Sonnenfeld: Big-Company CEOs Deeply Concerned About Public Safety—And Democracy

At a meeting in the wake of the attack on the Capitol, CEOs voiced worries and brainstormed ideas for how business can help strengthen democracy.
Hundreds of Trump supporters breeched security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the a 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, January 13, 2021—one week after the attack on the Capitol—I  convened an urgent conversation on national unity. This was the third such conversation. The first was on November 6, 2020, immediately after the election. The second was on January 5, 2021, one day before the Congressional certification of the election results.

This gathering brought together about 40 CEOs of major corporations, along with former senior government officials and experts, advisors, academics, and thought leaders. Participants discussed the implications of this attack and shared perspectives on what the business community can do.

4 Key Takeaways

CEOs have immediate concerns about public safety.

In the aftermath of the Capitol attack, they are concerned about safety during the inauguration and in the states.

“This happens in a democratic republic because we, the broader public, continue to cling to the belief that it could never happen here. And it has now happened here . . . What are we going to do?”

Polling Question Yes No
Do you think Washington will be under attack a week from today (Inauguration Day) from domestic terrorists? 82% 18%
Do you think public safety is at risk in all states through domestic terrorist attacks this weekend? 93% 7%
Is there a larger conspiracy paying the hotel and travel costs of the insurrectionists? 59% 41%
Should the inauguration relocate to an indoor venue? 19% 81%
Are you worried about your business continuity during the presidential transition period? 22% 78%

 

Some CEOs hold Trump and his enablers responsible for the attack and believed he should be impeached.

One week earlier, only 7% of CEOs we polled favored impeachment; after the attack this shifted to 96%.

“We’re at a point where an attack on our system requires our system to respond. Impeachment is an imperative.”

Polling Question Yes No
Did President Trump help incite last week’s violent attack on Congress? 100% 0%
Is it shameful that President Trump is yet to have a live press conference on the Capitol assault? 92% 8%
Is Donald Trump unfit to be President? 100% 0%
Should President Trump be impeached and removed from office? 96% 4%

 

CEOs have longer-term concerns about the health of America’s democracy.

Important issues that have surfaced will not go away after Trump leaves office, including an unleashing of hate and an explosion of disinformation, aided and abetted by social media.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to restore this democracy. We have to change the information culture in this country . . . without shared facts you cannot have a democracy.”

What to Do? Participants expressed several ideas for longer-term actions to restore democracy. Among them are:

  • A whole of society approach with collaboration among all institutions in society.
  • Reining in social media by enacting rules that hold platforms responsible.
  • Creating a shared set of facts to counter disinformation.
  • Focusing at the state level to prevent disenfranchisement of voters.
  • Bridging gaps. Only a subset of Trump supporters engaged in insurrection. It is a mistake not to try to bridge the gaps that exist with these individuals.

As trusted leaders, CEOs said they have a key role to play.

Trust in government and media is low, but trust in business and business leaders has risen. Business is the only institution seen as both competent and ethical. Importantly, trust in business is local, as trust is highest is in “my employer.”

“A lot of us are hesitant to wade into political waters. We don’t want to bring politics into the boardroom or to our employees. But we need to recognize that threats to the rule of law are legitimate business issues . . . It’s totally legitimate and therefore also very important that we speak out on these issues.”

What to Do? Based on the trust residing in business leaders, actions to be taken include:

  • Focus on job creation. The best way to heal the country is to get everyone back to work.
  • Use the CEO voice. CEOs have a responsibility to communicate facts. One CEO called on others to back politicians who take courageous positions.
  • Think about how best to allocate money and time. CEOs favor cutting off donations to politicians who supported sedition and many are considering a complete pause in political donations. The majority of CEOs would stay away from interviews with TV hosts peddling election.
Polling Question Yes No
Should business PACs and trade associations cut off donations to legislators who aided sedition? 100% 0%
Should business halt all political donations? 42% 58%
Would you avoid being interviewed by TV hosts/anchors who are peddling election denial, such as Maria Bartiromo and Lou Dobbs? 85% 15%

 

This informal Yale CEO survey is a poll of roughly 40 invited current and recent CEOs across sectors attending the morning of January 13, 2021 for the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute’s “Business Leaders for National Unity Forum:  Part III.” The full set of participants at the programs includes additional prominent opinion leaders, academics, public officials, and content experts, but their survey responses are not included in the reported CEO data. They are segregated through cross tabulation in our audience response system of the results with their occupational roles. All the responses in this non-random sampling are taken in real time, on the spot, to catalyze group discussion with a roughly 100 percent response rate.


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