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Editorial: The All-Star Game moves, and businesses confront the perils of politics

The Editorial Board, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

The new Georgia voting law, signed by Gov. Brian Kemp last month, has divided Georgians and other Americans along partisan lines, with Republicans hailing it as a victory for “election integrity” and Democrats condemning it as “voter suppression.” But the fight has expanded beyond the usual political actors. Major corporations that declined to get involved in the legislative battle now find that staying out of the fray may not be an option.

Major League Baseball came under heavy pressure from Black executives, Black players and civil rights organizations to register its opposition by moving this year’s All-Star Game from Atlanta, and on Friday, Commissioner Rob Manfred decided to do exactly that.

“Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box,” he said.

But that’s hardly the end of the story. Opponents of the voting law have criticized Atlanta-based corporations for failing to take a firm stand against it, leading to threats of boycotts. Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola responded by aligning themselves with the critics.

“The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections,” said Delta chief executive Ed Bastian, who vowed to push to expand voting rights. Coca-Cola’s James Quincey issued a statement criticizing the new law and promising to “work toward ensuring broad access to voting is available to every eligible voter in our home state.”

Their statements should satisfy groups that had raised the prospect of boycotts. But by coming out against the law, these companies can expect a backlash from the law’s supporters. Several Republican Georgia legislators demanded that Coke products be removed from their offices. Former President Donald Trump called for conservatives to boycott Major League Baseball, Delta and Coca-Cola.

 

This is not the only topic on which big business finds itself caught in a crossfire. Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and Nike are just some of the major companies that have been embroiled in various controversies. Everything corporations do, from where they source products to how they manage employees to what political positions they take (or fail to take) can make them targets.

Consumers are increasingly inclined to factor such matters into their buying decisions. A survey last year found that 38% of Americans were boycotting one company or another. And any decision a CEO makes may exact a cost. In that poll, 19% of boycotting consumers said they were spurning companies that supported Black Lives Matter — and 18% were shunning those that didn’t support it.

A lot of CEOs may wish they only had to worry about providing goods and services that consumers want at competitive prices. But in our polarized political environment, where social media can quickly elevate issues to national awareness, that’s a vain hope. Executives can only inform themselves, make choices that fit their values and business interests and prepare for whatever consequences ensue.

It won’t be easy for companies to figure out how to negotiate this treacherous terrain. But they’re likely to get a lot of chances to learn.

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