Corporations aren’t ‘woke.’ They follow the culture and their customers to make money.

Have corporations been absorbed by the “woke mob,” as high-profile Republicans have taken to claiming? Are Nike, Delta and Major League Baseball the new “social justice warriors”?

Please.

Whether you’re conservative or liberal, whether you condemn or cheer things like Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ads or the corporate pushback against Georgia’s new voting law, don’t be tricked into thinking that America’s corporate giants are becoming something fundamentally different from what they’ve always been.

But what you can see them as, in addition to profit pursuers, are bellwethers — highly useful signalers of where the culture is headed and how reality-based organizations are positioning themselves for success. While you can’t count on corporations to be your political best friend (or enemy), you can certainly pick up a thing or two observing their behavior.

Profit motive knows no ideology 

For those accustomed to strong alignment between big business and the GOP, the world has seemed upside-down in the weeks since passage of Georgia’s controversial voting measures. Republican standard-bearers have attacked companies, including Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, for criticizing the legislation. But even before, megacompanies including Amazon and Facebook have been under fire (sometimes for good reason) from GOP furymongers.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has threatened to retaliate against companies for their “aggressive positions on woke cultural issues that tear at our national fabric.” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp ridiculed MLB’s “knee jerk” decision to move this summer’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta, charging that “cancel culture and woke political activists are coming for every aspect of your life.” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has warned corporate CEOs “to stay out of politics” – later clarifying that he would tolerate the form of political participation that consists of donating large sums of money to him and his party.

Democrats might feel like jumping to the unqualified defense of corporate entities that are suddenly in the rival party’s firing line. If they do, they’ll quickly find themselves walking it back, à la McConnell, because … Facebook? Amazon? Really? Companies might anger Republicans today, but they will inevitably do something to infuriate Democrats tomorrow. As Elizabeth Bruenig correctly notes, “Capital is unfaithful. It can, and does, play all sides.”

Nike's Michael Jordan image on Sept. 29, 2009, in Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Don Ryan/AP)

The profit motive that compels companies to commit dastardly deeds also compels them, at other times, to do things that might strike you as righteous. When the latter, it’s not because they are essentially virtuous (they’re not) but because pursuit of profit has, for a moment at least, driven them to the side of the angels.

Their calculations are not always right. But public-facing companies have powerful incentive to figure out where their current or desired markets are going and how they can go there, too. When their bottom lines are at stake, businesses cannot afford to be ruled by the fact-free ideologies and conspiracy theories that hold such sway today.

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Take the insurance industry and the climate crisis. For years, while oil companies and their political defenders did everything they could to deny, downplay and distract, those running the insurance companies had no choice but to pay attention to what was really happening. As in more storms, more floods, more property damage, more payouts. With worse to come.

Now, Swiss Re, one of the worlds’ biggest insurance companies, has issued a report warning that the effects of climate change –wildfires, reduced crop yields, rising sea levels and so on – threaten to hammer the global economy in the coming years and decades. 

When it comes to the reality and effects of the climate crisis, who is more motivated to understand accurately and speak truthfully? A corporation that actually pays the bills of a deteriorating climate? Or political actors who don’t like the implications of climate change and, thus, pretend it isn’t real?

What’s good for business

Then there’s Nike. Despite their pro-business predilections, many Republicans were aghast at Nike’s embrace of Kaepernick at the exact time he was antagonizing the NFL, at great cost to his football career, with his social justice activism. You may recall the startling ad that Nike rolled out in 2018: a close-up of the ostracized quarterback’s face behind text reading, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

As with its other athlete-oriented campaigns, Nike was making a hero of Kaepernick and implying that you could share in the glory by buying the brand. What stood out was the nature of the athlete’s heroic deeds — which this time were taking place not on the field or court but in the activism arena.

Why would Nike do this? Because the company had reason to believe it would be good for business. Because it knew the people in its market were attracted to diversity and inclusion and appalled by fatal shootings of Black people by police. To flip the (in)famous Michael Jordan line of a bygone era, Nike knew that “Democrats buy sneakers, too.”

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“Companies are reading the writing on the wall,” says Thomas DiNapoli, New York’s state comptroller and trustee for its public pension fund. What they see is driving many to support anti-racism, address the climate crisis and stand up for democracy. Not because they’re bleeding hearts but because they want to please customers, operate in positive business environments and make money.

They’re not “woke” — just open-eyed and alert to keeping up with the culture. I can think of a political party that ought to take a cue.

A member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, Tom Krattenmaker writes on religion and values in public life and directs communications at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of “Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.” Follow him on Twitter: @krattenmaker

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