Palantir CEO Alex Karp raised an interesting point about patriotism and corporate social responsibility in a recent op-ed critical of Google published earlier this month in the Washington Post.
Karp contrasted Google with his own company on the basis of willingness to accept work with federal defense and national security agencies. Viewed through that lens, one could conclude that Palantir is a patriotic company and Google is not. The question is, does Karp make his case?
Before taking a look at the logic behind Karp’s argument, it is helpful to understand how patriotism fits into the mold of corporate social responsibility.
If patriotism means wanting the best for your country, there are clearly points of overlap.
In economic terms, Dartmouth professor and author Richard A. D’Aveni has described "corporate patriotism" — sometimes referred to as economic nationalism — as “making decisions that strengthen a country’s economy while strengthening a company’s bottom line.”
Interpreted narrowly, economic nationalism will not necessarily make shareholders happy, but D’Aveni argues for a broad, strategic approach that integrates shareholder confidence with domestic social concerns and the national interest.
This view of corporate patriotism can be expanded outward to encompass the general understanding of corporate social responsibility, in which shareholders ultimately benefit from corporate decisions that benefit people and the planet.
Corporate patriotism is rendered into its most familiar form whenever elected officials ask U.S.-based companies to create more manufacturing jobs at home rather than outsourcing those jobs to other countries.
That is often easier said than done. A somewhat more realistic approach to corporate patriotism was described by Hillary Clinton during her 2016 presidential campaign, when she advocated for job creation in general rather than focusing on manufacturing jobs. In doing so, she summarized the economic view of corporate patriotism:
"I'm not asking corporations to be charitable, although that's important. I'm asking corporations to realize that when Americans prosper, they prosper too. The idea of corporate patriotism might sound quaint in era of vast multinationals, but it's the right thing to do and the smart thing to do as well.”
Corporate patriotism and consumer perception
Job creation aside, corporate patriotism can also function as a marketing tool in which patriotic consumers identify themselves with a patriotic brand.
That approach makes corporate patriotism a key factor in brand reputation, regardless of a company’s track record on outsourcing jobs overseas.
For example, the 2019 Brand Keys consumer survey of “Most Patriotic American Brands” lists Jeep at number one in its top ten, with the other nine following in this order: Disney, Ford, Coca-Cola, Levi Strauss, American Express, MSNBC, Hershey’s, AT&T, The New York Times, Walmart and Fox News.
As reflected in the Brand Keys list, a brand’s insistence on simplistic flag-waving is not a winning strategy.
In explaining some surprising omissions in its 2016 brand patriotism survey, founder Robert Passikoff explained that “waving an American flag and having an authentic foundation for being able to wave the flag are entirely different things, and the consumer knows it.”
Passikoff’s emphasis on authenticity is one key to understanding Karp’s op-ed.
Point by point, Karp builds the case for Palantir as an authentically patriotic company — not in terms of job creation, but in terms of national defense and homeland security.
Part of his argument rests in a direct characterization of Palantir as a company that was founded with patriotism built into its DNA.
As Karp writes, Palantir was “founded after 9/11 with a commitment to helping those on the front lines use data analytics to protect the United States, a mission that grew to include combatting genocide, sex trafficking, terrorism, drug cartels, and “malicious computer-hacking software.”
He further entwines the corporate mission of Palantir with the national defense mission of the U.S. government by evoking the patriotism of those who serve in the U.S. Marine Corps.
That part of the argument rests on the contrast between Palantir’s government contracts and Google’s decision to stop working on an artificial intelligence project for the Department of Defense.
By deciding to drop the contract, Karp argues, Google let down “the young people who volunteer for the Marines and get deployed overseas.”
He further emphasizes that point by casting Google’s work as a military style mission:
“…Google executives backed away from the mission. The U.S. Marine serves; the Silicon Valley executives walk. This is wrong.”
Karp also reinforces his case by comparing his own personal patriotism to other Silicon Valley executives – and the images readers could conjure includes Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who was born in India. And therein lies Karp’s venture into quite the grey area.
