The politicization of everything is too high a price for the gay-rights advances of the 2010s.
I sat in the Washington office of a major airline’s head of government relations, where we were joined by the top lobbyist for one of America’s largest hotel chains. It was 2013, and I was president of the gay conservative group Log Cabin Republicans. I had come to secure corporate support for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Pressure from leading corporations, I correctly assumed, would push waffling Republicans to vote for the legislation.
What business did airlines and hotel chains have weighing in on gay-rights legislation? None. In fact, doing so could even be bad business, as the lobbyist explained: “We already have a longstanding LGBT nondiscrimination policy, which actually puts us at a competitive advantage as a more appealing employer for gay people.”
“But count us in,” the hotel rep sighed. Avoiding the public flogging the company would take if it failed to support the bill was worth the cost of losing an edge in hiring. Months later, ENDA passed the Senate with the votes of 14 Republicans. (It never made it through the House.)
If the gay-rights movement in the U.S. didn’t ignite the trend of corporations taking stands on cultural issues, it was definitely a prime accelerant. And I was there writing op-eds that declared corporate backing for gay causes was “a sign of success.”
It was also completely unnecessary. Market forces organically shaped a culture in which almost every American now believes in equal job opportunities for gay people. And we’d have same-sex marriage in all 50 states today with or without 379 major corporations filing friend-of-the-court briefs with the Supreme Court.
The trend I helped begin, I now realize, was a disaster. In the past three years, major U.S. corporations have weighed in on everything from abortion and Black Lives Matter to election laws—even as the American public overwhelmingly wishes they wouldn’t. A 2021 report by the Brunswick Group found that 63% of corporate executives felt “unequivocally” that companies should speak out on social issues, while only 36% of Americans agree. A recent Journal poll found that 63% of respondents wished that companies wouldn’t take public stands on political and social issues.
Corporate activism turns off consumers and exposes C-suite hypocrisy. Companies demand “equity” in America while profiting from human-rights abuses in China. Or underwriting abortions for employees while maintaining anemic maternity-leave policies. Or issuing proclamations of “antiracism” by all-white executive teams.
Institutions’ obsequiousness to left-wing causes has also had a chilling effect on public discourse. An August 2022 Populace study found an alarming prevalence of self-silencing as Americans conceal or misrepresent their private views to avoid conflict and assure colleagues they hold the approved opinion. Self-silencing “destroys social trust,” Populace co-founder Todd Rose notes. “And it tends to historically make social progress all but impossible.”
Overcoming self-silencing requires turning against the forces that brought us here. American consumers need to call CEOs out for the chasm between their sermonizing and the scant public support for it. Decent Americans must unite and deliver an unequivocal message: If you want to get political, run for office—otherwise, focus on the bottom line.
My own efforts are no longer spent in boardrooms with executives and lobbyists. Instead, I have been rallying grass-roots activists so we can take on corporations’ double standards and push them back to neutrality.
We’re putting companies such as Walmart and American Express on defense for subjecting employees to propaganda and discrimination. We’re supporting student organizations that would otherwise be deplatformed at schools such as Emory University, and we’re playing a role in Facebook’s rule-making process.
Holding corrupt institutions accountable is penance for my part in getting America into this mess. These days, I’m committed to getting us out of it.
Mr. Angelo is president of the New Tolerance Campaign.