Outrageous story of the week: Where have all the corporate activists gone?
During N.C. Senate hearings on the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, one particular moment jumped out that showed just how much the momentum has shifted in recent years. While discussing whether biological boys should be allowed to compete on girls’ teams and change in their locker rooms, Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, asked the bill sponsor, Sen. Vickie Sawyer, R-Iredell, whether she had checked with the business community on whether this bill would harm efforts to recruit and retain companies.
Sawyer just laughed and responded that, while she appreciated his politically loaded question, she was here to protect young women.
In 2016, after H.B. 2, often called North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” was passed, a massive boycott campaign was launched that eventually led Republicans to seek a compromise.
A similar dynamic played out in other states, like Indiana. Putting forward any bill that touched transgenderism at all was a recipe to become a national pariah (at least as far as the media and elite institutions were concerned) and to be faced with the real possibility that major employers in your state might pull out in protest.
The boycott is coming from inside the house
The headlines describing the situation usually read, “North Carolina loses $X billion due to H.B. 2.” But part of the dynamic that wasn’t mentioned much was that the calls for boycotts were largely spearheaded from within the state. The losses weren’t “due to H.B. 2” as much as “due to progressive activists from N.C.”
When then Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts was told that the NBA would move the All Star Game out of the city, she responded by thanking the NBA for being “champions of equality.”
Congressman Dan Bishop, who was a state House member at the time representing part of the Charlotte area, said, “For Charlotte, it certainly is a new phenomenon for a mayor to incite businesses to boycott her own city and thank them after the fact.”
Then-Attorney General Roy Cooper took similar steps, traveling to Silicon Valley and having discussions with CEOs on the bill, including a discussion that allegedly led to Deutsche Bank pulling 250 jobs from the state. One could easily say that he ran for governor that year using the controversy over the bill as fuel for his campaign.
Russell Peck, campaign manager for Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, said at the time, “Roy Cooper’s fingerprints are all over the coordinated campaign to smear North Carolina and inflict economic damage on our state. Instead of defending North Carolina, its business community, and our hardworking citizens, Roy Cooper is actively communicating and working with the very CEOs who are trying to inflict economic damage on the state and prevent jobs from coming here.
The NAACP of N.C. openly called for a general boycott of North Carolina. And Equality N.C., in a townhall after the compromise bill sunsetted, discussed how exciting it was to have succeeded in organizing boycotts against their own state.
Durham City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson, who was the mayor pro tem at that time, said, to nods from others on the Equality N.C. panel, “I think what was really exciting coming out of H.B. 2 was we saw on a local level and on a statewide level the power of organizing and, specifically, the power of boycott as a political tool.”
Chaudhuri’s question, in that context, could appear a little like a threat. Have you considered that North Carolina progressives might attempt to sabotage our own state’s economy again? But the climate has so shifted on this topic that all this question elicited was a casual chuckle from Sawyer.
What a difference a few years makes
Now, if one looks at the landscape for bills regarding transgenderism in schools, sports, and health care, it looks like legislation is being passed nationwide with hardly a peep from once-activist companies. Sure, the left-wing organizers are still able to get their crowds of the usual suspects to shout and march, but the boycotts from companies, which had given this activism actual teeth, are now sitting on the sidelines.
And I’m not the only one noticing, as you can see in WRAL’s headline below..
WRAL asked the top Triangle-area companies why they were being silent on the women’s sports bill and child sex-change bill, and only heard back from one, who gave a fairly vague statement about valuing diversity regardless of the state’s laws. A progressive business consultant told WRAL the shift was because the companies were “afraid of what might happen to their bottom line.”
N.C. Senate Majority Leader told them he wasn’t expecting any corporate activism this time around, saying, “If you look at Anheuser-Busch, you look at Disney, I think the business community is waking up to the notion that they need to serve their shareholders, complete their fiduciary duty to their shareholders and stay out of the politics of social issues.”
A big part of corporate America’s change of heart has to do with the fact that everyone knows they aren’t going back to New York City or San Francisco, and red-state politicians have called their bluff. People and businesses are fleeing places like California, New York, and Illinois (the three states with the biggest out-migration in 2022) and going to places like Texas, Florida, and North Carolina (the three states with the biggest in-migration). Our neighbors in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee were not far behind N.C. on the list of most in-demand places to move.
A glance at the map makes it clear that the states people are leaving are more left-leaning and those they are headed to are more right-leaning. While many worry that those fleeing blue states will change the cultures in their new homes (and recent elections in Georgia and Arizona show that to be a valid worry), a more muscular attitude by some conservative governments in these states has actually put many formerly activist corporations on notice.
Examples of this are almost too many to name, but include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ battles with Disney and promises for the state not to do business with any “woke” companies, various red-state treasurers blocking investments in ESG funds (which prioritize left-wing initiatives), and Texas Gov. Greg Abbot’s direct message that Texas companies “need to stay out of politics.”
Companies are being forced to rethink how they’ve been acting the last decade, seeing that constantly putting your finger in the eye of half your customer base isn’t necessarily a wise move. Bud Light has even apologized after a conservative boycott over their use of a transgender male in their advertising, saying, “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.” That’s right; it’s now conservative boycotts with the momentum.
Also, corporate activism is just not really that popular with the average American. Not getting involved in these controversies should be an easy call. A recent poll found that 57% of North Carolina voters want businesses to avoid making public stances on political issues, and only 26% felt that they should. The fact that this was a poll sponsored by the N.C. Chamber of Commerce is also noteworthy, as it shows they are well aware of this fact and their members can justify avoiding any future unforced errors in this area.
So, as state after state pass bills that protect girls’ sports and that prevent experimental sex-change surgeries on minors, there have not been any notable attempts to impose the culture-war equivalent of economic sanctions on any of them.
If progressives did attempt this, they’d have to find companies willing to impose them on not only North Carolina (where both a ban on males in girls’ sports and on minor sex changes are likely to become law), but also on Texas, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Arizona, and about 20 other states.
Considering these are largely the states that businesses are relocating to, any leverage for corporate activism has evaporated, explaining Sawyer’s chuckle at Chaudhuri insinuating that Republicans should tread carefully or risk another 2016-style boycott.