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Tina Casey headshot

The ESG Movement Has the Numbers, But ‘Commitment to America’ Might Have the Voters

By Tina Casey

Just a few months ago, the 2022 midterm elections were shaping up as a classic battle between the usual conventions of Republican and Democratic politics. However, the “capitalism-versus-socialism” formula long favored by the right has shifted in recent weeks. The battleground has now moved on to the nature of corporate citizenship itself. House Republicans' new “Commitment to America” agenda, which leaked ahead of its planned release last week, aims to attract Republican voters partly by stripping the ESG and corporate social responsibility models down to their bones.

ESG and DEI programs are the targets

One leading element of the corporate social responsibility model is ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing, in which financial institutions gravitate toward businesses that demonstrate an ability to manage risks and opportunities in the era of climate change and social progress in the U.S. and globally.

Another important feature consists of corporate DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) programs. Through DEI programs, business leaders recognize that bottom-line benefits follow a workforce that reflects the diverse experiences of U.S. workers, executives, customers and clients, along with communities beyond the office walls.

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The corporate social responsibility model does many things, but there is one thing it clearly does not do. It does not support a political party that has elevated the politics of race and gender supremacy to the highest level of elected office in the U.S. Partisan, ad hominem attacks on ESG and DEI programs were all but certain to increase after former President Donald Trump was elected to office in 2016, and they did.

A clear line from former President Trump to the 2022 midterms

Former President Trump won election in 2016 by appealing to white supremacists. He continued to govern from that platform after taking office, especially through immigration policies that challenged business leaders to stand up for Muslims and other minorities. Trump also began to bolster white domestic terrorist organizations with the support of the presidency, setting the stage for dozens of murders attributed to racial hatred over the next two years and, ultimately, the violent insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021.

As the 2020 campaign season approached the crucial months of September and October, Trump also took aim more specifically at the corporate social responsibility movement, leading his party in a charge against diversity training.

That strategy failed, but Trump continues to hold a firm grip on the Republican Party.

His influence on white supremacist organizations also continues to ripple out in state and local politics, taking a variety of forms that undermine ESG and DEI principles. Some examples are the legally sanctioned harassment of LGBTQ children and their families, book bans that focus on minority, LGBTQ and women authors, the fostering of a false scare over the teaching of critical race theory, and the amplification of the “woke capitalism” canard against a prominent Jewish financier. 

Considering the connection between misogyny and white supremacist politics, it is also no surprise that Republican-led states jumped on the opportunity to impose new restrictions on abortion following the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dobbs case. Millions of U.S. women now find their health and safety in jeopardy, and may face legal consequences along with their employers and health workers, after the Dobbs decision upended 50 years of protections for pregnant and pregnancy-capable people.

Corporate leaders need to look in the mirror

These existential threats to the corporate social responsibility model are at least partly the fault of business leaders who have provided financial support to extremist candidates over the years.

Corporate support for right wing “bill mills” like the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council has withered over the years. However, even after the failed insurrection of Jan. 6, some U.S. corporations have continued to provide funds to Republican candidates and office holders who appeal to misogynists and white supremacists.

Last week, for example, independent journalist Judd Legum reported that AT&T, Google and Cigna were among the corporations providing funds to members of Congress who support a national abortion ban, alongside Home Depot, Koch Industries and more than three dozen others.

‘Commitment to America:’ The call is coming from inside the house

Corporate support for Republican office holders has come back to bite them long after Trump lost the 2020 election, and they are badly mistaken if they think this chapter in U.S. political history is closed.

Leading Republicans in Congress made that clear earlier this month, when U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) laid the groundwork for a national abortion ban. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) followed up last week with the introduction of his party’s new “Commitment to America” platform.

It is easy to make fun of McCarthy’s media rollout, which featured a fake quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln along with stock images from a Russian website. However, there is nothing funny about the document. It is a summary of the key legal and rhetorical daggers thrown against corporate social responsibility over the past two years, couched in the conventional language of Republican politics.

The 'Commitment to America' and the QAnon conspiracy

In fact, the Commitment to America agenda includes lines that echo the wild ramblings of the off-the-rails but influential QAnon conspiracy theory. That is probably no accident. QAnon began to merge with support for the former president during his time in office. The connection was evident in the Jan. 6 insurrection. In recent weeks, Trump himself has drawn QAnon followers more aggressively into his circle of influence, and by extension, the Republican Party.

QAnon’s depiction of an elite group that exercises behind-the-scene control over world affairs dovetails neatly with the Commitment to America. Through that lens, the Commitment to America is nothing more than a dressed-up version of QAnon conspiracies, hiding behind a generous helping of the usual economic conservatism and law-and-order conventions of Republican policies.

The official one-page version of the document (available on Twitter and elsewhere) is front-loaded with a long list of items that reflect at least nominally conventional Republican policies. However, those who continue reading past the first two sections will find echoes of the QAnon appeal under the third heading, “A Future That’s Built on Freedom.”

By freedom, they mean freedom from the tenets of ESG investing, corporate DEI programs, and laws that protect minorities, women and the LGBTQ community from repression. The “Freedom” section includes a validation of extremists who have been disrupting school board meetings, advocating for book bans and seeking to censor lessons that fail to meet the white supremacist platform, with these words: “Advance the Parents’ Bill of Rights…and expand parental choice so over a million more students can receive the education their parents know is best.”

Another item validates the anti-transgender movement with these words: “Defend fairness by ensuring that only women can compete in women’s sports.” Another item covers the entire gamut of racism and misogyny as expressed in abortion bans, hate speech and white supremacy, with these words: “Uphold free speech, protect the lives of unborn children and their mothers, guarantee religious freedom, and safeguard the Second Amendment.” Still another item validates election deniers, including those seeking to disrupt local elections offices, with these words: “…increase accountability in the election process through voter ID, accurate voter rolls, and observer access.”

The Commitment to America also promises to “stop companies from putting politics ahead of people,” which apparently covers the entirety of the corporate social responsibility movement.

The fierce blowback against the new abortion bans could ultimately help swing the needle against extremism on Election Day.

However, business leaders would be wise not to sit by while advocates for the principles of corporate citizenship and ESG do all the heavy lifting. Their votes might not be enough.

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Image credit: Alejandro Barba via Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

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.

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