It happened in a matter of days.
In South Carolina, the governor called for the Confederate flag to stop flying over the capitol. The governors of Virginia and North Carolina quickly declared that they would remove the flag from state license plates. Meanwhile, several of the country’s top retailers — from Walmart to eBay and Amazon — announced in quick succession that they would stop selling Confederate flag merchandise.
Not for the first time this year, the concerns of political leaders and business elites converged on a single issue — and swiftly forced dramatic change.
The debate over the Confederate flag is the most recent and vivid illustration of how changes in the business community can influence and pressure politics. Earlier this year, Republican governors in Indiana and Arkansas faced staunch opposition from business leaders on so-called “religious freedom” laws that critics warned would discriminate against gay customers. Both states eventually amended the language in the original bills amid widespread backlash from small and large companies.
The recent skirmishes demonstrate how business leaders in deep-red states, where conservative Republicans control most or all the levers of power, often emerge as checks on elected officials who lean strongly to the right.
“What you are seeing is a broad, acknowledgment across both the consumer, the political and the business community that that particular emblem is no longer part of something that should be a state-issued emblem,” Kentucky-based GOP strategist Scott Jennings said of the Confederate flag debate. “To execute change in this country, that kind of convergence matters.”
Virginia’s lieutenant governor Ralph Northam, who supports Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s decision to strip the state’s license plates of the Confederate flag image, said in an interview Tuesday that businesses played a pivotal role in encouraging elected officials to adopt inclusive and mainstream public policies.
In 2013, the state elected McAuliffe over GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli, the state’s ex-attorney general who was criticized for his staunchly conservative social views.
“The business community — they have a lot of say and power all over the country, whether it’s on religion or ethnicity or LGBT issues,” Northam, a moderate Democrat, said. “When you’re running a business, you have to have the doors open and welcome diversity.”
The debate over the Confederate flag came in the aftermath of the tragic, racially-motivated mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, which left nine African-Americans dead in a storied church. The killings sparked furious debate over the use of the Confederate flag on the grounds of the state Capitol.
The verdict from businesses was swift and overwhelming: It was time for the flag to go.
Walmart, Amazon, eBay and Sears announced within the span of one day that they would ban the sale of Confederate flag merchandise from their stores, saying they had no intention of offending customers.
As Walmart CEO Doug McMillon put it, the decision was straightforward: “We want everybody to feel comfortable shopping at Walmart.”
Meanwhile, a myriad of companies including Nascar, Boeing, BMW and Michelin also rallied around South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley as she announced that the Confederate flag could no longer fly over the state house in Columbia.
Carl Blackstone, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, applauded Haley’s decision. He said his view on the matter was more than just a business consideration.
“Does it impact business? Yes,” Blackstone said. “But we need to bring it down not because of the business impact but because it’s the right thing to do. That’s the most important thing.”
The discussions to discard Confederate symbols and purge them from the marketplace reflect a deeper tension in Southern politics and business.
Corporate and business leaders say that the abandoning the flag is a step towards inclusiveness for a region that has long struggled to shed negative images. It’s the same principle, they say, that has driven the business community and Wall Street to be increasingly outspoken on divisive issues like same-sex marriage (some of the country’s largest banks and corporations signed a “friend of the court” amicus brief earlier this year requesting the Supreme Court to support same-sex marriage).
Meanwhile, the debate in South Carolina over the Confederate flag seems to be spilling over to neighboring southern states.
In Kentucky, a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis that stands in the capitol building has drawn fresh scrutiny. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and GOP gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin have both said the statue should be moved to a museum.
And in Mississippi, attention is also turning to the state flag, which includes the Confederate flag in the left top corner. The state’s Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn said his state flag had become “a point of offense that needs to be removed.”
Former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, famous for past racially charged remarks, told CNN this week that the state flag should be changed to the Bonnie Blue flag — “because that’s what the Mississippians carried at the Battle of Monterrey” — and commended Haley and her fellow South Carolinians for coming together in the face of tragedy.
“I’ve just been moved to tears by the way they’ve handled this,” Lott said.