After this heated presidential election, many U.S. business leaders are asking themselves if they can play a significant role in helping to maintain a healthy, functioning democracy, both in the days ahead particularly in the case of a contested election result, and in future elections. The answer, according to most Americans, is yes.
Since 2015, JUST Capital has surveyed more than 110,000 Americans on what they believe U.S. companies should prioritize most when it comes to just business behavior. It’s important to note that over the last several years, there’s been a significant increase in Americans’ expectations for business leaders also to be societal leaders. In other words, people are looking to business leaders to take a stand on major social issues, including investing in the broader health of our democracy.
More than 83% of Americans agree that the health of the U.S. economy depends on the strength of its democracy
In a recent survey, fielded in collaboration with The Harris Poll, more than 83% of Americans agree that the health of the U.S. economy depends on the strength of its democracy. Remarkably, political ideology does not play a significant role here; 83% of conservatives and 85% of liberals agreeing that business and democracy are inextricably linked.
Recent academic scholarship agrees. R. Edward Freeman from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business wrote in 2019 that U.S. companies have both the capacity and the responsibility to help maintain democratic principles. Rebecca Henderson, a professor at Harvard Business School, contends that the free market can truly thrive only with strong government and a strong democracy.
But amid heightened concerns of misinformation and uncounted ballots, we’ve seen business leaders and their representatives begin to speak out more emphatically, and in more contexts, to support and protect democracy. In the 2020 election, for example, a coalition of business associations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and others released a statement committing to a fair electoral process. Hundreds of businesses through Civic Alliance and Leadership Now also spoke up for state and local officials, and called on voters to trust in the process.
So as business leaders think about how to act in the coming days and weeks, we encourage them to stay engaged. Even as the U.S. continues to contend with COVID-19 and the national reckoning with racial inequality, it’s clear that a more resilient economy will depend on fair elections. To guarantee that outcome, business leaders should plan to step up in ways they may never have before.
Recent polling from JUST Capital and The Harris Poll provide clear insights into what Americans expect of corporate leaders during these challenging times:
1. Protect the voting process Businesses should give employees time off so that they can vote. If you didn’t this year, enact it for 2021. Seven in 10 Americans believe that companies should ensure their workers can vote by giving them that time off. Through an effort organized by PayPal, Levi Strauss & Co, and Patagonia, more than 1,400 businesses including leading retailers Walmart, Best Buy, and Target have committed to giving employees time off to vote. Companies can also further support their employees by providing practical information about voting, as both ballots and the process for submitting them have become increasingly complex and vary state-by-state.
2. Speak out against voter intimidation: A strong majority agrees that corporate leaders also have a responsibility to engage publicly during a potentially contested election period by speaking out against voter intimidation at polling sites (63%), for a peaceful post-election period even if there’s no clear winner on Election Day (62%), for a full and proper counting of ballots in the event of a contested election (62%), and for civil political discourse during the election period (57%).
During a time when multiple polls have found that Americans’ trust in business is significantly higher than their trust in government, it is critically important that business leaders feel comfortable speaking up for a full and proper counting of ballots over an extended period of time beyond Election Day, as well as against voter intimidation and to promote civil discourse.
3. Strengthen the system over the long term: In order to develop more trust and long-term resilience in the democratic process, we must ensure that everyone has a voice in that process. Business leaders are well-respected employers in communities across the country, and their workers are often those who have seen voting made more difficult. They have a role to play in working with local governments to advocate for changing laws that, for example, restrict voting access for Black Americans, or have allowed gerrymandering to dictate redistricting.
As we move forward, the relationship between business and government should evolve with Americans’ changing expectations. According to the public, 65% say companies should limit lobbying efforts that favor shareholder returns over the welfare of other stakeholders. We interpret this to mean that the general transactional nature of lobbying must evolve to more meaningfully engage on community and worker issues. That means working with local and federal governments to address issues such as inequality, disparate health outcomes and education.
Americans also are turning a critical eye to how the media can influence information and election outcomes. Almost two-thirds of Americans want companies to take an active stand against the spread of disinformation by identifying and debunking falsehoods and propaganda, while 62% want companies to safeguard the integrity of elections against foreign interference and/or cyberattacks. In addition, seven in 10 Americans say companies should walk the talk by pausing or fully stopping advertising on social media platforms that do not actively combat misinformation about the election.
The bottom line is that the public believes the role of business leaders should extend past generating short-term profits and include taking a stand on issues that impact all Americans. Navigating through the pandemic and social unrest in 2020, we’ve seen critical evidence of leaders stepping up to the plate. This year’s election period may be a crucial test of the realities of that commitment.
Alison Omens is chief strategy officer and Jennifer Tonti is managing director, Survey Research & Insights at JUST Capital, a nonprofit research organization.