When George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, brands across America practically jumped over each other to proclaim their support for Black Lives Matter and the broader cause of social and racial justice. Pringles’s Twitter account soon went dark in solidarity; Star Wars announced that it stood squarely against racism; Barbie promised to champion diversity; Amazon called for an end to “the inequitable and brutal treatment of black people” and put a “Black Lives Matter” banner at the top of its company home page. And on and on it went.
The Right, unsurprisingly, looked on these developments as further proof that the takeover of corporate America by an activist social justice agenda was complete. Some liberals, albeit approvingly, doubtless felt the same. It’s therefore both interesting and instructive to look back on this period in light of the recent wave of right-wing agitation designed to encourage large companies to distance themselves from various social justice causes.
This spring, Bud Light and its parent company Anheuser-Busch faced a seething right-wing backlash for their partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney and consequently released a mealymouthed statement reading: “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over beer.” Target, meanwhile, was hit with a barrage of right-wing complaints over LGBTQ merchandise and announced it would pull some of that merchandise from shelves.
After a concerted campaign by several Republican attorneys general, the country’s second-largest pharmaceutical chain obediently declared it would not sell abortion pills in nearly two dozen states. Last month, the National Hockey League revealed it plans to ban “cause-based” jerseys in its coming season, and workers at Starbucks — a company that has long been keen to brandish its social justice credentials — are claiming numerous instances of stores banning LGBTQ-themed decorations during Pride Month. In one of the more ridiculous examples, an effort spearheaded by Tucker Carlson has even succeeded in pressuring Mars Wrigley, the company that makes M&Ms, to put “an indefinite pause” on its use of “spokescandies” (one of which was deemed insufficiently alluring by some on the Right, and thus part of the woke agenda).
It was always somewhat absurd to celebrate large corporate enterprises for embracing the language of social justice. Many big companies discriminate and treat their workers poorly, whatever superficial inclusionist rhetoric their PR departments like to spout — to say nothing of how many union bust and contribute to climate change. Such enterprises are, by definition, guided by considerations of profit rather than those of justice, which structurally compels those companies to abuse and exploit workers and the environment — and makes the right-wing impulse to label them sinister agents of social progressivism even more ridiculous.
If there’s a lesson in all of this, it’s that much of what corporate America has done over the past decade or so to align itself with the language and iconography of social justice has been more a result of cold market calculus than anything more durable or sincere. With increasing numbers of Americans supporting LGBTQ rights and recognizing the systemic injustice facing black people, boardrooms and marketing teams clearly recognized the trend and airbrushed their branding accordingly. Greeted, as they have been more recently, by organized hostility by a small but vocal and mobilized right-wing minority to such branding, many have relented at breathtaking speed — evidently preferring to cave under pressure than risk alienating any section of their consumer base.
Given that some boycotts are now met with rival counterboycotts, it’s quite easy to imagine a future in which major market actors eventually respond by bifurcating themselves to serve competing red and blue constituencies — possibly, or probably, while enriching the very same groups of shareholders. For now, however, the most likely outcome is that many will simply become risk averse and avoid even superficial alignment with various social justice causes entirely.
This might be cause for concern insofar as it testifies to the effectiveness of organized right-wing pressure campaigns. But it’s also a case study in why no one should be entrusting stewardship of equality and justice to the likes of Starbucks and Amazon in the first place.
Whatever may have been true in the past, support for civil, LGBTQ, and reproductive rights is now a thoroughly mainstream and majoritarian position in America. That recent conservative efforts to roll these back have enjoyed any success at all is largely a testament to the countermajoritarian and antidemocratic features of America’s political system — from overpowered courts that have been hijacked by reactionary interest groups to a Senate that affords wildly disproportionate representation to conservative sections of the country. In the struggles ahead, genuine political democracy will thus always be a better guarantor of basic rights than the market.