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Tina Casey headshot

The Brazil Factor: Another Red Flag for Corporate Social Responsibility

By Tina Casey

The view from a damaged window at Brazil’s National Congress in Brasília, January 10, 2023, two days after the insurrection at the Três Poderes Plaza

With former President Trump out of office, quite a few U.S. business leaders seem to think that the violence of January 6, 2021 will not be repeated. However, events in Brazil over the weekend should be a reminder that the danger of another insurrection is still clear and present. Now is not the time for business leaders to cozy up to members of Congress who are already assembling the pieces for Insurrection 2.0.

How quickly they forget

In the aftermath of the failed insurrection of January 6, 2021, scores of leaders in the U.S. business community pledged that their companies would reconsider or stop giving donations to the 147 Republican members of Congress who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

It took a while, though. Even after President Joe Biden took office on January 21, many top executives still failed to issue a strong condemnation of Trump and his violent mob.

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In hindsight, the delayed reaction was predictable. Trump was braying nonstop over alleged voter fraud in the months and weeks leading up to Election Day 2020. He undercut Levi-Strauss and other companies that were leading on get-out-the-vote efforts. However, there was no forceful, coordinated pushback against the voter fraud lie from the U.S. business community.

A few business leaders did speak out on behalf of their companies within days after January 6, and pledged to change their policies on political donations. Eventually they would be joined by hundreds of others. However, within a few months, many quietly resumed a business-as-usual approach.

Independent reporter Judd Legum of Popular Information has been tracking corporate support for insurrection-friendly members of Congress from the beginning. In August of 2021 he listed only 44 companies that lived up to their pledges. Dozens of others had resumed donating either directly or indirectly to the 147 insurrection-supporting members of Congress or their PACs.

The issue gained renewed attention earlier this week, when the investigative organization Accountable.US added up the numbers and found that 50 of the Fortune 100 went back on their pledges and shifted almost $5.5 million in donations to insurrection-allied members of Congress. The total climbed to almost $10 million when Accountable included all corporations that pledged to stop or reconsider their contribution policies.

A light at the end of the tunnel

Putting the corporate seal of approval on members of Congress who align with insurrectionists is clearly at odds with the values expressed by the corporate social responsibility movement. Still, one positive outcome has been an increase in oversight on corporate political spending, as outlined in the 10th annual CPA-Zicklin Index issued by the Center for Political Accountability, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the Carol and Lawrence Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research.

William S. Laufer, the Julian Aresty Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote the forward to the report. He called attention to warning signs, including the record-breaking pace of corporate fundraising during last year’s 2022 midterm congressional elections, and the broken pledges by many corporations.

He also emphasized that there are clear signs of progress.

“In this second decade of the CPA-Zicklin Index, there is evidence of greater integration of disclosure and accountability policies throughout the corporate hierarchy, including board involvement, oversight, and review,” he wrote.

He also listed “positive shifts in the total number of top Index tier companies; and dramatic increases in the number of companies disclosing all political spending” among the signs of progress.

The red flag is flashing red

Laufer credited the self-policing of the corporate social responsibility movement with much of the progress. However, he also raised a giant red flag.

“One can only hope that this inspires other transformative reforms to the political process that prize integrity, good governance, and compliance,” Laufer concluded (emphasis added).

In the context of Republican control of the House of Representatives, Laufer’s hope for “transformative reforms to the political process” is a dark one.

Of particular note is the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, Republican Kevin McCarthy of California. He was finally elected to the leadership position after a week-long, 15-vote debacle, despite being one of the 147 members of Congress who allied with the insurrectionists on January 6, 2021 — or perhaps, because of it.

To ice the insurrectionist cake, when McCarthy finally won the final vote he made a point of thanking former President Trump for his support, even as Trump hosted the former President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, at his residence in Florida.

The rest practically writes itself. While Bolsonaro watched from Florida, a mob of thousands stormed Brazil’s center of government on January 8, reportedly with the strong encouragement of persons close to Trump’s inner circle, including the alleged insurrectionist and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. 

“Mr. Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, was just one of several key allies of Donald Trump who followed the same strategy used to cast doubt on the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election,” BBC reported on January 9. 

“And like what happened in Washington on 6 January 2021, those false reports and unproven rumors helped fuel a mob that smashed windows and stormed government buildings in an attempt to further their cause,” BBC added.

Violence in Brazil gives business a sobering reminder

Perhaps the violence in Brazil will teach the U.S. insurrectionists a lesson. The mob of January 6, 2021, was supported by the force of former President Trump’s authority while in office. There were no arrests that day. Trump pardoned Bannon and others who allegedly steered the insurrection, and the criminal consequences are still spinning out years later for the foot soldiers.

In contrast, hundreds of insurrectionists in Brazil were rounded up, arrested and detained on the spot under the authority of the newly elected President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The lesson of Brazil for insurrectionists in the U.S. and their allies in Congress is clear. Don’t try to overthrow the government when the executive branch is still in the hands of a political party committed to the principles of democracy. Wait and watch for signs of vulnerability, and take the next opportunity to install a permanent dictator in the White House.

If the supposedly powerful leaders of the U.S. business community choose to keep sitting on their hands while the next insurrection spins out through the U.S. House of Representatives, that’s on them. If they want to take action, all they need to remember is that money talks.

Image credit: Brazilian Senate Agency via Flickr

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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