A glimmer of hope as democracies falter at home and abroad

Aug 19

Florida Times Union, Aug 13, 2021

Concerned about the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19’s Delta variant across our region, on Aug. 3, I joined a group of parents and doctors at a rally to demand that the Duval County Public School Board mandate masks in schools. This small exercise in democracy was instrumental in forcing the School Board to mandate masks, albeit with a perplexing opt-out clause. Despite the threats of retaliation from Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, people standing up for their right to protect their loved ones prevailed, rekindling the seemingly dying embers of our flawed democracy.

This was not the first-time ordinary citizens in Duval made their voices count. Ordinary citizens made a difference last year when they banded together to oppose the privatization of our public utility, JEA. Earlier this year, ordinary citizens made a difference once again when they objected to hundreds of millions of tax dollars being directed to the private development of Lot J, without clarity on the payoffs to taxpayers. To his credit, Jaguars owner Shad Khan responded to these concerns by going back to the drawing  board and returning with a proposal that had both greater transparency and better return on investment (ROI) for taxpayers.

The $120 million Jaguars performance center will be 50 percent funded by taxpayers and seems to assuage the fears of many Lot J critics, such as David Miller, owner of Brightway Insurance, who called the new proposal, “transparent, thoughtful and significant.” I was at the June 3 unveiling of this ambitious project. While listening to the impressive presentation put together by the Jaguars, I could not help but reflect on the power of ordinary citizens collectively raising their voices and the responsiveness of businesses that value such voices. Democracy allows diversity of worldviews to play out in the marketplace of ideas, often producing outcomes that are good for businesses and good for the communities. Studies have shown that societies that fully embrace democracy are more stable and therefore provide the optimal environment for businesses and communities to flourish

A new era of corporate social responsibility could be upon us. Perhaps due to the ubiquitous nature of social media or in part due to the persistence of grassroots community organizing, businesses are realizing something that I have been researching and writing for over two decades – a commitment to social responsibility is no impediment to the core corporate goal of value or profit maximization.

Toyota serves as a recent case study. In the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol Hill, that ended 44 consecutive peaceful transitions of Presidential power, spanning over two centuries, Toyota along with many other major corporations pledged to no longer donate to those members of Congress who sowed needless doubts about the democratic process when they voted to not certify the Presidential elections of 2020. A few months later Toyota resumed their contributions. Facing a storm from stakeholders dismayed that the company was funding those who directly or indirectly aided and abetted a frontal assault on democracy in its most perilous hour, Toyota reversed course.

A 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer report found a staggering 86 percent of respondents want corporate CEOs to lead on societal issues. When government actors fail in their fiduciary duties, 68 percent want businesses to engage on social issues, “with the same rigor, thoughtfulness, and energy used to deliver on profits.” Paying attention to the proverbial bottom line of cash flow but ignoring the perils posed by socially irresponsible actions, such as promoting the big lie of a stolen election, is no longer a sustainable business practice.

Freedom House, America’s oldest organization devoted to the support of democracy reports that, “In every region of the world, democracy is under attack by populist leaders and groups that reject pluralism and demand unchecked power to advance the particular interests of their supporters, usually at the expense of minorities and other perceived foes.” Jan. 6 was the most vivid example here at home about the fragility of our democracy.

Amid the worry about where we go next, I find hope in the small steps our Duval community. Witnessing the successes of a small group of committed citizens, even against strong headwinds, restores hope that democracy will remain the most effective form of governance, so long as people are resolved to making their voices heard and businesses commit themselves to listening.

Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D., is Professor of Finance and Director of Diversity and Inclusion at UNF’s Coggin College of Business