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Schmitt: How Progressive Coalition Checks Corporate Abuse

Mark Schmitt, who has been monitoring the depradations of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) over several election cycles, has an instructive post up at TNR about their influence. Schmitt's post, "A Surprisingly Effective New Path to Neutralizing the Political Influence of Big Business" should provide some encouragement to Dems, who are interested in exploring some less traditional paths to check the GOP's corporate funders.

In the past, progressives have responded by trying to create a "counter-ALEC," a network of progressive and moderate state legislators, though they've never quite reached the necessary scale. (I served on the board of one such counter-ALEC, the Center for Policy Alternatives, which dissolved in 2008.) And they've tried various means to expose ALEC's operations to scrutiny, publicizing its role in drafting and promoting model legislation at the state level, and its funding by the now-notorious Koch brothers. This time, progressives tried a new tactic, encouraging a boycott of the mainstream corporations that fund ALEC. And it seems to have worked: Coca-Cola, Kraft, Wendy's, and several other large corporations on ALEC's "Private Enterprise Board" announced they would drop their support of the organization.

Schmitt goes on to argue that the boycott threat compelled companies to rethink whether they really wanted to sub-contract out their lobbying efforts to benefit their companies to an organization that was more obsessed with extremist ideological crusades.

A number of those donors seem to have decided that, faced with even modest amounts of negative publicity, the access provided by ALEC wasn't worth the price of being associated with political positions they didn't want to publicly endorse. Far from "intimidation," what the boycott threat did was force the companies to make a more careful, deliberate choice about what kind of political speech it actually wanted to support and put its reputation behind.

As Schmitt explains, it's really about understanding the psychology of corporate decision-making:

...Corporate political giving is not typically about political speech, or trying to change the actual outcome of elections. It's about access to the elected officials, whoever they are. What organizations like ALEC do is sell access, which they in turn use to promote a broader range of conservative causes. Boycotts and shareholder activism can break that pattern--not by intimidation, as conservatives suggest, but by forcing the decision out of the hands of the lobbyists alone and into higher levels of the company. A similar tactic was developed by The Center for Political Accountability, which uses shareholder resolutions to encourage companies to disclose their political giving. More than 100 companies have agreed to disclosure, but much of the value comes not just from disclosure, but from forcing companies to consider at a high level whether the organizations they are supporting really reflect the values the company wants to express.

Schmitt acknowledges that "ALEC will survive, with fewer donors and perhaps less of the sheen of a mainstream organization," but adds that "the apparent success of the ALEC boycott has revealed an untapped path toward rebalancing the power of money in American politics."

As Jason Easely puts it at Politicus USA, "In an incredible display of the power of boycotts, it only took 5 hours for ColorofChange to get Coca-Cola to stop supporting ALEC...One of the reasons ALEC has been successful is that it wasn't until the last few years that the left started to expose them. All of these stealth threats to democracy need to operate out of the public view...The power of the boycott should never be doubted.."