Early in the op-ed, his description of Silicon Valley executives practically describes them as a sort of un-American cabal. He pulls no punches as he casts them as “a small group of executives at the largest Internet companies in Silicon Valley” who “try to impose their moral framework on America.”
Karp hammers home the point toward the end of the piece:
“…some Silicon Valley companies are taking the power to decide these issues away from elected officials and judges and giving it to themselves — a deeply unrepresentative group of executives living in an elite bubble in a corner of the country…”
In contrast, Karp makes it clear that he is a U.S. citizen by birth. He places himself squarely in the legacy of the American civil rights movement:
“I grew up the son of two civil rights activists and came of age in a progressive family and adopted many of the movement’s values as my own.”
To be clear, civil rights activism is not universally accepted as part of the patriotic tradition in America. Nevertheless, civil rights activism is deeply embedded in American history, and Palantir has attempted to brand itself as a defender of individual liberty through an in-house team of “privacy and civil liberties engineers."
By evoking his parents, Karp comes across as staking his claim to authenticity — as an American by birth, not by immigration or naturalization.
The dark side of corporate patriotism
By evoking both military-style loyalty and birthright citizenship, Karp’s pursuit of authenticity leads his company into the area of flag-waving cautioned against by Passikoff. Those lines of argument also venture down a dark pathway implicit in the concept of corporate patriotism described by D’Aveni.
That pathway is one in which executives support national policy with an uncritical eye.
To cite one example, D’Aveni includes China — “especially China” in his list of companies where executives “care more about serving their home countries than about serving shareholders.”
In that view of patriotism, Google’s decision to stop working on a Defense Department contract is by definition an unpatriotic one.
However, the American understanding of obedience to national policy is somewhat different.
Perhaps unintentionally, Karp himself evokes the American understanding of obedience, through his references to the obedience of members of the U.S. Marine Corps to their commander.
That calls to mind the Military Law of Obedience.
The Military Law of Obedience does obligate members of the armed services to obey lawful orders. However, under certain circumstances the Law of Obedience also obligates them to disobey orders that are fundamentally or “manifestly” illegal.
By hinging his argument on the Armed Services, Karp brings up the origins of the familiar phrase, “my country, right or wrong.”
Historians have traced one early example of that remark to the much-decorated U.S. Navy officer Stephen Decatuer, who achieved the rank of Captain in 1804 at the age of 25.
In 1816, at a banquet in his honor, Decateur toasted the U.S. as follows: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.”
By that time, Decatuer had a long list of military credits to his name, yet he felt comfortable enough to point out, in a public setting, that U.S. foreign policy “may” not always be right.
That sentiment was expanded in 1872 by another military veteran, Missouri U.S. Senator Carl Schurz.
Born in Germany, Schurz emigrated to the U.S. in 1852 and was active in the abolitionist movement before joining the Union army, where he served as brigadier general of volunteers at the Second Battle of Bull Run as well as at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Chattanooga.
Responding to a colleague’s use of the phrase “my country, right or wrong” during a session of the Senate, Schurz rejoined:
“The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, ‘My country, right or wrong.’ In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
In any case, U.S. companies are not bound by the Military Law of Obedience. They are subject to civil law and to certain orders of the U.S. President.
In the context of a President who dashes off “orders” to companies through Twitter, only to revise, reverse course, or drop them entirely, perhaps the only responsible — and patriotic — course of action is for Silicon Valley executives to make decisions with a critical eye on the national interest and the public good.
Editor's note: CEOs, including the one featured in this story, are facing all kinds of challenges due to the ongoing surge in employee activism. Hence this discussion will be a valuable part of the agenda next month at 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands - What's Next, October 29-30 at National Harbor, MD, just outside Washington, D.C. Together, the 80-plus speakers we will showcase onstage promise a two-day event that will be fast-paced, high-octane and invaluable with their perspectives on the latest in the environmental, social and governance (ESG) community.
Image credit: Kevin Lanceplaine/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.