Molly Sauter is a PhD candidate at McGill University, and the author of The Coming Swarm: DDOS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet.
What do Disney, Bryan Adams, the National Football League, Salesforce, AMC, American Airlines and Bruce Springsteen have in common? They have all threatened to pull their business out of U.S. states that passed or proposed legislation that attacks the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
These bills, claiming to protect "religious liberty" or "privacy," are widely considered to be attempts to roll back social progress, stripping LGBT individuals of basic protections.
We're used to citizen-led boycotts, but these corporate boycotts seem new. Corporations have long used their economic power to influence law. The innovation here is the use of that power for social justice, rather than for tax breaks.
But is this democratic? While citizen-led boycotts are a respected form of social activism in the United States dating to before the civil-rights movement, these corporate-led boycotts have a whiff of economic coercion, and are a symptom of America's pervasive power imbalance when it comes to big corporate money versus democracy. Unelected corporations, accountable only to their shareholders, should not be able to determine whether laws stand or fall. An oligarch is an oligarch, even when he's on your side.
Religious freedom acts, passed or proposed in more than half of the United States, have become the favoured tool of the conservative right, legislating a conservative Christian backlash to civil-rights protections for LGBT individuals and women under the guise of protecting "sincere religious expression."
RFRAs aren't the only bills that attracted threats of corporate boycotts recently. After the passage of a "bathroom bill" in North Carolina, which requires trans individuals using public facilities to use the washroom corresponding to the gender they were assigned at birth, regardless of the gender they identify as, corporations such as Apple, Salesforce and Wells Fargo called the bill discriminatory. A spokesman for American Airlines, which employs 14,000 North Carolinians, was quoted in The Washington Post calling bills like it "bad for the economies of the states in which they are enacted." Bruce Springsteen cancelled his concert there. Paypal abandoned a planned office that would have employed 400 people.
Why are corporations and celebrities suddenly so concerned with social justice? It might just be good business. As Salesforce chief excutive officer Marc Benioff explained in Time magazine, "We're a company of 20,000 employees. We obviously have thousands of LGBT employees as well." It might be consumer-driven optics. It might be social media gold. It may even be a genuine belief in the civil rights of LGBT individuals: These corporations are willing to take money and jobs out of states that pass bigoted legislation in an attempt to force legislative change. These are often poorer states, which can ill afford to lose corporate business. North Carolina is ranked 39th in median income in the United States. Mississippi, where Bryan Adams recently cancelled a concert in protest against that state's RFRA, is dead last.
While a kick to the coffers may be the fastest way to make a point, a democracy should be responsive to its people - not corporations. We should be focusing on the testimony of those who will be affected by these hateful laws, not the posturing of capital. Corporate and celebrity-led boycotts exacerbate the disconnect between the people and their democratic power by punishing them for the actions of their legislators by withdrawing jobs and tax dollars, and showing that their democratic vote is ultimately second to corporate dollars.
Capital may be on the right side of history today, but where will it be tomorrow? Americans shouldn't have to rely on Bryan Adams standing up for their rights to be protected from bigotry.