Customers should be able to know if companies that they are supporting with their purchases are busy spending money on groups that undermine environmental regulations, attack workers' rights, promote "Stand Your Ground" gun laws, advance discriminatory "Voter ID" laws, and otherwise bolster the right-wing legislative vanguard. And if these consumers don't like this behavior, they should be at liberty to take their business elsewhere.
That proposition seems to fall pretty safely within a free market, vote-with-your-dollars paradigm. In fact, watchdogs who are providing consumers with full information about misbehaving corporations should be seen—again, within a free-market framework—as providing a valuable service, since informed consumers are supposed to be an important part of efficiently functioning capitalism.
But no. If you ask right-wing talking heads, campaigners who dare to suggest that consumers express displeasure with corporations are waging a war on "open thinking and discussion of legislation."
The impetus for this debate is the effort to hold companies accountable for their memberships in the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, groups including ColorOfChange.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have been encouraging consumers to tell corporations paying hefty dues to ALEC that not all of us approve of their behavior. The tactic has worked beautifully. More than a dozen institutions have dumped ALEC, with Blue Cross Blue Shield, Yum! Brands (owner of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut), and Procter & Gamble all joining the exodus since I last wrote.
While the campaign falls within the boycott tradition, in this case the groups involved have only been encouraging people to write letters to the corporations expressing their opinions. The threat that people might withhold their business (which is of course their right in a free market) has thus far been implicit. A ColorOfChange.org sample letter reads, in part:
I presume your company does not want to support voter suppression, nor have your products or services associated with discrimination and large-scale voter disenfranchisement. I urge you to immediately stop funding ALEC and issue a public statement making it clear that your company does not support discriminatory voter ID laws and voter suppression.
With sponsors rapidly jumping ship, ALEC has tried to do some damage control. Last week it announced that it would be "eliminating [its] Public Safety and Elections task force that dealt with non-economic issues" such as Stand Your Ground and Voter ID. The purpose of the move, the organization said, is to focus more keenly on "free-market, limited government, pro-growth" priorities—read: destroying unions, eliminating environmental regulation, reducing taxes for the top 1 percent, and so forth. While they tried to spin this as a way to "redoubl[e] our efforts on the economic front," it's clearly a concession.
Yet, even while retreating on its policy agenda, ALEC has also launched a PR offensive. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) recently reported on ALEC Director of External Relations Caitlyn Korb appealing to a Heritage Foundation "Bloggers Briefing." According to the CMD, Korb begged
conservative bloggers for help while prepping "a very aggressive campaign to really spread the word about what we actually do."
Korb outlined ALEC's PR counter-offensive. She told bloggers that ALEC will launch a website called "I Stand with ALEC" in the next few days. The phrase is familiar to Wisconsinites, as it tracks the Americans for Prosperity (AFP) campaign on behalf of the embattled governor, whose slogan is "Stand with Walker." AFP is also an ALEC member.
We already have a taste of the talking points the Right is deploying. One main thrust is that, although liberals have paranoid delusions about a "vast right-wing conspiracy," ALEC is actually an innocuous group promoting open debate and freedom and apple pie. New Hampshire State Representative Jordan Ulery made this case in a column arguing that "the fringe left" is irrationally panicked about "legislators from across the country meeting together to discuss common problems and seeking common solutions." He then goes on to explain that ALEC's entirely unobjectionable agenda is merely to promote:
health care reform, re-examination of excessive environmental restrictions, constitutionally approved fair elections legislation, government accountability to the taxpayer, a balanced budget amendment, a deficit reduction amendment and similar commonsense proposals for the states to consider for their own implementation.
You don't have to do much decoding of conservative buzzwords to know that this is not middle-of-the-road stuff, and some other right-wing commentators have admitted as much. But that didn't stop the always-reactionary Wall Street Journal editorial board from accusing progressives of "Playing the race card to silence a free-market policy voice."
Humorously enough, Michelle Malkin, writing over at National Review Online, has called upon right-wingers to withdraw their business from companies that quit ALEC: "It's time for conservatives to stand their ground and stop showing these corporate cowards their money," she contends. So, apparently, boycotting is only unfair suppression of open debate if advanced by the left—and a perfectly legitimate tactic if you want to compel corporations to continue coughing up money for the conservative policy machine.
A lot of this reeks of desperation, and it should be taken as encouragement by those exposing the corporations that still present themselves as community-friendly vendors while backing an agenda that makes the Malkins and Wall Street Journal editorialists of the world swoon. Rarely do activists get the satisfaction of seeing union busters or environmental despoilers testify to a campaign's effectiveness so clearly as Korb did when pleading for the aid of right-wing bloggers.
According to the CMD, she complained, "We're getting absolutely killed in social media venues—Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest (I didn't even know Pinterest was a forum for a lot of political opposition, but now it is)."
Sounds like a job well done to me. Tweet it far and wide, folks!