Target gave $150,000. Best Buy chipped in $100,000. Companies supporting politicians or their political action committees isn’t new. A quarter-million dollars for Minnesota Forward—a group that supports anti-gay rights candidates like Tom Emmer—might seem like a gay rights issue, but it’s so much more. It represents the next frontier in consumer activism and a world where every purchase acts as a political statement. Join us inside as we explain.
What Is Minnesota Forward And Who The Hell Is Tom Emmer?
Tom Emmer is a candidate to be Minnesota’s next governor. He’s an ultra-conservative with an agenda. Everyone, of course, is entitled to their political views. His include allowing pharmacists to refuse contraception to whomever they want, shuttering the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, and supporting a group that encourages the execution of homosexuals. He thinks taxes are evil and wants them cut them like an emo hipster with a Swiss Army knife.
Minnesota Forward—actually, let’s just stop there for a moment. Isn’t Minnesota Forward a great name? We can all get behind going forward, right? Breathe it in, hear how wonderful it sounds: Paid For By Minnesota Forward. Ahhhh. Nobody but communists and terrorists could oppose a group with a name like that!
Minnesota Forward is actually a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce production, a political action committee established for the sole purpose of raking in corporate donations. It’s been a wild success so far, collecting $400,000 from just four corporations, including Target and Best Buy. Minnesota Forward supports Tom Emmer and his anti-gay platform, and has already started airing ads promoting his campaign.
Ok, Corporations Donated Money. Doesn’t That Happen All The Time?
This is different. Back in the good old days, corporations couldn’t spend money on behalf of candidates. If Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel thought Tom Emmer was good for Target, he had two options: donate directly to Emmer, or as Target’s CEO, establish a political action committee (PAC). Steinhafel did exactly that. He, along with Target’s CEO, CFO, CMO, and their executive vice presidents, all individually contributed tens of thousands of dollars to anti-gay candidates like Emmer. Those, however, were individual donations, and so we really don’t care about them.
We also don’t really care about the money from Target’s political action committee (PAC), the Target Citizens Political Forum. PACs were the vehicle corporations used to spend money on elections, which sounds an awful like what is happening now, but isn’t. The difference is in the funding. Corporations weren’t allowed to donate directly from their corporate treasury to PACs. Instead, the corporation’s employees needed to donate money to the PAC as individuals. That meant a few thousand dollars from the CEO and the other board members, and anyone else who trusted the corporation to represent its interests. The PAC was limited by whatever money it could collect—that Target had millions in its corporate treasury meant nothing if they could only collect thousands from their employees. From those limited funds, the PAC could then donate to candidates and make independent expenditures.
That too, is what happened. Besides making their own contributions as individuals, Target’s executive officers also contributed to Target’s PAC, which then gave money to anti-gay candidates and to anti-gay ballot measures like Proposition 8. All of the money, though, was donated by people in their capacity as individuals.
The Supreme Court didn’t like this system one bit and tossed it out in a case called Citizen’s United. The reasoning behind the decision is technical, but it boils down to this: corporations, like people, have a right to speech, and because money is speech, limitations on corporate spending are unconstitutional. As a result, corporations are now free to promote their views by making unlimited independent contributions that flow directly from their corporate treasuries.
So now, Steinhafel’s ability to spend isn’t limited by his ability to collect contributions from his individual employees. Instead, as the CEO of Target, he can use his corporation’s treasury to spend as much corporate money as he wants to support whoever or whatever he wants. That’s how Best Buy and Target were able to give $250,000 from their corporate treasuries to a group with a shadowy name that supports anti-gay bigots.
What’s Wrong With Corporations Promoting Their Views?
Minnesota Forward, Target, and Best Buy are all trying to defend their contributions to Emmer by arguing that they are really only interested in economic issues. Target bluntly explains that they support candidates who “seek to advance policies aligned with our business objectives.” Best Buy cloaks their support in more general terms, claiming their interest is limited to “jobs and economic issues.” What does that really mean?
Corporations have transparent but uniform policy goals: less regulation and lower corporate taxes. Corporations don’t want the government telling them how long they can hold passengers hostage on the tarmac. They think the freedom to contract means a freedom to impose early termination fees and the freedom not to disclose of any of their fees at all. Corporations see government as an obstacle, which is partly why they established their own private judiciary. As for taxes, lower corporate taxes mean higher corporate profits. They can’t lose! But don’t kid yourself, government finance is a zero-sum game. If corporations like Target and Best Buy pay less, people like you and me need to pay more.
When you look at the states that have enacted the sort of economic agenda that businesses crave, they happen to be the same states that offer absolutely no state-level protection for gay rights; less regulation means less protection for all consumers. Target and Best Buy’s blind support for economic issues makes it impossible for them to truly support social issues. Target has tried to paper over the donation by issuing a forest’s worth of apologies and pointing to its treatment of GBLT workers. But what’s the meaning of Target’s support if their candidates actively work to eviscerate the very protections Target claims to promote?
Where Do I Fit In?
Target has apologized for its donation, but they haven’t yet asked for their money back. Best Buy hasn’t even apologized. You can bet that every CEO with a political agenda is watching to see what happens next. If this goes away without a murmur, why wouldn’t they uncork their corporate treasuries to promote their views, too?
This politicization of corporate treasuries means that your individual economic purchasing decisions will soon make an even clearer social and political statement than they already do. You won’t even need to look at someone’s book collection when you can instead ask where they bought their bookshelves.The stores you patronize will turn your money into speech. As consumers, you need to ask whether their donations speak for you.
This means that boycotts, usually reserved for extreme offenses, are now on the table as a suddenly normal method of political speech. If you don’t want to support anti-gay bigots, less consumer protection, and higher personal taxes, do not give your money to Target or Best Buy.
But let’s not kid ourselves. If you don’t buy your DVD player at Best Buy, where will you buy it? Is Radio Shack all that different from Best Buy; Verizon different from AT&T; HSBC different from Bank of America? If one corporation donates to candidates who want to raise your personal taxes and strip away consumer protections, do we really expect better of the other? They can try to differentiate themselves in the market, but if they decide to enter the political sphere, they are likely to support the same agenda. Call it the price of the Supreme Court’s interpretation of free speech.
So what can you really do? Well, we hear New Zealand is a lovely country.
Tom Emmer, Minnesota’s Last Sovereign Individual [The Awl] (Abe Sauer at The Awl did truly phenomenal reporting and it’s worth reading his coverage in its entirety.)
Why Target Supports Tom Emmer [The Awl]
Target CEO Chooses “Business” over Gay Rights [The Awl]
Your Civil Rights Sausage Is Made in Minnesota [The Awl]
Target Doesn’t Support Gay Equality Because It Never Did [The Awl]