corporations should articulate core democratic principles

According to CNBC, “Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey said the company has always been against legislation in Georgia that restricts voter access, but is choosing to speak up publicly about it after the bill passed.” Coca-Cola has received public criticism for not opposing the law and may face a boycott. Quincey claims that his company worked privately against the law. “Now that it’s passed, we’re coming out more publicly,” he said.

I wouldn’t expect big companies to improve democratic institutions. It’s not clear that they benefit from more equitable democracy or more responsive government, nor is it appropriate for them to use their power to influence the rules of the game more than they do now.

However, the literature on what causes democracies to devolve into autocracies emphasizes the importance of “guardrails”: lines that political actors should know they must never cross. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt emphasize “constitutional forbearance” and “mutual toleration.”* Forbearance means refraining from using all the powers that the written text of the constitution affords you. Regimes rarely survive once politicians routinely ignore the spirit of the rules. Toleration means explicitly acknowledging that the other side has a legitimate place in politics, a right to its views, and a right to govern if it wins elections. Crossing such lines without repercussions can cause the whole system to fail.

Big business could play a role in preserving these guardrails. Businesses benefit from the stability, openness, and accountability provided by a functioning republic. Without meddling excessively in public institutions or ignoring their own interests, businesses could stand up for core principles that preserve the basic constitutional order.

But exactly what are those principles, and when are they violated?

In my view, Georgia broke through a guardrail when it passed its new election law. It should have to pay a price so that similar bills do not pass elsewhere. However, my claim is not self-evident. Legislatures constantly change voting laws for better or worse, and most of their choices are matters for debate and disagreement within the democratic process. The consequences may be serious–but we should expect that, because the consequences of governance are serious. Laws often cause people to live or die.

To show that a given law crosses a line that imperils democracy requires clearly articulated principles. Your own principles can be very demanding–if you like–because you are a free individual who is entitled to your opinions and even obliged to express them if you care about them. You could even argue that failure to implement universal automatic voter registration violates democratic principles.

In contrast, a company’s principles regarding democracy probably will not be very demanding. I might actually prefer that corporations stick to core values and not pretend to be advocates for a better political system.

Articulating core principles in advance would warn political actors not to cross certain lines. It would also make companies’ behavior seem less arbitrary. Quincey, the Coca-Cola CEO, said his “company has a long track record in Georgia … of working with legislators and lobbying for itself or with alliances and achieving what it wants while working in private.” He wants us to believe that Coca-Cola tried to make Georgia’s law better. But a lack of publicly articulated principles makes that claim impossible to assess–and rather dubious.

It’s easy to envision activists pushing Coca-Cola to take positions on subtler voting-law issues, while other customers would counter-mobilize against perceived voter fraud or reforms championed by Democrats. If the company does not articulate its principles in advance, it has no defense.

Writing such principles would not be easy. They could be too vague to distinguish norm-busting laws, or too concrete and precise to cover unanticipated policies, such as Georgia’s provision that bans serving water on voting lines. (Who would have foreseen that?) But I think that companies could help democracy if they articulated core principles, and they should do so in their own enlightened self-interest. After all, they depend on the survival of the republic.

*e.g., How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Cf. Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy by Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.