Opinion

Israel Should Sweat as Politics Invades American Business

People want to admire the companies that make their deodorant and sneakers, but politicized business on top of partisanship over Israel could spell trouble in the future

When politics colors business: Protesting Ahava products in Washington, DC, on July 29, 2009. Ahava manufactures skin-care products from the Dead Sea, but "Code Pink" claim the products are made with Palestinian natural resources
Karen Bleier, AFP

The traditional view has always been that business should stick to its knitting by making things, making money, and steering clear of politics. Lobbying for regulations and tax policies was one thing – and you did it as quietly as possible, but no CEO is his right mind would publicly take a stand on a controversial issue unrelated to his business interests.

In America, that has been changing. The key moment was Charlottesville, and Trump’s insinuating a moral equivalence between the white supremacists who marched there and their opponents. Corporate kingpins at places like Blackstone and 3M quit his presidential business advisory councils.

When Trump issued his order banning travel to the U.S. from mostly Muslim countries, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings declared it “un-American”, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin joined protestors at airports. Uber got itself ensnared on the wrong side of the debate by failing to show its opposition to the ban and lost 200,000 users in one fell swoop.

Trump’s divisive politics have contributed to the surge of corporate entanglement with the politics, but the truth is that this involvement began before his era.

In 2015, Apple and Salesforce.com weighed in when Indiana was debating a bill seen as letting companies discriminate against gay and transgender people. Last year, Paypal cancelled plans to open an operations center in North Carolina to protest legislation on transgender bathrooms, and Pfizer announced it wouldn’t provide drugs used to administer the death penalty.

Republicans buy sneakers too

What’s interesting about this phenomenon is that business isn’t just entering the world of non-business politics, it's entering the particularly dangerous area of values politics –just the kind of issues that are going to put your business in the middle of a culture war you don’t need to be fighting.

As Michael Jordan, the basketball star and product pitchman, reportedly said when asked why he doesn’t take political stands: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

By stoking controversy and dividing America into his friends and enemies, Trump has created more issues for big corporations to take sides on, but it seems that what really is motivating them is exactly the opposite of what Jordan said: Companies increasingly feel they have to make their position known, or risk alienating their customers and even their most valued employees.

Many people may be tempted the cheer on the politicization of the corporate suite. Instead of occupying themselves with cutting their taxes and an adhering to fewer regulations, CEOs are expressing a vision of what society should aspire to -- or more correctly, what the left aspires to, since companies almost take “politically correct” position on controversial issues. The few holdouts, like Hobby Lobby, usually come from a conservative Christian perspective and don’t win many plaudits for it.

Are you your deodorant?

I, on the other hand, think it’s a depressing development for America. Not because businesses shouldn’t have values and act on them but because so many people think it’s critical for businesses to broadcast them.  What it demonstrates is the diminishing respect people are giving to political and religious figures or intellectuals as a source of moral or other authority. They don’t identify with party politics, their church or an ideology, but they do identify with the products they buy.

American business has labored hard over the decades not simply to sell, say, a deodorant as the best way to ensure the user fragrant armpits, but to make the deodorant part of his or her self-image. You are the clothes you wear, the car you drive and the smartphone that hypnotizes you.

I know of people who were personally distressed when Steve Jobs died because Apple products were such a central part of their lives.

It’s natural that if these things are so important, the consumer will want the entity that’s designing, manufacturing and selling them to represent his or her values, too.

Deodorant: Woman wearing white top and black trousers looks at rows of deodorant in an Israeli drugstore.
Over Vaknin

Ironically, that means it’s the most controversial issues – the ones people are talking about – where companies have to be out front. And that goes vis a vis their best and brightest employees, too: They don’t just see themselves as working at a “job” but in a career that’s a form of self-expression and – actualization. How can they work for an employer who doesn’t uphold their values? 

We in Israel should be watching these developments closely because the politicization of the American corporation isn’t going to disappear when Trump exits the White House. Today businesses feel the need to take stands on gay rights, immigration, climate change and diversity, but tomorrow the agenda may move distressingly close to Israel and the Palestinians.

The odds of that happening are still remote, and the BDS movement is going to have a lot of trouble capitalizing on the corporate-politicization phenomenon. It’s very difficult for a conflict geographically far away from America to garner the kind of existential concern that domestic issues do. Americans are still strongly pro-Israel, according to opinion polls, and U.S. corporate ties to Israel are deeper than ever.

On the other hand, Bibi and Sheldon Adelson have worked assiduously to make Israel no less a Republican issue than cutting taxes. That’s help put Israel on the wrong side of political correctness no less than Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

It’s unlikely much is going to be done to correct the latter under this government, but tactically we should be restoring bipartisanship on Israel, keep it off the map of domestic politics and America’s CEOs friendly.