After the most recent high-school massacre in Parkland, Florida, left 17 students and teachers dead, the National Rifle Association (NRA), the nonprofit gun-rights advocacy group, was rebuked by a surprising group of liberal activists: American corporations. Pressured by Parkland high-school students and others to boycott the NRA, more than 20 companies have cut ties with the pro-gun group.
The NRA exodus includes major airlines like United, six rental-car firms including Hertz and Avis Budget Group, and MetLife, the insurance giant. These companies are not rescinding NRA donations, nor are they refusing service to NRA members. Rather, they’re ending discount programs, which companies routinely offer to groups and companies, like the NRA or the AARP. For example, United Airlines offered discounts on flights to the NRA annual meeting, and MetLife auto insurance offered a $50 benefit to members for each year of claim-free driving.
It would be easy to write off this moment by saying these companies are simply reacting to an online mob, or following each other like lemmings. But the fact that companies, rather than Congress or the courts, are shifting in response to political activism in the United States says something profound—about American tribalism, the demise of political cooperation, and the rise of a sort of liberal corporatocracy.
Why have the Parkland shootings forced corporate action in a way that previous school shootings could not? To put it another way: United and Delta both serve more than 100 million domestic passengers each year, while the NRA only has a few million members. So, why has it taken so long for these companies to distance themselves from one of America’s most controversial associations, despite 30,000 annual firearms deaths and so many mass shootings?
In this case, there has been a perfect storm of articulate student outrage and savvy online activism, merging with a rising tide of resentment against Trump and Trump-affiliated organizations. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have shown poise and passion before the camera—and laconic brilliance on Twitter—that has galvanized the gun-control movement. On social media, they have joined other activists in naming and shaming companies (“Hey @LifeLock why do you support the NRA? #NeverForget”) and even encouraging people to contact NRA-sponsoring firms. One message, with more than 33,000 retweets, sent people to an Amazon webpage where they could submit a prewritten request for the company to stop hosting the NRA’s digital-video channel, NRATV. As more companies canceled their NRA affiliations, it put additional pressure on other companies that had initially resisted doing the same. Within a 12-hour period, Delta Airlines went from defending its relationship with the NRA as “routine” to requesting that the association “remove our information from their website.”
This avalanche of companies abandoning the NRA is just the latest chapter in the gradual politicization of every square inch of the public sphere, which has compelled traditionally nonpartisan companies to take one partisan stand after another. One year ago, in the fallout over the president’s proposed travel ban, Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, left the White House advisory council. Four months later, the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk and Disney’s CEO, Bob Iger, left the same forum after the president withdrew from the Paris climate agreement. When Trump refused to explicitly condemn the far-right protesters in Charlottesville, more business leaders, including Merck’s CEO, Kenneth Frazier, exited en masse from his manufacturing council.
Uber is not an immigration firm. Disney is not a climate-advocacy organization. Merck is not a civil-rights group. But under Trump, they have completed their development into activists on the issues of migration, carbon emissions, and white racism anyway. Trump’s language often forces companies to take sides in political debates, and his unpopularity makes it safe—even necessary—to side against him.
Many business leaders are getting political because they have determined that, in this environment, the noisiest position is often to remain silent in the face of national condemnation. But in politics, responding to one group of consumers invariably means angering another. Several conservative writers tweeted that they would boycott United, Hertz, and other companies that eliminated their discount policies with the NRA. “Corporations boycotting NRA should be boycotted,” the conservative commentator Mark R. Levin wrote. The choice for companies is simple and stark: Suffer the slings and arrows of liberal activism, or endure the rage and resentment of spurned conservatives. In today’s culture wars, for-profits are the new nonprofits.
One important question raised by all this is if there is a deeper force at work. Have America’s corporations shifted to the left, even as national government has moved toward the Republican Party? Or are companies just more sensitive to protests than a divided government is?
In many cases, America’s corporate community has become a quiet defender of socially liberal causes. Nearly 400 companies filed an amicus brief in 2015 urging the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage, including Amazon, Aetna, Apple, American Airlines, American Express, and AT&T (and those are just the ones starting with the first letter of the alphabet). Hundreds of executives, many from tech companies, signed a 2017 letter urging the president to protect immigrants brought to the U.S. as children by saving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. When North Carolina passed a law against transgender-friendly bathrooms, the NCAA announced in 2016 that it would pull its college-basketball tournament from the state (and other companies withdrew their business, too).
It would be strange to call these corporations “liberal.” By and large, they support the GOP’s economic policies, which in just the last year have eased regulations and slashed corporate taxes by several trillion dollars. But on social issues, national and multinational companies have moved left of the GOP, even as many Republican figures (particularly the president) have found it useful, or at least tantalizing, to play up cultural flash points, like trans rights and undocumented labor. This has created a bizarre dynamic, where many companies feel public pressure to assert their values by rebuking Republican politics, even as many of them directly benefit from the GOP’s economic platform.
But there is something else happening: Corporations are becoming more democratic than democratic governance itself. Or, at least, they have proven to be far more responsive to political outcries and scandals than political parties. In the #MeToo movement, many corporate boards quickly dismissed their credibly accused executives, while Republicans (and some Democrats) wavered over how to punish accused officials and candidates, like Representative Patrick Meehan, the Alabama Senate contender Roy Moore, and, well, the president of the United States. In the gun debate, too, many companies moved to distance themselves from the NRA before the state of Florida or the federal government could propose or act on new legislation to limit gun violence.
National government in an age of Republican control is mostly unresponsive to liberal protests. So, many activists are focusing their ire on the business community. A corporation is a knot of products, services, and policies, and activists have seen that any one string can be grabbed, pulled, and scrutinized, until the company agrees to cut it away.
Businesses have to respond to political crises even faster than political parties do, says William Klepper, a professor of corporate leadership at the Columbia Business School. Politics is competitive, but the competition is constrained—by time (e.g., elections only happen every two, four, or six years), by geography (e.g., the gerrymandering of districts), and by partisanship, in which every issue often boils down to “the other side is worse.” Many companies cannot rely on time, geography, or negative advertising to save them. Every week is a primary for a consumer brand; the global nature of business exposes companies to more rivals; and no company can thrive by making nothing and investing exclusively in hostile marketing. “Politicians assume they can wait out the outrage, but national companies have to respond to the immediacy of demand,” Klepper told me.
Social media, and its capacity to foment outrage, has helped create this dynamic, contributing to both the virulence of partisanship and the concurrent rise of the activist corporation. Angry tweets and Facebook memes help political groups rally around anger and perceived villainy; but also, they create unavoidable choices for multinational companies that have to respond to political crises by picking a side.
American democracy is not a free market. It is, at best, a two-party duopoly, in which vilification of the opposition often passes for a party platform. As a result, many liberal activists are asking corporations to express the values that they cannot impress upon a Republican-dominated government. Corporations are no longer bystanders in the culture wars. They are on the front lines.