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Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

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Money buys power and influence, and the rich have a disproportionate share of all three. With the well-documented growth of inequality in recent years, there has been a growing fear that the middle class and the poor are losing the ability to influence our public life. For all but the wealthiest, it has become increasingly difficult to find the moments when our wallets can make a difference.

Luckily, some companies are making it easier. In recent years, there have been several company executives who have made the decision to enter the political fray. Despite a number of regulations to hide behind, some corporate leaders have taken the calculated risk that publicizing their views will be beneficial to their business. Others have had their views made public by financial disclosures of their personal contributions.

These disclosures give patrons a chance to vote with their wallets -- to make a decision about whether to spend hard earned dollars on items that may represent more than the product itself. For the organizations, it means making a judgment call about whether to embrace the politics, or flee from them.

Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy waded into this storm several years ago, when among other things he gave an interview and in reference to gay marriage said, "I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.'" Seizing on the opportunity, Fox News contributor Mike Huckabee called for a "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," and encouraged the public to vote with their pocketbook. Suddenly eating a sandwich meant taking a political stand. Despite a public outcry, "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day," seemed to be a success. For every group protesting the chains there was another standing in line to get in. And despite efforts to tamp down the controversy, the chain remains identified by the gay marriage debate it ignited.

Such protests have not always been as successful or well publicized. OkCupid's refusal to operate on Firefox in response to donations the Firefox CEO made to an anti-same-sex marriage campaign had less than a week of attention as Firefox quickly moved to remove the executive. Some conservatives joined Rush Limbaugh in a boycott over Heinz products in the wake of the 2004 presidential election (then-candidate John Kerry is married to Teresa Heinz Kerry), but it appears that it had little lasting impact.

Earlier this month, George Will sparked outrage when he suggested that sexual assault victims have "a coveted status that confers privileges" and questioned the legitimacy of campus assault claims and the belated steps that colleges and universities are now taking to address this epidemic in his syndicated column. Members of a broad coalition that is working to address and remove the stigma of sexual assault responded with criticism, dueling op-eds, and fodder for the 24 hour cable news programs. While some editorial pages responded by encouraging further debate, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch made a different choice. In a surprising move, the editorial page editor announced that Will's column would no longer appear in its pages after hearing from readers on both sides of the spectrum. Though he cited previous deliberations about the removal, the Editor said Will's column had been the catalyst and apologized to readers who were offended by it. Will's views had exceeded the Post-Dispatch's appetite for diverse views: minimizing the seriousness of sexual assault was not the type of diversity it was seeking.

Companies should take note of the errors of the past in deciding how an individual's personal political opinions should -- or could -- reflect on their business. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and to donate money to whatever causes they believe in. But public people do not have the luxury of personal decisions.

It's true, most of us will never have the resources to be major financial players in political campaigns. Our advocacy lies in our voice, and in our wallets.