Coca-Cola & Woke Activism: Why It's Backing Down


Coca-Cola Company CEO James Quincey speaks during an interview with CNBC on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange in New York City, December 9, 2019. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Some corporations are getting more left-wing, but others’ becoming more right-wing isn’t how to stop them.

Should corporate America become even more politicized? It may soon happen.

Over the past year, I’ve spoken with dozens of business leaders worried about the rise of liberal politics in the C-suite. A lot of them think it’s time to fight back — that right-leaning CEOs should mobilize their companies to push against their left-leaning peers. Forget competition on prices or quality. There’s a brewing rivalry on matters that shouldn’t concern business in the first place.

The roots of this trend are relatively recent. To be sure, companies and CEOs have dabbled in politics going back decades. Companies have long given donations to politicians and causes across the ideological spectrum. In the 1980s, a lot of businesses broadly backed the economic agenda of President Ronald Reagan. Businesses such as Ben and Jerry’s have a long association with liberal politics, while Mike Lindell of My Pillow fame is a well-known advocate of Donald Trump. But in the past year, corporate America seems to have become more brazenly politicized — and more openly one-sided — than ever.

Company after company now routinely weighs in on the most divisive issues, and the C-suite take seems uniformly liberal. See the mass opposition to Georgia’s recent election law, enormous criticism of Alabama’s regulation of abortion, and deep support for federal legislation that would limit religious liberty in the name of gender equality, among many other examples. Elite opinion overwhelmingly favors this transformation, and I’m sure newly political CEOs love being told they’re “on the right side of history.” There’s even a name for what they’re doing: “woke capitalism.”

But plenty of business leaders don’t agree with this brave new world. CEOs tend to fall on the right side of the aisle, and while that dynamic may be changing, a large percentage of the business community still doesn’t subscribe to liberal views. Whether they’re Trump fans, limited-government types, or religious conservatives, most have historically steered clear of such overtly political matters, especially in their corporate capacity. Many are wondering: Why should I stay silent?

As a lifelong conservative Catholic, I am deeply concerned about the corporate trend. It’s frustrating to see companies and corporate leaders picking sides. While I disagree with a lot of their positions, I’m far more concerned that they’re ignoring the role of business — and potentially even breaking it. Businesses are built to provide the innovation that improves lives. Virtue-signaling tends to detract from this important work. So does jumping headfirst into the divisive world of political squabbles.

Right-leaning business leaders would be foolish to follow this path. As tempting as it is to fight fire with fire, we’d be far more likely to burn things down — starting with our own companies. Woke businesses are already finding that consumers and activists will target them for their political grandstanding. Former president Trump is calling on followers to boycott companies that criticized Georgia’s law. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez urged a boycott of Goya after its CEO praised the former president. Four in ten Americans, on both sides of the aisle, now avoid companies for political reasons.

Then there are the political ramifications. When a business comes down on one side of a partisan issue, it immediately antagonizes elected officials on the other side. Take Delta Air Lines. It made friends of national Democrats by criticizing the Georgia voting law. But it also made enemies of Georgia Republicans, who control the state legislature and passed a bill to punish Delta financially. The “right” side of history is only one election away from being the wrong side, with its corporate defenders treated as such.

Some companies may think that political meddling is a form of insurance, but that’s also a slippery slope to corporate welfare. When companies get in the habit of currying favor with political leaders, it’s not long before they try to win handouts, carve-outs, bailouts, and other unfair benefits. Forget woke capitalism: That’s crony capitalism, where business and government collude to the detriment of everyone else.

Most of all, by dabbling in politics on the right or left, companies will only contribute to America’s coming apart. As of January, more Americans trust business than trust government, likely because companies, by creating the products and progress that improve lives, are unifying in a way that politicians are not. Why would we in corporate America throw away that trust by adopting the divisive style that people dislike? If the business community separates into liberal firms and conservative firms, some will surely find a market niche. But it does the country no good for businesses to win some customers by implying that others are not just wrong but evil.

So what’s a right-leaning business leader to do? Or a left-leaning one who’s concerned about the current trend? Perhaps the best approach is to take a stand — against corporate involvement in political issues. CEOs should speak up and say that business is better than political grandstanding. A new seven-figure-plus ad campaign by Consumers First Initiative calls out American Airlines, Coca-Cola, and Nike with this exact message: Serve your actual customers, not would-be political masters. The business community as a whole should say the same thing, loud and clear.

The alternative is to court disaster. If companies get in the business of politics, then politics will dominate business. That’s a surefire way to undermine our economy and stifle the innovation and opportunity that Americans deserve. We don’t need two business communities at war with each other, because the country will lose. Corporate America should be less politicized, not more.

Tim Busch is the founder and CEO of the Pacific Hospitality Group and the founder of the Napa Institute.





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