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Analysis

The era of big populism is over. The era of big corporations running the American political conversation is back

The company logo graces the side of a Delta Air Lines jetliner.
The company logo graces the side of a Delta Air Lines jetliner.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Following the 2008 Great Recession, antipathy against Wall Street, corporations, and the nation’s elite generally began to serve as the biggest stimulant driving politics for the next decade.

From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump, populism was everywhere.

But following the death of George Floyd last year and the attack on Capitol Hill in January, there has been a noticeable shift in who is doing the most interesting work politically — and just who is moving the needle.

As populist politicians pay attention to their respective bases and largely talk past one another, it is corporations that are not only feeling more comfortable speaking out on social and political issues, but feeling more comfortable with the consequences as well. And here is the thing: In some cases it appears companies knew ahead of time that there would likely be blowback on their brands, but they came to the conclusion that it was worth it.

Standing against structural racism shouldn’t be hard, at least in terms of messaging. Nor should it be hard for companies to urge customers to wear a mask and practice social distancing in the age of COVID.

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But over the past week, the voices of corporations and their affiliate groups grew louder than they have been in quite some time in the wake of a new voting law in Georgia, which President Biden called “Jim Crow in the 21st century.”

Georgia-based companies Delta and Coca-Cola have both issued statements against it. The Delta chief executive wrote a letter to employees saying the law itself was “based on a lie” of voter fraud in the 2020 elections.

This came just hours after 72 prominent Black business leaders from companies like Merck and American Express paid for a New York Times single page ad saying companies needed to speak out against the law, which was passed by the Republican legislature and signed by the governor last month.

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Atlanta-based Coca-Cola followed when the CEO was on CNBC and called the Georgia law “unacceptable” and “a step backward.”

And, in the most high-profile move yet, Major League Baseball announced on Friday that they are going to move this summer’s All-Star game from Atlanta out of protest against the new law. This caused the governor to hold a press conference to lash out at this decision, saying it would hurt everyday workers in his state who were counting on a paycheck from that event.

It is not just Georgia. Following the attacks on the Capitol, generous corporate Republican donors like AT&T and Comcast announced they would cut off donations to lawmakers who didn’t vote to approve of election results. And the US Chamber of Commerce signaled after the election that they were going to start looking for more ways to work with Democrats. That is why it was a little interesting last week when the Chamber did something historically quite logical for them: oppose corporate tax increases proposed in Biden’s infrastructure plan.

And perhaps one of the biggest stories in American politics right now isn’t in Washington, but in Alabama, where Amazon workers are organizing a union drive that would have reverberations all over the country if successful. Amazon, for its part, is hitting back at critics in a big way.

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Corporations playing a big part in the national political conversation is hardly a novel concept in American history. From the East India Company to the railroads to “what is good for GM is good for America” to Wall Street and now Silicon Valley, corporations have always loomed large.

But in recent years, many corporate leaders have found the policy of just putting their heads down and doing their thing was the best strategy. That appears to have changed, especially in the first 100 days of the Biden presidency.

Next up in American public life: recovery from the pandemic. This, again, is a story about corporations. From those who created and are making vaccines at a war-time pace to major retailers like CVS and Walmart leading the effort to distribute the vaccine, corporations are often doing the work that might be expected of government.

On the horizon is a debate about whether people should provide proof of being vaccinated to begin to do things that were once regular, like board a plane, enter a restaurant, or attend a concert or sporting event.

States may well give into public health guidance, but Biden has signaled that he’ll leave such decisions up to the private sector, meaning it will largely be driven by what corporations want — and they may well create their own policies that go beyond whatever government demands.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.