* An excerpt from David Pepper’s forthcoming book: Saving Democracy: A User's Manual For Every American
By David Pepper
“Always let your conscience be your guide.” —Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio
“The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.” —Rafiki, The Lion King
Memo to Corporate America: What happened to Disney is the future. Your future. So don’t be next.
And what happened to Disney?
The company invested dollars into extremist Florida legislators; in 2022, those legislators passed an extreme bill (which became known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law); Disney constituents (employees and customers) spoke out against the company for supporting those politicians; Disney spoke out against the bill and suspended political contributions; and then the politicians turned around and punished Disney for having spoken out. And the firestorm has never ebbed.
Those same politicians now want to dictate Disney content, and Disney—to its credit—is now fighting back, in public and in court.
In Frozen, the snowman Olaf famously said: “Some people are worth melting for.” But those Florida extremist legislators definitely were not among them. It’s a lesson that all of corporate America needs to learn, and fast.
Investing in statehouses that have become Laboratories of Autocracy is a horrible investment. Especially for companies with a broad-based customer or employee base—one that reflects the diversity and mainstream views of our nation—your investment will lead to laws and politics that attack your own constituents directly, while offending many more. And that means your support of those extremists will also ultimately offend them. Nothing you say to defend your investment will suffice. And when you try to walk it back, you’ll be attacked by the extremists you helped empower.
What’s the solution for companies like Disney?
Get out of the autocracy business! The sooner, the better. Instead, put your money where democracy is.
We all should. And we can all make that happen.
Disney’s opening move in the Florida saga—contributing to extremist legislators—is standard operating procedure for too many American businesses. Of course, they don’t see it as investing in autocracy. It’s government relations 101— contributing to incumbent politicians who can help them when they want something. They’re banking on that relationship coming in handy, session after session. And the way these places work, they’re right to think that.
But given the decrepit state of these legislatures, investing in autocracy is exactly what they’re doing. Their dollars are propping up extremists in state after state, which means they are funding attacks on democracy as well as a downward spiral into extremism. And at some point, the systems they are helping build will come back to haunt them.
In Ohio, the pattern plays out time and again. Just a few examples:
After Dobbs, Ohio corporate behemoths like Procter & Gamble and Kroger announced that they will fly their employees to other states for abortion care. These are two of the most high-profile members of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. Where did the Ohio Chamber and other business groups invest millions in the Fall of 2022, after these company announcements? To support candidates for the Ohio Supreme Court who, in surveys, all said those women employees had no Constitutional right to privacy. These three GOP candidates also voted to uphold gerrymandered maps that will lock in anti-abortion extremism in Ohio.
And thanks in part to the Chamber’s efforts, all three of those candidates won. That’s right—the Ohio Chamber spent millions to elect candidates who will force its own members to fly workers out of state for abortion access going forward. Make that make sense—you can’t.
Another example: after the anti-vax bug swept through Ohio’s statehouse, the Ohio Chamber had to undertake a feverish lobbying effort to stop a bill that would’ve prevented private businesses from requiring vaccinations—not just for COVID, but any vaccinations. That’s right, their top lobbying priority was to stop the statehouse they prop up from banning vaccine requirements in their own workplaces.
More broadly, leaders of most Ohio companies consistently say that “workforce” is their largest challenge. It’s a never-ending struggle to find educated and skilled workers for the future, either who are raised in Ohio and stay here, or that they can attract to Ohio from elsewhere. And do you know where so much of these companies’ political dollars go? Into the pockets of politicians who are making that workforce challenge that much worse by 1) tanking the quality of Ohio’s public schools and 2) driving future generations of Ohio to other states because of far-right culture wars those generations are repelled by.
These are just a few examples of a big-picture truth: a healthy democracy is good for business, and a subverted democracy harms business. As the pro-democracy business group, Leadership Now, argued in a Supreme Court brief in the Moore v. Harper case: “a system of government that incorporates strong adherence to the rule of law, a system of checks and balances, and elections that reflect the will of the voters, is highly correlated with a thriving economy.”
So how do we get businesses and business groups at all levels to see that investing in autocracy is not just bad for the country, its states, and its people. . . but bad for business itself?
As with everything else in this book, it starts with you.