Acton Institute Powerblog

Religious Activists Bully Companies with ‘Reputational Risk’

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Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, those of us of a particular bent loved the word “freedom.” The word was featured in the lyrics of many popular songs of the era, and the case could be made that hippies were called freaks as a pun on their oft-chanted “free” mantra. Heck, there was even a band named Free, which captivated the zeitgeist with a classic song about a man angling for a little “free” love with a woman too savvy to succumb so easily.

Free speech also once was all the rage. Lenny Bruce and George Carlin’s infamous seven words and all that, am I right? So, what happened? When did the hippies, yippies, liberals and progressives transition from fetishizing all things related to freedom to checking under their beds every night for a missing Koch brother?

For me, the recent clampdown on freedom in political speech reared its ugly head with the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act. Also known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, the law subsequently was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 Citizens United decision. Since then, bitter tears are shed daily by leftists bemoaning the outcast state of an America where political donors and corporations have a voice in the policies and candidates directly affecting their livelihoods and survival.

Even presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is getting in on the act. Clinton has promised to reveal her plan for campaign-finance reform, which may include championing a constitutional amendment to limit political spending. Yet, the Washington Post detects a tinge of hypocrisy in Clinton’s stated agenda:

When The Post asked about the role of Priorities USA Action, a pro-Clinton super PAC currently trying to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to help her campaign, Clinton shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”

Then the candidate walked into Fuel Espresso, a coffee shop that advertises it sells “mom’s baked goods from scratch,” for a private meeting with supporters. Clinton’s campaign ad makers, including chief media strategist Jim Margolis and a crew of cameramen, followed her into the shop.

A simple overview of religious activists submitting proxy shareholder resolutions to major companies over the past several years reveals what I consider an alarming backlash against freedom of political speech. For example, religious shareholders As You Sow link to an In These Times article written last month by Theo Anderson, in which the author begins:

These are strange days indeed for shareholder activism. By some measures it’s experiencing a surge. Progressive groups have used the strategy since the early1970s, but the past few years have seen an increase in its frequency, sophistication and success. In December, for example, the defense contractor Northrup Grumman announced that it would immediately end its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a key player in the push to privatize education and a purveyor of climate-change denial. The move came in response to a shareholder resolution filed by an activist group that owned stock in the company. More than100 companies have withdrawn from ALEC over the past four years, many under shareholder pressure.

Note the quote from John Lennon in the first clause of the opening sentence (“strange days indeed” from the song “Nobody Told Me”), which tilts the reader toward the former Beatles’ hymn to utopianism, “Imagine” and other lefty enterprises. Note also the apocalyptic flavor of the descriptions of two ALEC initiatives. Is an effort to “privatize education” evil in itself? Likewise, describing ALEC as a “purveyor of climate-change denial” makes it sound as if they’re peddling child pornography (purveyor) and claiming the Nazi death camps were a hoax (denial). In other words, some cute phrasing and allusions deployed in the service of propaganda.

Anderson continues:

Conservatives have noted the tactic’s power and potential, and they are sounding the alarm. In a 2011 report on ‘Activist Investing in Post-Citizens United America,’ the right-wing Center for Competitive Politics warns that shareholder activists ‘see for-profit corporations as their political enemy, and seek partisan or ideological advantage by squelching corporate political speech.’…

But for all the reaction it provokes among conservatives, some progressives doubt the power of shareholder activism to deliver genuine structural changes. After all, it relies on pragmatism and ‘constructive engagement’ in dealing with corporations whose core mission progressives often oppose. And there are other limits to its appeal. It doesn’t have the visibility of mass marches and protests, and doesn’t usually achieve quick results.

Amazingly, Anderson presents no counter argument to the charge levied by CCP. Instead, he continues the “power of shareholder activism” narrative:

‘The power we have is the reputational risk,’ says Laura Berry, executive director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), which engages with corporations to promote more sustainable and just practices. ICCR’s nearly 300 member organizations have both a moral and financial stake in corporate behavior. They consist mainly of religious institutions (such as the Fond du Lac nuns), but also include pension funds, socially responsible investment firms, unions and academic institutions. ‘Companies don’t like these issues being brought to the attention of all institutional shareholders,’ Berry says. ‘They will often agree to make change so that we will withdraw our proposal and it will not appear on the ballot. And that’s where you see the power of shareholder activism.’…

‘We’re not the kind of activists who are just here to make noise,’ says ICCR’s Berry. ‘And those activists are very important, let me say. But we are folks who do our homework and just plug away and plug away. … It’s not for everybody, but we think it’s an important tool in a multilateral approach to changing some of the world’s most intractable problems.’

Yes, because allowing corporations and individuals the freedom to avoid name-and-shame tactics when supporting causes progressives don’t like is certainly an “intractable problem.” More likely, the left is, as noted by CCP, simply attempting to squelch corporate political speech and shut down operations such as ALEC they don’t like. Similar to the Lothario in the Free song referenced above, it seems the left wants to trick us into believing stifling free political speech is “Alright Now.”

Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. Most recently, he was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2007 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past three years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Midland, Mich., with his wife Katherine.

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