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The Corporations Funding the End of Democracy

The GOP’s efforts to undermine our elections did not begin this week, and they were heavily subsidized by some of America’s best-known firms.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

What are we going to do about what’s happening in Congress today? If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us will do nothing. There are, granted, different varieties of nothing. And one of the privileges of being a political writer is that the varieties of nothing available for you to try are manifold.

A perennial favorite is the essay or column urging the Republican Party to come to reason. Trump may be on his way out, but this genre will be with us probably forever—animated, as it is, by a seemingly boundless reserve of dishonesty. The Republican Party is wholly beyond redemption, and writers know it even if they aren’t willing to admit it to their readers or themselves. One can’t argue otherwise without employing distortions of reality that, while not as egregious as Trump’s, certainly mirror them.

Then there are the broadsides against the political press. “This isn’t normal.” And it isn’t! “The papers and networks should stop equivocating.” They should! On Monday, for instance, readers of The New York Times were informed that “Mr. Trump’s fidelity to the concept of American democracy has long been debated.” It is worth asking, though, what actual effect we think reworking or removing sentences like this would have. Does our political future really rest with persuading the 17 people in this country who closely read The New York Times but also haven’t developed an opinion on Trump’s respect for democracy?

This is where we are at the beginning of a new year and on the cusp of a new administration: There is, everywhere, a conviction that our leaders and institutions have failed us catastrophically. Also widespread is a refusal to take the implications of that failure seriously. One implication is this: Our problems probably won’t be solved by the people who caused them or allowed them to take root. Another is that most of our hopes probably lie in public action.

Take, for instance, the problem of Republican power. If Democrats win both races in Georgiaand things look good at the momentthere is a chance, slim but real, that Congress might diminish it by passing a series of structural reforms. If they lose even one of the Georgia races, the GOP’s advantages within our political institutions will remain unchallenged for the foreseeable future. But either way, structural reforms should be understood as only part of the solution. And in fact, passing and sustaining those reforms will probably require diminishing the GOP’s power enough that the necessary elections can be won in the first place. One way to do this might be to increase pressure on the people and firms who finance the party.

The discourse surrounding money in politics can at times obscure as much or more than it reveals—the nearly exclusive focus on campaign finance and direct lobbying oversimplifies the myriad and diffuse ways that the wealthy influence and manage our politics, and it is an inescapable fact that the right wins in large part because millions of geographically well-distributed Americans simply support right-wing rhetoric and policy. That said, turning those preferences into actual political power does take money. And the Republican Party gets its money not only from the individual villains who’ve soaked up the most progressive outrage and attention—the Kochs, the Mercers, Sheldon Adelson, and all the rest—but from a number of companies familiar to the American public.

As David Daley noted in his November feature for this magazine on Republican minority rule, those companies have made direct financial contributions to the party’s assault on the democratic process. In 2010, the Republican State Leadership Committee, or RSLC, was able to fund its Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, with $30 million in donations taken in part from corporations like Wal-Mart, AT&T, and Pfizer. The victories the party won in statehouses around the country enabled not only post-census racial gerrymandering but also the passage of voter ID laws and other suppression measures that targeted African Americans with “surgical precision” in North Carolina and other states—all advanced by Republican state legislators propagating myths about voter fraud. All we’ve been put through since November and all we’ve witnessed in Congress this week have been the fruits of that project. A decision was made 10 or 11 years ago that the future of the Republican Party would rest upon delegitimizing or undermining the votes of its opponents. A plan was made; corporations financed it.

According to its tax filings, the RSLC took in nearly $45 million dollars from January through November last year. The impact of what it accomplished over the last decade has been well-reported; no wealthy person engaged in political giving can plead ignorance. Of course, donations to any apparatuses of the Republican Party, given its platform and all else it’s proven willing to do and countenance in the Trump era, are indefensible on the whole. But there’s something especially debased about continuing to fund its state legislative campaigns—and companies that were willing to do so in 2020, another census year, should be marked for the record.

The following is a non-exhaustive list of them, as documented on the committee’s publicly available IRS Form 8872s: 1-800 Contacts, 3M, Amazon, Anheuser-Busch, Autozone, Bank of America, Best Buy, Boeing, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Capital One, Charter Communications, Chevron, Citigroup, Coca-Cola, Comcast, ConocoPhillips, Deloitte, Dominion Energy, DraftKings, Ebay, Eli Lilly, ExxonMobil, Facebook, Farmer’s Group, FedEx, Freedom Financial, General Motors, GlaxoSmithKline, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Home Depot, Honeywell, iHeartMedia, Intuit, JPMorgan Chase, Juul, Kwik Trip, LegalZoom, LexisNexis, MasterCard, Microsoft, MillerCoors, Motorola, Mylan, Nationwide, Novo Nordisk, PayPal, PepsiCo, Pfizer, Raytheon, Reynolds American, Sheetz, SmileDirectClub, Square, Target, TIAA, T-Mobile, Tracfone, TruGreen, UnitedHealth, UPS, Visa, Volkswagen, Waffle House, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Waste Management, Waymo, Wells Fargo, and Yum Brands.

Notably, executives at a few of these companies—Deloitte, MasterCard, Microsoft, and Pfizer—were among the signatories of a letter from the Partnership for New York City on Monday decrying Republican challenges to Biden’s victory. “Attempts to thwart or delay this process,” it read, “run counter to the essential tenets of our democracy.” Well, from here on out, companies that profess a respect for the essential tenets of our democracy should have to answer for donations to the Republican Party and its associated groups and institutions. So, too, should companies that mashed out pro forma statements in support of Black Lives Matter last year. Coca-Cola, for example, whose CEO declared it would be putting its “resources and energy toward helping end the cycle of systemic racism” in June should probably stop putting its resources toward the reelection of Republican state legislators—including in states like Georgia where it is based and where the Republican Party has been particularly dogged in its efforts to disenfranchise African Americans. If they don’t, people who’d like those efforts to end should probably stop giving Coca-Cola their money or labor.

The failures of conservative boycotts shouldn’t put activists off—unlike the right, left-leaning Americans comprise the majority of the country’s consumers and, more critically, the majority of its workforce. Attempts to take advantage of this—like Sleeping Giants’ campaigns against conservative media advertisers, the work of reporters like Judd Legum of Popular Information, and November’s Big Law boycotts against the firms behind Trump’s election lawsuits—have been too few and far between given a respectable record of successes. A significant and instructive one came in 2012—when activists and reporters highlighted the role of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council in pushing voter ID and stand your ground laws across the country, a slew of funders including Amazon, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Wal-Mart began pulling out.

They did because the ask was a fairly easy one: Keep a bit more of your money to yourselves and avoid controversy. Inevitably, some companies respond to pushes like this by noting that they give money to both Democrats and Republicans. This is irrelevant. Financial support for a campaign to resegregate the right to vote in this country cannot be “balanced out.” And if they reply with pledges to end political giving to both parties altogether, so much the better.

Obviously, none of this is a grand solution to anything. The RSLC and other groups could make up losses from companies that pull out with other donations from individuals and companies unafraid of sullying their reputations with Democrats. Some companies that are might make more of their donations anonymously. And, of course, campaigns like this don’t directly put a dent into the power that corporations and the wealthy hold in the economy and would continue to hold even if the Republican Party collapsed tomorrow. But insofar as the Republican Party is a primary obstacle to policies that would begin wresting their power away, any small thing that might weaken it is well worth a try. And this certainly beats nothing.