Cross-posted from The Financial Times.
When the student survivors of the Valentine’s Day shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida came to Washington to lead a gun control march at the weekend, they travelled in a company jet loaned by the New England Patriots American football team. The ride-sharing company Lyft offered up to $1.5m in free rides to people attending marches in 50 US cities. The Italian fashion house Gucci pledged $500,000 for the event.
For companies, supporting the gun safety movement is an easy call. A recent poll from Quinnipiac University shows that three-quarters of Americans now say Congress should do more to reduce gun violence. Another survey found that 82 per cent believe people under the age of 21 should not be able to buy any sort of firearm. In some polls, up to 97 per cent support background checks for all gun sales instead of the patchwork system now in place.
Even so, the odds of the US political leadership passing significant legislation in response to overwhelming popular demand is vanishingly small.
Who would have thought that companies would be the real champions of democratic values in the era of Donald Trump? To the extent that they are, it is because, unlike politicians, most corporations do not gerrymander. Companies know that appealing to a broad base of customers is essential to their survival.
For a business such as Walmart, where 95 per cent of Americans spend money, it made sense after the Florida shootings to demand that gun purchasers be 21 or older. Others, such as Delta and Symantec, also made business decisions to align with public opinion.
Politicians have engineered the opposite reality; mere slivers of the population are all that matter to them. At first, US political leaders seemed poised to respond to democratic forces. But, after a meeting with the National Rifle Association, the possibility of reform faded. Critics said their leaders had been bought off by the NRA, which pumped $30m into Mr Trump’s presidential campaign and spent millions more backing congressional candidates.
US politicians have done something no company could ever get away with: they have reduced their clientele to the barest minimum needed to stay in business. Gerrymandered districts make this approach profitable.
The US has taken gerrymandering to the extreme, according to a study by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. Legislatures draw their own electoral districts, often in ways that guarantee partisan advantage. By one measure, close to 45 per cent of the US population lives in gerrymandered states. In many such districts, the influence of voters in primary elections, which choose each party’s nominees for president and Congress, is all. Because fewer than 20 per cent of voters generally show up for primaries, a small number of intensely dedicated NRA members can make all the difference.
Any company that tried to follow the tactic of catering to merely a fifth of the market would wither. Consider what happened to Papa John’s, the official pizza sponsor of the National Football League, when it carelessly gerrymandered its customer base. In late 2017, after Mr Trump provoked a dispute with NFL players who were protesting racial inequality, the Papa John’s chief executive said he blamed falling sales on the dispute. “The controversy is polarising the customer, polarising the country,” said John Schnatter. Within two weeks, Mr Schnatter was out of a job — and sales had dropped further. The NFL marketing deal ended in February.
Gerrymandering is not exclusive to the US. The UK’s decision to exit the EU is, in a way, a retreat to a small base. Businesses have reacted negatively. This month, the Anglo-Dutch company Unilever chose to move its headquarters to Rotterdam over London. It denied Brexit was the reason for the decision. Many observers disagreed.
Unilever’s desire to appeal to a broad consumer base is not limited to its headquarters. In February, Keith Weed, its chief marketing officer, announced the company would cut advertising spending on Facebook and Google, which he suggested “create division in society, and promote anger or hate”. Unilever may be coming to the conclusion that some digital platforms undermine its quest for a broad pool of customers. “This is a deep and systematic issue. An issue of trust that . . . threatens to undermine the relationship between consumers and brands,” Mr Weed said.
Meanwhile, politicians will continue to use such platforms to micro-target their voter base. Why? Because, in politics, gerrymandering is still an effective business model.
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
(Photo: Flickr: Lorie Shaull)