2024’s Elections: A Defining Test for Business Leadership

Photo by Alfonso Sangiao on iStock

February 21, 2024
  • Aron Cramer portrait

    Aron Cramer

    President and CEO, BSR

As more than half of the world’s voting-age population heads to the polls in 2024—more than in any previous year in human history—there is a wave of anxiety cutting across business, civil society, governments, and in many places, the very citizens whose voices are to be heard at the ballot box. 

It is, indeed, an epochal moment. Most of us take democracy, and the rule of law, as a stable constant in our public life. But it’s not something we can take for granted. The rise of anti-democratic parties around the world has set off alarms. It is far from clear, however, that business has faced up to the urgency of the moment. Although, according to a recent report in Fortune, business leaders increasingly recognize that political disruptions do pose a significant risk

Business cannot thrive in an environment where trust in democratic institutions is undermined, where objective facts are under attack, where social consensus is unattainable, and where populism stokes resentment and interferes with global collaboration.  

All of those things are in play in 2024’s elections, from India to Mexico to the United States, to the European Union, and dozens more jurisdictions.

This would, at other points in history, be considered a political question that is not front and center for business. For multiple reasons, that mode of thinking is a luxury that businesses cannot afford. 

To start, while elections ensure that the people have their say in governance, there are many reasons why this year’s spate of elections may not have that effect. First and foremost is mis/disinformation, including AI-powered deepfakes, which generate false information that distorts outcomes and destroys trust.  

Already this year, in the US and Pakistan, false information and deep-faked communications ostensibly from candidates and officeholders have distracted and confused voters. There is considerable evidence that both domestic and foreign actors are using the digital playing field to influence outcomes and erode trust in democratic processes.

There are also many barriers to free and fair elections having nothing to do with digital tools. Political parties and candidates in many countries have actively cast doubts on the legitimacy of elections, established legal and practice barriers to voting. And in the United States, the flood of money from opaque sources undermines both the reality and the perception of free and fair elections. 

In addition to questions about the legitimacy of election processes, some outcomes present risks for companies committed to just and sustainable business. Across the world, populist movements are causing a turn away from climate action, progress on equity and diversity, respect for disfavored populations, and global cooperation.

Concerted progress on climate and nature, for example, will be virtually impossible if the COP processes—as imperfect as they are—buckle under the weight of geopolitical conflict and nationalism. Scapegoating and xenophobia interfere with business commitments to diversify businesses from the boardroom to the factory floor and contribute to a vicious cycle in which human rights and rule of law are sacrificed in the name of national glory. And the momentum towards the harmonization of regulatory standards relevant to “ESG” is also under threat. 

The stakes, in my view, are clear. The question then is what can businesses—and business leaders—do? 

For many businesses, this presents uncomfortable questions, and a sense that while there is risk in inaction, there may be equal or greater risk in taking action.

We believe that the best approach is to establish a “playbook” that offers companies a range of options that they can fit to their circumstances and assets. All companies, for example, can encourage voting and help their employees strengthen their media literacy to avoid false or misleading information. All business leaders can speak with their peers in various forms and engage in quiet diplomacy with government officials to promote legitimate elections. Indeed, this was seen in the run-up and aftermath of the 2020 elections in the United States. 

Other steps may be appealing to some companies and not others:

  • Coalitions of companies committed to preserving and advancing workforce diversity and climate action—with a clear statement of business and economic benefits—can send a powerful message.

  • By reinforcing the economic value of cooperation to address global challenges, business can help to legitimize the economic case for a truly sustainable economy.

  • Demonstrating the human progress that individual companies—and macro financial and economic systems—can deliver through an enduring and purposeful commitment to sustainability further reinforces positive outcomes.

Not all companies will want to make these efforts, but this is essential in a world where a sense of economic precarity is fueling fear-based politics.

BSR is supporting its member companies in understanding the stakes, identifying leverage points, and supporting collaboration, including with like-minded stakeholders. Seldom has there been a time when the achievement of free and fair elections and sustainability goals have been so closely tied. 2024 is not only a stress test for rule of law and democracy; it is a test for business leadership as well. The opportunity for positive impact is great, and the price of inaction is too high to risk. 

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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