk about this topic, and the issues around it, on the lates 2Political Podcast (2PP034 – 28 July 2010), beginning roughly 24 minutes into the episode. It was recorded before I wrote this post.