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The Left Can’t Rely on Boycotts Alone

Progressives are wielding their wallets to fight Trump. But there are limits and dangers to harnessing consumer activism for political change.

Bryan Thomas / Getty Images

Elected as the businessman president, President Donald Trump is now facing an historically unprecedented revolt from the nation’s business elite. In the wake of a bizarre press conference where he blamed “both sides” for the deadly violence in Charlottesville, CEOs from major corporations like IBM, General Motors, and Pepsi were weighing their membership in one White House advisory board, while CEOs from Campbell Soup, 3M, and other companies on a second advisory board did the same. Over conference calls, a consensus emerged that they needed to dissolve these boards and rebuke the president. Trump responded with a preemptive strike, tweeting on Wednesday that “Rather than putting pressure on the businesspeople of the Manufacturing Council & Strategy [sic] & Policy Forum, I am ending both. Thank you!” This was the equivalent of saying you can’t quit, because you’re fired.

Trump’s bluster was an attempt to bully his way through a political disaster. The nation’s top corporate leaders, traditionally a cautious and middle-of-the-road group given to placating powerful political leaders in the hopes of gaining influence over economic policy, had mutinied. This was all the more remarkable given the fact that they had much to love about the Republican president’s agenda of tax cuts and deregulation.

In the fallout of this fiasco, the business leaders chastised Trump in strong terms. “There is no room for equivocation here,” Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan wrote. “The evil on display by these perpetrators of hate should be condemned and has no place in a country that draws strength from our diversity and humanity.” Virginia M. Rometty of IBM added, “In the past week, we have seen and heard of public events and statements that run counter to our values as a country and a company.” As Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a business professor at the Yale School of Management, told The New York Times, “In American history, we’ve never had business leaders decline national service when requested by the president.”

Some observers credited these CEOs with moral leadership. ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd tweeted, “Not a single member of Trump’s Evangelical Council has resigned. We have learned corporate America has a greater moral compass.” But surely the big difference between the Evangelical Advisory Council and the two business councils was not of morality but of constituency. The members of the evangelical panel answer to their parishioners, white evangelical Christians who are intensely loyal to Trump. The CEOs answer to a wider array of people: shareholders, workers, and consumers. The constituency of business looks more like the rest of America, where Trump is deeply unpopular.

The business elite didn’t turn on Trump simply out of personal feeling; they were not guided by a well-calibrated moral compass. Rather, they’ve been pressured for months by popular opinion, given focus and shape by activist groups like Color of Change, which targeted PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. “We let Pepsi know about 24 hours ago that we would be moving forward on them,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, said on Tuesday. “They are a public-facing company that talks openly about diversity. Their role on this business council is that of an enabler, and they are an enabler to Donald Trump.”

The fact that corporate America was willing to break so openly with Trump offers a heartening lesson to liberals: Economics offers a powerful ammunition for progressive causes, especially in a bleak political environment where the left—with the Democratic Party fully out of power—is otherwise disarmed. This applies not only to the battle against Trump. The group Sleeping Giants has led boycotts that have cut into the advertising base of Breitbart and which encouraged Fox News to kick Bill O’Reilly off the air. In a more diffuse way, social media users have been adept at putting names to the faces of white nationalists who marched at Charlottesville and getting them fired from their jobs.

But can economics help progressives regain the ground they’ve lost in politics? And are there hidden dangers in using consumer power to effect political change?

Progressives are as weak in electoral politics as they are strong in consumer politics. Republicans control all three branches of government, along with 34 governorships and 32 state legislatures; in 26 states, the GOP fully controls the government. This hegemony is rooted in the fact that the party’s base is made up of the very people more likely to vote (older, whiter, and wealthier citizens), but also abetted by voter suppression, gerrymandering, and a political system that often over-represents rural voters (notably through the Senate and the Electoral College).

