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Opinion

Can Business Lead the U.S. Back Towards Facts?

One of the more noteworthy developments of this tumultuous week in American politics has been the spectacle of business organizations and business leaders stepping up and speaking out. They made strident statements, urging Congress to certify Joe Biden’s presidential victory and condemning the violent invasion of the Capitol. They are doing that because they are forced to live in a world of truth.

A toxin is poisoning the waters of American society and discourse–the contempt for truth and a disregard of facts. It has enabled a disastrous schism in the body politic, led conspiracy theories to run rampant, and made American politics more deeply paralyzed than ever in memory.

Shortly after the November election, a Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 70% of Republicans did not believe the election was conducted fairly. Of those, 78% believed mail-in voting had led to widespread fraud. And even after numerous courts determined none of that was true, more than half of Republicans still believed either that Trump won or weren’t sure who did, according to a major university survey. It’s all the more illogical given that House Republicans did better than Democrats nationwide in these same supposedly-tainted elections.

The extreme and irrational conspiracy theories of QAnon have gained surprising hold on a growing percent of the population. One recent survey found that a full third of Americans think it’s possible government and media elites are engaged in large-scale child trafficking. And an NPR/Ipsos poll found that 40% of people believe the coronavirus was made in a lab in China.

Those of us who still read and trust institutions like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Financial Times often feel scared and stymied by such inanity. Are we in a funhouse mirror world? Is our country fated to remain fractured? Will disastrous events like this week’s invasion of Congress continue, and possibly pose even deeper threats to our common life? Who or what could steer us back to some shared notion of truth, and the respect for different views that seems so necessary for civil discourse and politics? Many believe incipient President Joe Biden can make a difference, and I certainly hope he will.

But an important bulwark to keep American society from sliding into total and permanent dysfunction will also come from companies and business leaders. It makes me less worried that our country is permanently spinning out of control.

Conspiracy theories undermine the landscape in which business operates. It is, by definition, grounded in the world of facts. There is, truly, a bottom line. Otherwise, CEOs cannot properly run companies. It’s only possible to make progress as a business if you know what is going on. Understanding that helps explain why business leaders now recognize they must speak out to try to remedy the unhinged and haywire direction in American public debate, and the ascendancy of fact-free opinion and irrational action. Otherwise, they realize, they may not be able to continue operating and making money.

Consider a few recent developments:

-On Monday, close to 200 major business leaders sent a letter to members of Congress, urging them to recognize Joe Biden’s victory. Signatories included leaders from AmEx, BlackRock, Blackstone, Ernst & Young, Deloitte, Goldman Sachs, JetBlue, Lyft, Mastercard, MetLife, Microsoft, Moody’s, the NBA, Pfizer, Price Waterhouse Cooper, and Warby Parker.

-Major business organizations issued statements that same day calling on Congress to “respect the rule of law” and certify the election. They included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable.

– Cleta Mitchell, a senior conservative lawyer who appeared with Trump on a phone call to possibly illegally pressure Georgia’s secretary of state, was forced out of her big law firm, Foley & Lardner. It worried corporate clients might otherwise pull business, fearing harm to their reputations.

-On Wednesday, the influential newsletter Popular Information detailed extensive corporate contributions from many companies to Republican legislators who supported the effort not to accept legitimate state-designated electors. It noted that AT&T gave the most, over $2 million in total to 130 election-challenging congresspeople and senators.

-After the mob broke into the Capitol, the Business Roundtable issued another statement saying “The chaos unfolding in the nation’s capital is the result of unlawful efforts to overturn the legitimate results of a democratic election.”

-Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that a group of CEOs and other corporate leaders held an hour-long meeting to discuss ways to calm “political turbulence.” Notably, they discussed withholding political contributions from legislators who supported efforts to disenfranchise states and their electoral votes (responding, I hope, to Popular Information).

-The National Association of Manufacturers issued a statement that said Vice President Pence should “seriously consider working with the cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment”–in other words, remove the President.

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It’s a start. It’s clearly not enough. AT&T has serious rethinking to do about its political contributions. (Other large givers to what some call the “sedition caucus” include Comcast, UPS, Ernst & Young, United Health Group, and Delta.) And obviously a deeper offender like Facebook, which has methodically contributed to an undermining of truth-based discourse, must be reined in both by regulation and further public shame. (The anti-Trump Lincoln Project said it would undertake a “brutal corporate pressure campaign” against businesses and other groups that “serve as financiers of the authoritarian movement that attacked the U.S. Capitol.”)

But corporate efforts in defense of truth and fact will continue and accelerate. More and more leaders of big companies recognize that it’s awful for business, and for profits, if the country spins out of control. Small businesses face a more complex landscape–even Ashli Babbitt, the QAnon-believing rioter who died, ran a swimming pool supply business–but the more society becomes divided over truth, the more likely the entire economy begins to suffer.

Business has often been seen by so-called progressives as the enemy, and “corporations” dismissed as intrinsically evil. But in the end, it’s worth remembering that the bottom line is inevitably dependent on truth. If business is to thrive, it cannot allow false narratives to become dominant. That effort helps stabilize society.

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