The liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org believes in freedom of speech for everyone, with the exception of anyone who backs Republican or conservative causes with corporate money. So when Target Corp. recently got involved in politics, MoveOn made a target of Target.
MoveOn’s call for a national consumer boycott against the retailer is an obviously self-serving, demagogic attempt at commercial intimidation. It is also perfectly within MoveOn’s rights. They don’t pretend to be deep, serious thinkers over at MoveOn. (Remember the “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” advertisement?) MoveOn is about ginning up money, contact lists and voter enthusiasm for pretty much any interests aligned with organized labor and the Democratic Party.
These were exactly the interests that were most bent out of shape by the Supreme Court’s ruling early this year in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which established that corporations (and unions) have the right to pay for political advertisements. The decision stands for the proposition that, in America, it is never a crime simply to say something.
In the lead-up to last week’s Minnesota gubernatorial primary election, Minnesota-based Target decided to exercise its newly clarified rights. The corporation gave $150,000 to the pro-business group MN Forward to help pay for ads backing Tom Emmer, who won the Republican nomination. The ads argued that Emmer’s positions were the more conducive to business, stating, for example, that he had a record of voting against “job-killing taxes.”
In a letter to employees defending the company’s decision to fund the ads, Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel wrote “The intent of our political contribution to MN Forward was to support economic growth and job creation.” Pretty standard stuff for a business, particularly for one that relies heavily on consumer spending.
But, in addition to his economic positions, Emmer also has a widely known social agenda. Namely, he supports a state constitutional amendment to prevent gay marriage. On his campaign website he states, “I believe marriage is the union between one man and one woman.”
Target’s support for a candidate known for his opposition to gay rights has sparked outrage among the corporation’s employees and customers, as well as among liberal advocacy groups. The response was particularly strong because Target has been seen as a supporter of gay rights in the past. The company offers domestic-partner benefits for gay employees, has courted gay communities with direct marketing campaigns, and sponsors Twin Cities Pride, the nonprofit that plans Minnesota’s annual Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender Pride Celebration.
“The great irony to all of this is, both of these companies [Target and Best Buy, which contributed $100,000 to the ad campaign] have been stellar performers on our Corporate Responsibility Index,” said Fred Sainz, vice president for communications for the Human Rights Campaign, an organization which promotes equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
One Target customer, Randi Reitan, filmed herself visiting a Target store and cutting up her store credit card. "I had to speak up and so I decided to go to my Target, talk to the store manager and tell him that I just couldn't shop there anymore. Then I cut up my Target Visa card,” she told ABC News. Her video has been viewed nearly 300,000 times on YouTube. Another woman was photographed holding up a sign with the words “Boycott Target” while standing outside of a store in Bloomington, Minn. Monica Meyer, who heads the gay rights group OutFront Minnesota, discussed these consumer protests with FoxNews, arguing, “It's consumer dollars going to fund a candidate who wants to put discrimination in the constitution. We have the right to be able to criticize that decision and do it publicly.”
Meyer is absolutely right. With the right to express opinions comes the inevitability of being criticized for those opinions. That’s a lesson Target is learning the hard way. Steinhafel wrote, in his letter to employees, "We rarely endorse all advocated positions of organizations or candidates we support.” But which of a candidate’s many positions is the most important is a matter on which intelligent people can disagree. While Target might feel that Emmer’s economic plans are more important than his social stances, those who would be directly affected by his proposed changes in social policy may fervently disagree with words and with scissors applied to store credit cards.
Is MoveOn attacking Target because it wants to defend gay rights? Hardly. MoveOn’s assault is intended to frighten Target, and other corporations, away from getting involved in politics altogether. On its website, MoveOn invites customers to sign a petition stating “I won't shop at Target until it stops spending money on elections. Companies like Target should stay out of elections, period.”
The text running next to the petition form explains, “If we don't push back hard, this will just be the tip of the iceberg. Other corporations will learn that they can pour money into elections to buy the outcome they want.” In other words, when MoveOn places an advertisement, it’s advocacy. When Target places an ad, it is to “buy an outcome.” Thanks for the clarification.
I have made the point often enough that I strongly support gay marriage. (I don’t personally use the term “gay rights” because I don’t think there is any such thing. We all have the same rights. It’s just a matter of having them recognized equally.) But I won’t be signing MoveOn’s petition or boycotting Target. I’m not quite that easy to manipulate.
MoveOn and Target can say whatever they want. We all get to decide for ourselves whether to listen. That’s what the Supreme Court correctly decided in Citizens United.