Receive free The Top Line updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest The Top Line news every morning.
Before Howard Schultz retired from the Starbucks board this week, he lamented in an interview that the Democratic and Republican parties had both been “hijacked by the extremes”.
The coffee mogul, who abandoned an independent run for the White House in 2019, has often talked up companies’ ability to unite a divided country. But as the US gears up for another election, the chorus of executives worrying about extremism is getting louder.
Business once considered itself “a bipartisan enterprise” that could find moderates on both sides, former Dow chief executive Andrew Liveris told the Financial Times recently while promoting his new book, Leading through Disruption. As polarisation has intensified, he said, business had “stayed in the middle”.
“But it’s found pretty much no one to talk to,” he added.
The disruption that concerns CEOs now, though, is different from their concerns in previous elections about tax or trade. Growing numbers of them worry that intolerance and dark rhetoric are dividing their employees, inflaming consumers and even endangering the safety of their workplaces.
This summer’s harassment of Target employees and threats to AB InBev facilities over LGBTQ-themed promotions have heightened the alarm. Divisions between Trump voters and Biden backers are “leading to all sorts of workforce conflict already,” adds Johnny Taylor Jr, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management.
His members report “a real concern” about how Donald Trump’s supporters will react to his upcoming legal trials, he says.
Referring to the potentially fraught run-up to the November 2024 presidential election, he says: “I don’t think we wait 14 months; I think we’re starting to palpably feel it now. There’s a rumbling now.”
Rather than just fretting about extremism, some CEOs have concluded that they should be the ones to bring discourse back towards the centre — or at least what they define as the centre.
Taylor’s organisation is launching a “workforce civility” initiative, framing political differences as a diversity issue. At the state level, groups like Idaho Leaders United are doing something similar, rallying business and civic leaders to reject bigotry and political violence.
Business can’t thrive without safe, inclusive communities that talented people want to move to, explains Tommy Ahlquist, CEO of a property developer and one of the Idaho group’s founders. Having watched local leaders be attacked online and, in one case, face “mobs” outside their house, he says: “Today’s world is forcing more people to say if I don’t stand for something then I don’t stand for anything.”
Ahlquist, a Republican who ran for governor in 2018, once thought a CEO could tackle such problems by entering politics. But he realised, he says, it was “a different world”.
It is not “wokeism” for business leaders to insert themselves into politics from their day jobs instead, Liveris maintains.
“You’ve got to help the pendulum find the centre,” he says. “That’s the business role.”
The notion of “corporate political responsibility” already concerns people of diverse political persuasions who distrust corporate power and ask why unelected executives should influence the electoral process. There is every reason to expect that even a push for more consensual debate will face opposition just because it comes from CEOs. Whether workplace civility initiatives will reverse America’s long trend towards polarisation is also an open question.
But US business leaders seem increasingly convinced that they must try something, and increasingly concerned. US elections tend to “turn up the heat”, Ahlquist notes.
“I think our more challenging times are ahead,” he says.