Business and the Renewal of American Democracy

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January 7, 2021
  • Aron Cramer portrait

    Aron Cramer

    President and CEO, BSR

The horrific storming of the U.S. Capitol building this week is yet another “shocked but not surprised” event during the dwindling days of Donald Trump’s presidency. Historians will have much to assess from this tragic period but there are numerous lessons for business leaders to consider today.

There can be no doubt that all American institutions—including business—must engage in very serious soul-searching about the factors that enabled the behaviors that reached their apotheosis in mob violence against the Peoples’ House, the U.S. Capitol.

Let me start by saying that we all know that there are very good reasons why businesses, and business leaders, do not weigh in on all, or even most, political questions. We know that most CEOs, whatever their political views, long for a time when they can focus primarily on their businesses, and leave political questions to elected officials.

But this is not such a time.

It is time for business leaders to stand for rule of law in the United States.

It is time for business leaders to call for democratic reforms – not an ersatz commission to explore non-existent election fraud. It is urgent that we restore the smooth functioning of government, such that voter suppression ends and one person, one vote is more than a slogan.

It is time for business leaders to renew their call for equitable law enforcement. As so many have noted, the racial disparities in policing were—again—tragically clear when only scattered arrests occurred after the Capitol was stormed. The contrast with the brutal manner in which protestors for racial justice were treated outside of the White House last summer could not be starker. 

It is time for business leaders to forcefully push back on the many forms of denialism – election denial, vaccine denial, COVID-19 denial, and yes, climate denial, all of which have poisoned American politics and result in death.   

And yes, it is time for business leaders to call out Donald Trump, by name, to ensure that he can do no further damage.  The National Association of Manufacturers—which no one would place on the left of the political spectrum—has called for consideration of removing Donald Trump from office under the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. More should follow.

It is also time to stop supporting those who enabled the slow and steady rot we have seen the past four years. This means ceasing contributions to those officeholders who challenged the clear and legitimate result of the 2020 Presidential election. (The bankruptcy of America’s campaign finance system was laid bare yesterday as fundraising solicitations on the basis of election challenges were issued even as the hordes were defiling the halls of the U.S. Congress.) This also means not doing business with media outlets that have allowed outright lies and falsehoods to pollute the political discourse in the U.S.

And it is also time for business to think hard about its role in enabling the hijacking of the U.S. government over the past four years. To the degree the business community stood by to take tax cuts they knew would not generate job growth, but would exacerbate income inequality, that is a big problem. To the degree campaign contributions kept flowing to candidates and elected officials who were knowingly misleading the American public, that is a big problem. To the degree that business leaders did not demand further action to address systemic racism, that is a big problem.

As Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in The New York Times the morning after the events at the U.S. Capitol, business is all about accountability—and we deserve more of it today than ever. When systems fail, a review is conducted to understand what went wrong and how to make fixes that are strong and lasting. That is what great business leaders do. Today, the story is an American one—but it applies to every global business we work with around the world as well.

The failings of the political system were on vivid, heart-wrenching display on January 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Change will not come if it is debated only in the halls of the U.S. Congress or on social media. Change must also be debated in every boardroom, so that business leaders rise to the occasion, not only to prevent further damage over the next 13 days, but also so that the necessary renewal of American democracy is a high priority for American business.

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