In the wake of last week’s right-wing riot at the Capitol, some businesses are turning away from the politicians that incited it. The president of the National Association of Manufacturers, a lobbying group that represents 14,000 companies in the manufacturing sector, issued a statement calling the incident “disgusting” and calling for Trump’s removal. Dow Chemical promised to halt all donations to members of Congress who objected to certifying the presidential election. And the energy giant BP and auto-manufacturer Ford Motors have both vowed to halt all political contributions while they reassess who receives them. The brands, they want us to know, are pro-democracy.
I’m all for removing Trump, and I’m even more down with blacklisting members of Congress who have baselessly claimed the 2020 election was rigged and supported last week’s insurrection, cutting off some of their much-needed re-election funds. But ending contributions doesn’t make these companies good guys or make up for years spent both supporting politicians who block environmental regulations and lobbying against real climate action. The firms may not be storming the Capitol, but as long as they’re influencing policy with big money, they’re no bastions of democracy. Real democratic reform—and a fair shot at tackling the climate crisis—will require completely removing their influence from politics.
Take the National Association of Manufacturers. Until recently, the organization loyally supported the Trump administration, cheering on its recent ludicrous secret science rule and failure to up pollution controls. Both measures will actively hamper the government’s ability to protect the climate and result in needless pollution-related deaths.
It has also consistently and vehemently opposed efforts to phase out oil and gas drilling and coal use, and spent millions campaigning against 2009 climate legislation—even putting out a misleading study claiming the policy would cost the U.S. millions of jobs and have a “devastating impact” on the economy. The findings were vastly different from those of state agencies and based on dubious data of unknown origin, but that didn’t stop Republicans from citing it to justify their opposition to the bill.
Dow Chemical also has a long history of fighting environmental policy, spending millions to weaken standards for toxic chemical use. The company notably pushed the Environmental Protection Agency to reverse its ban on a pesticide it produces that has been linked to neurological developmental issues in kids. It also handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars to representatives who didn’t support the regulation whose ranks include plenty of representatives who didn’t support decertifying the election.
Outwardly, BP talks a big game about how companies need to join the climate fight, but its plans to cut its own emissions are largely just public relations nonsense. Behind the scenes, the company also spends millions to block regulations and preserve its market share. And Ford Motors, whose business model is also dependent on fossil fuels, has spent decades fighting environmental regulation, including fuel and pollution standards for cars even as its executives knew the risks of the climate crisis. Research shows Ford has been one of the top opponents of policies to help countries meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.
These companies have each come out against elected seditionists to varying degrees, attempting to signal that they’re interested in preserving fair and democratic processes. Doing so may also be an attempt to ingratiate themselves to incoming Democratic White House and Congress. But their promises don’t mean much, especially for the corporations pausing donations since corporation’s political action committees don’t tend to make big donations to candidates this early in the election cycle, as Popular Information recently explained.
In reality, these companies have been poisoning democracy long before the riot at the Capitol, particularly since the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that let many limits on corporate political spending go out the window. Last week’s events were the culmination of decades of corrosion driven by a number of forces. But corporate money in politics, which incentivizes elected officials to focus on appeasing large donors rather than making the lives of their constituents materially better, is one of them.
In his statement on the riot, National Association of Manufacturers President Jay Timmons said his organization is trying to rebuild the economy and save lives, “but none of that will matter if our leaders refuse to fend off this attack on America.” The same could be said of fending off climate change, and yet his organization is encouraging politicians not to do so.
To truly protect lives and the economy, we need political leaders to pass urgent measures to swiftly wind down fossil fuel production and reduce other sources of carbon emissions as well as invest in adaptation measures to keep people safe in the warming world. Poll after poll showing that the majority of Americans are concerned about the climate crisis and favor more stringent environmental regulations, and it’s politicians’ duty to enact the will of the people. But as long as corporations have more of a say than voters, they’re unlikely to heed their constituents’ calls for action.
And corporations left up to their own devices are unlikely to reduce their influence on the political process. After all, a lobbying group’s job is to protect the interests of the firms it represents, and the job of chemical, energy, and car companies is to enrich their shareholders, not protect the planet. We can’t trust them to curtail their own political contributions. That’s why our elected officials must limit their influence by placing strict limitations on political spending, or better yet, banning it altogether. Firms ending or pausing their contributions to a few particularly bad actors isn’t enough. Even as companies claim to be friends of democracy, their decades of donations tell a different story, and we can’t let them off the hook.