Bad politicians should be held accountable by the American people, not by corporations

For the People ACt Nancy Pelosi steps of Capitol
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi delivers remarks on H.R. 1, For the People Act, on the steps of Capitol Hill on March 3, 2021.

  • After the Capitol attack, many corporations pulled funding from politicians who supported Trump.
  • Some of the companies are already changing course, showing that it was likely a PR stunt.
  • Americans cannot rely on corporations to speak for them. Congress needs to pass the For the People Act to amplify Americans’ voices.
  • Eric Lutz writes for Vanity Fair and the Guardian, among other publications.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

After a MAGA mob stormed the United States Capitol in January in an effort to overturn the 2020 election results, the corporate world quickly worked to distance itself from Donald Trump and other Republicans who had helped instigate the riot.

Companies, from Goldman Sachs to Walmart, suspended political donations. The Chamber of Commerce, typically a cash cow for the GOP, promised to withhold money from lawmakers who promoted Trump’s “Big Lie.” And, in perhaps the most personal blow to the former president, the PGA pulled its 2022 championship from Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey golf club. “The US business community has interests fully in alignment with the American public,” one professor in Yale’s management school told USA Today amid the exodus, “and not with Trump’s autocratic bigoted wing of the GOP.”

That was, in retrospect, a rather optimistic take on what was transpiring. But one can be forgiven for taking heart in the corporate retreat: Lawmakers obviously wouldn’t expel Sen. Josh Hawley, one of the lawmakers who helped spearhead the objection to the election results. Trump’s second impeachment trial was sure to end with another acquittal. But perhaps, at the very least, there’d be some financial consequences. The private sector would speak, and it would say: Get lost.

But the corporate pullback was never going to last, because it was never really about accountability. In the immediate aftermath of the deadly siege, it was a bad look to be associated with the politicians who egged on the pro-Trump rioters. But for some of corporate America, the commitment lasted only as long as the country’s political memory, which is to say, not very.

Just a PR move?

As Popular Information reported earlier this week, several corporations that had distanced themselves from politicians whose actions didn’t align with their “company values” had quickly – and quietly – reversed course. Intel donated to the National Republican Campaign Committee. AT&T and Cigna each contributed funds to organizations run by GOP objectors to Joe Biden’s victory.

That’s just three of five dozen corporations that vowed to pull political donations, either entirely or from Republicans alone. But, Bloomberg News reported recently, more are likely to follow in the coming months. While some objectors, including Hawley, will likely remain on a “no-fly list,” Bloomberg reported that the retreat was “never meant to be a shutdown of the Wall Street money machine.” Not every firm has reneged on its promise, but for many, the change wasn’t meant to be permanent.

“There was a feeling that companies need to take a stand, and that was probably met with a concern about the brand,” Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, told Bloomberg. “If companies so quickly and easily backtrack on the PAC suspension, it will prove to be a PR move.”

If it does, the fact that it was such a seductive move is telling. American voices are so muted in the corridors of power that it is perhaps only natural to take heart in the notion that companies will speak for us. Corporations should be applauded for standing up for American values and following through, but that alone is not an effective mechanism of accountability, nor is it a reliable one. Bad politicians should be held accountable by the American people, and Americans should be empowered to do so.

Hope in a bill

There’s some hope for that in the For the People Act, which passed the House earlier this month. The bill, sponsored by Democrat John Sarbanes, would not only expand voting rights in America, safeguarding these rights against GOP suppression efforts that have recently found footing in Georgia, it would also significantly dilute the influence of big money in politics by strengthening the power of small donations. The bill ideally would make politicians more accountable to the people they represent as opposed to corporate and big dollar benefactors.

But without amending or abolishing the filibuster, the bill stands no chance of passing in the Senate. President Biden has recently thrown his support behind restoring the “talking filibuster,” which requires a senator to actually speak the whole time on the Senate floor and thus makes its use more difficult. Republicans, though, have suggested they’d be willing to do that to defeat the Democrats’ election bill. “There is no amount of time that I will not dedicate on the Senate floor to stopping the Democrats from passing this kind of radical legislation,” GOP Senator Tom Cotton told reporters recently.

Democrats must therefore be prepared to take even more aggressive action against the filibuster to pass the For the People Act and amplify Americans’ voices in the two venues they’re best heard: in the ballot box and in the campaign coffers. Accountability should not be dependent on the whims of big dollar donors or the demands of companies’ bottom lines.

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