Corporations and the Democratic Process

In Issues and Debate on October 30, 2010 at 11:20 pm

In a recent paycheck, employees of McDonald’s franchisee Paul Siegfried of Canton, Ohio recieved a ‘handbill’ stating the owner’s support for three GOP candidates with the ‘suggestion’ that victories by any others would affect the raises and/or benefits in the future. With a legal investigation of voter intimidation underway, this is another situation of corporate involvement in the democratic process.

In the wake of the Citizen’s United Case out of the U.S. Supreme Court, corporate involvement in the body politic has come under greater scrutiny from the Obama Administration and the greater public as well. Earlier this year, Minnesota based Target Corp. and Best Buy Corp. came under fire for contributions made to MN Forward, a right-wing political organization supporting GOP candidates throughout Minnesota including gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. The response from GLBT groups and their supporters was a call to boycott Target Corp. and Best Buy to a lesser degree. The greater question then becomes; with greater freedom for corporations in the political sphere, what right does the voting public have in calling for boycotts and protesting the actions of corporations?

With reference to Target Corp. the story continued as CEO Gregg Steinhafel has reiterated Target’s support for GLBT communities and inclusiveness through charitable donations and domestic partner benefit programs. This is indeed true, though Steinhafel needs to recognize that though economic issues may be the sole raison d’être for corporate political involvement, the voting base on both sides of the aisle have a much wider political spectrum to consider. With respect to both Target and Best Buy Corp., this very nature is one of many reasons why so many of us prefer corporations to remain out of the political realm.

Expounding upon the true nature of corporate political involvement, Target Corp.’s own website does an excellent job of summing up a corporation’s ‘business interests’ when it comes to campaign contributions. The website states clearly:
 Political Contributions: Target contributes to political candidates, caucuses and causes in a non-partisan manner based strictly on issues that directly affect our retail and business interests. We do this through corporate contributions where legally permissible as well as through the Target Citizens PAC, which is funded through the voluntary efforts of our team members. Because our activities are non-partisan, the percentage of overall giving to various political parties changes from election to election as a reflection of the political makeup of Congress and the legislatures in states where corporate contributions are legally permissible.

The use of corporate funds for political expenditures is managed as follows:

•Legal Compliance: All political contributions are made in compliance with all applicable laws and corresponding reporting requirements. To ensure compliance, all corporate contributions are reviewed and approved in advance by Target’s vice president, Governmental Affairs, with input from legal counsel where appropriate.
•Contribution Criteria: Before any contribution is made, we determine that the contribution is consistent with our business interests and, under the circumstances, is an appropriate means of advancing our public policy position. This determination is made either by our vice president and Government Affairs, executive vice president and general counsel or our chairman and chief executive officer.
•Board and Management Oversight: Corporate political contributions and related activities are reviewed regularly with our senior management, and reported on an annual basis to the Corporate Responsibility Committee of the Target Board of Directors.

As the website states, contributions to PACs, candidates, causes, etc. are made in a ‘non-partisan’ manner in pursuit of the company’s business interests. Though this statement sounds benign enough, the mistake is made in that there is no such thing as ‘non-partisan’ in modern American politics. Target Corp. has seemingly fallen into the left-hand not knowing what the right-hand is doing trap. It is ultimately disingenous to suggest that while, yes Target Corp. does support GLBT causes as well as numerous education funds via everyday donations, it also supports candidates that oppose those same causes in several cases. Target Corp.’s non-profit contributions become almost meaningless when one considers that the candidates Target supports are fighting to prevent the outcomes that Target Corp.’s charitable giving is meant to produce.

Target Corp.’s ultimate goal of supporting only its ‘business interests’ is also foolhardy when considered against the greater reality that social freedom is simply good for business. Target Corp. like many businesses seems to believe that economic forecasts, P/L analysis, and profit projections and metrics is the only indication of where the bottom line is and how it ought to move forward. The truth is, social inclusion, tolerance, and the simple expansion of civil rights is one of the best ways to spur economic growth. A cohort population living in fear or feeling unable to advance in their daily economic lives stifles consumer spending as well as productivity. By wading into the political waters with the average voter, Target Corp. and every other large organization must make social issues apart of its analysis when making political contributions or simply stay out of the water altogether.  

Alas, the answer lies in the economic system itself, as voters are also consumers. At the ballot box we decide with our votes, but at the checkout counter we decide with our dollars. Just as we can respectfully disagree with our fellow citizen’s at the ballot box, so to can we disagree at the local department store. The right to vote is fundamental and synonomously, so to is the right to spend our personal income any way we wish. If the courts and the political branches of government cannot hold corporations accountable or lock them out of the political arena, then we as consumers and voters must do our part.


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