Throughout the current campaign cycles Americans have heard a lot about Political Action Committees or “PACs.” They are the result of the Supreme Court Case, Citizens United, which advocates for the idea of “corporate personhood.” It gives individuals and corporations the right to form PACs which can endorse political candidates/ advocate for issues and receive donations unlimited in size and number. These PACs can even form charitable wings within them and avoid being required to disclose who their donors are. While many of us might think of Stephen Colbert’s PAC “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” humorously when considering this topic, the reality is that unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns is growing out of control. Currently there are many movements developing which demand that Congress pass a constitutional amendment to reassert political speech of individual citizens and roll back the growing legal privileges of corporations.
One store and product brand that I once thought highly of was that of Target stores. Throughout the nation Target has an image of quality products, affordable prices, and clean stores. I personally appreciated their customer service. Yet, Target is just one of many examples of corporate gerrymandering in the political process. Back in August of 2010, I was frustrated to hear about a controversy that arose after Target donated $150,000 from its treasury to a group called MN Forward that ran an ad for Tom Emmer, a candidate in the Minnesota governor’s race who was an outspoken opponent of gay rights. Many describe Emmer is an extremist conservative who supports Arizona’s controversial immigration law and once supported chemical castration for sex offenders.
Target was in the past praised by gay rights advocates for its stance on gay and lesbian issues but immediately faced angry customers and calls for boycotts. The issue sparked a shareholder resolution demanding that the the company change its political donation policies. Target CEO Greg Steinhafel was forced to issue a public apology and promised to make the changes. After the revisions were made and released, there were many who claimed that the changes weren’t sufficient. Furthermore, after hearing of Targets support for Emmer, LGBT customers and gay rights supporters were outraged. Target even lost out on a potentially lucrative deal with pop artist, Lady Gaga, after she heard about the contributions.
Despite the changes, there are Federal Election Committee filings detailed in this Huffington Post article that show Target’s PAC donating to a wide array of anti-gay politicians in the months following the initial public uproar. Donations from Target’s top executives have almost exclusively gone to Republicans. Target’s former CEO gave $617,000 during his time, most of it to the state GOP. Current Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel has donated about $25,000 to Republican candidates and causes, including at least $1,000 to Michele Bachmann’s “Victory Committee.”
It may be impossible to predict how often companies will choose to spend shareholder money in controversial political races. Nevertheless, the practice raises many questions with regards to business ethics and the relationship between business and government which was further complicated by the Citizens United decision. Hopefully the unethical contributions from Target will serve as an example of the potential negative impact these donations can have if the company doesn’t walk the line between business and government carefully. If societal movements by MoveOn.org and the Human Rights Campaign don’t result in change to the Citizens United ruling, we can only hope that business maintains a balanced approach with regards to attempting to influence government.