All the factors that disadvantage the Democrats in the electoral realm help empower progressives in the economic arena. Skewing younger, more diverse, and more urban, progressives make up the very demographics that corporate America is looking for, both as consumers and as workers. This gives progressives a venue where their voice is more clearly heard than in electoral politics.

“Consumer brands are a leverage point for progressive politics because there’s no gerrymandering & marketers care more about young people,” Vox writer Matthew Yglesias recently tweeted. “Consumer marketing is almost the exact opposite of voting and a younger, more urbanized, and more female demographic carries more weight.”

But there are potential risks in leveraging economic tools toward political ends. Ultimately, progressives want to tame the outsized power of corporations. By relying on boycotts, progressives may be influencing corporate policy, but they’re not advancing their goal of restraining big business via democratically enacted regulations. There are other limits to boycotting. It runs the risk of prioritizing our identity as consumers, at the expense of our identities as workers and citizens. It can intensify individualism, rather than building the level of social solidarity that labor unions or political campaigns do. And in the age of social media, it can be ineffectual, sometimes demanding nothing more than adding our name to an online petition.

Harvard historian Lizabeth Cohen considered these dilemmas in her 2003 book A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. “American’s identities as citizens and consumers are often presented as opposites,” she wrote. “Citizens ... are assumed to embrace a larger public interest, as they must fulfill duties and obligations in the larger society to earn basic rights and privileges. Consumers, concerned with satisfying private material desires, are often denigrated for their personal indulgence.” The thrust of Cohen’s book, though, is that this simplistic dichotomy between citizens and consumers ignores the way the two identities interact. “Citizen consumers of the New Deal and World War II eras put the market power of the consumer to work politically ... to safeguard the rights of individual consumers and the larger ‘general good,’” she argued. “In this effort they often sought the government as ally.”

By contrast, in our neoliberal era, the goal becomes not to have corporations limited by the public interest, but government subservient to the rules of the market. “We oughta run government more like a business,” Bill Clinton declared in 1993. The contrast is stark. “As the market relationship became the template for the citizen’s connection to the government,” Cohen wrote, “the watchdog, public-spirited consumers of the 1930s and 1940s increasingly were replaced by the self-interested government customers of the 1990s, who were encouraged to bring a consumer mentality to their relations with government, judging public services and tax assessments much like other purchased goods, by the personal benefits they derived from them.” Consider the shift in anti-trust activism. In the 1930s, monopolies were challenged broadly as a threat to democracy. By the 1990s, anti-trust arguments were framed simply in terms of making goods and services cheaper to consumers. The language of economic democracy had been lost.

The older tradition of the citizen consumer offers an attractive model for progressives. The economic boycotts of the New Deal era were part of larger collective projects, often spearheaded by unions. Such efforts included rent strikes against slumlords or the boycotting of union-busting companies. Of course, organized labor is much weaker today. On the other hand, social movements on the left are on the rise, with groups like Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Socialists of America emerging as powerful forces for change. Boycotts must move beyond their narrow focus on punishing miscreants (be they neo-Nazis, O’Reilly, or Trump) toward more ambitious civic goals. The DSA could organize boycotts of exploitive landlords, to help bring the issue of housing costs to the fore. BLM has been increasingly going down this path, with calls to use boycotts as a way of punishing jurisdictions that allow police brutality to flourish. Feminists groups could boycott tech companies to pressure them into improving their dismal gender inequality. If progressives are going to use boycotts, they need to be tied to broader agendas. If that can be done, the older ideal of the citizen consumer can be recovered.

Consumer activism is a powerful weapon in the hands of a resistance movement, and has already helped blunt Trumpism. But for a lasting legacy, these consumer boycotts need to be form networks that not only resist the president, but advance positive change. The next step for consumer progressivism is to come up with an agenda for controlling corporate power once Democrats take back power. In the absence of such an agenda—one that reins in monopolies and corporate money in politics—today’s current activism will lead to a paradoxical situation where progressives have weakened Trump but empowered big business.