As they did recently over gun safety, immigration, climate change, social justice and the infamous bathroom bills, major business leaders have protested new voter-restriction efforts in state legislatures. I am proud to have had a role in helping trigger some of this activity. Critics have mocked such civic engagement with headlines like “Woke CEOs’ Foolhardy Bid To Shape Voting Laws” or “Woke and Weak CEOs.” This business awakening shouldn’t be ridiculed but celebrated as the rediscovery of a misunderstood pillar of America’s industrial greatness.
Economist Milton Friedman, in his 1970 essay on corporate social responsibility advised: “It may well be in the long‐run interest of a corporation that is a major employer in a small community to devote resources to providing amenities to that community or to improving its government. That may make it easier to attract desirable employees, it may reduce the wage bill or lessen losses from pilferage and sabotage or have other worthwhile effects.”
DuPont CEO and Business Roundtable chairman Irving Shapiro echoed the point in 1983 when he told me: “Most businessmen are sensible and rational people. They recognize that they’ve got to meet the needs of our society or they’re not going to be successful. Free enterprise is a slogan. It means different things to different people. . . . I would make the case that we must get rid of the adversary approach and simply say we have a common objective.”
Ensuring social cohesion in democracy is part of a CEO’s job of managing the strategic environment. No CEO wants finger-pointing employees dealing with hostile consumers and communities—even if “wedge” issues are appealing to Republican politicians with a divide-and-conquer plan for staying in office. …
I admonished the public passivity of Georgia’s business leaders. Before the new law’s enactment last month, they reassured me that working quietly backstage with Gov. Brian Kemp, they’d purged problematic voter restrictions and allowed for innocuous security provisions. Sadly, however, the actual law was drafted in the dark of night and raced through the Legislature the next morning. The secret 100-page bill was promptly signed into law.
Among the law’s antidemocratic features, it authorizes partisan legislators to dismiss the authority of elected county voting officials and override the elected secretary of state to decide, at will and after an election, whose ballots count. Global watchdogs would disqualify an election held under such rules. Lawmakers in 46 other states are considering bills to limit voting; research by Leadership Now and the Brennan Center indicates that some of them have even worse voter-access problems.
In 1962, Atlanta’s mayor dubbed it “the city too busy to hate.” Two years later, when Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize, Coke’s CEO warned Atlanta leaders to honor King on his return or risk the company’s relocation. This year, when the CEOs of Coke and Delta followed these footsteps, the state GOP threatened them for their free speech with boycotts and retaliatory tax punishment. Talk about cancel culture!
Amid such threats last week, I contacted 120 CEOs to meet last weekend for a rapid-response crisis caucus. Ninety of them called in—from finance to pharmaceuticals, transportation to technology, manufacturing to healthcare, retail to professional services. Despite favoring a range of solutions, their spirit was defiant against politicians trying to muzzle them. They rallied to support one another, especially those with the courage to have stood up first, as well as to fortify their roles in ensuring the harmonious society and functioning democracy that vibrant markets need. …