On Corporate Activism and American Polarization

In First Things today, I write about recent corporate activism and what it reveals about our deep cultural polarization. More and more, employees and customers expect that firms will take stands on contested political issues. This wasn’t supposed to happen. According to liberal theory, the market is supposed to diminish conflicts over religion and big questions. What’s going on?

All this is happening because, contrary to the doux commerce thesis, people do not easily check their values at the door when they enter the marketplace. And in a society as evenly divided and politically saturated as ours, it’s only natural that many people will want the firms for which they work or with which they do business to reflect their side in public debates. “Employees today…want to know what you stand for,” one CEO recently told the Wall Street Journal. That goes for customers, too. In fact, firms may no longer have the option of staying silent on public controversies, since customers increasingly expect corporations to have political and social commitments. “[I]n these fraught times,” a corporate lawyer recently explained at Harvard Law School’s Forum on Corporate Governance, customers often construe silence on a political controversy as itself “a statement.” 

Liberalism depends for its success on habits of mind that liberalism itself cannot create. The doux commerce thesis works fine where people mostly agree on public controversies, or where people believe they can safely remain indifferent to them. In a society like ours, though, where views are polarized and politics is everywhere, it is naïve to think the market will be an exception, or that commerce will somehow cause people to forget about their deep disagreements. Until America reaches a new social equilibrium, our market is likely to be as contentious as everything else.

You can read the essay here.