In the era of President Trump, political speech by businesses and business leaders is now under more scrutiny and more controversial. Many businesses and their executives have come under fire for donations to political campaigns, often through industry interest groups, and the criticism has led to frustration among corporate leaders. Companies were condemned from the left when their chief executives took part in Trump’s now-defunct business advisory council, even though they were preaching positions of moderation and stressing business over politics. The recent shooting in Parkland, Florida has brought businesses back into the political limelight for doing exactly what they are set up to do: sell their products. While consumers should reward businesses that have strong corporate social responsibility programs, we should not allow their political ideologies or positions to dominate our consumption choices.
Most business leaders are not accustomed to their businesses themselves being treated as political statements. The tobacco, alcohol, and fast food industries have long been criticized for promoting unhealthy life choices. Consumers sometimes condemn energy and mining corporations for doing business in unstable parts of the world. However, in today’s hyper-partisan, social media-driven political environment, formerly uncontroversial businesses have been thrust into the political dialogue.
In response to the Parkland school shooting, retailers Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods announced new restrictions on the sale of firearms. Additionally, airlines, rental car companies, and hotel chains have severed their ties with the National Rifle Association. In the wake of such an incident, Companies are under pressure not just in the sense of becoming controversial, but also in more practical ways. Delta Airlines, although it cut ties with the NRA, lost a tax break from the state of Georgia. Various other businesses seemingly unrelated to firearms are also getting pressure from activists to sever their relationships with the NRA.
We should not allow politics to dictate our consumer choices. We rely on the free market to offer us high-quality goods and services at competitive prices, and introducing politics into consumption distorts this mandate. It means that business leaders focus less on producing and marketing a high-quality, relatively inexpensive product, and more on public relations, after a national political incident.
This is not to say that businesses shouldn’t react to a changing consumer base. In fact, they should strive to reflect the values of their customers, and customers can rightfully consider corporate social policies in their consumption choices.
The line is crossed when consumers demand ideological purity. No business will be able to perfectly mirror every consumer’s political preferences simultaneously. In attempting to pander to ideologies or political positions, companies risk alienating large segments of their consumers. This not only detrimental to the business itself, but tends to exacerbate political polarization.
Business decisions have also added to the disgruntlement among so many in Middle America , which political pundits so often talk about. We shouldn’t blame them. By bending to political pressure, businesses have expanded the sphere of politics from lobbyists on K Street to our grocery stores and hotel rooms. The intrusion of politics into more of the consumer choices we make, and perhaps eventually into every such choice, fuels more political resentment and encourages more chat about it among pundits.
Our failure as a society to separate business and politics adequately will only lead to worse products, increased polarization, and even more political resentment.