The Election Heard Round the Watercooler

This year's election wasn't the most negative in history, or the most trivial. But it did see a few new developments, including one particularly troubling one: the spread of politics into some places it used to be unwelcome. And not just any politics, but a kind of ill-informed, antagonistic kind of politics, the kind that says that your party losing is literally a national catastrophe and that there is no such thing as an opponent, only an enemy. When we hear ridiculous stories like that of the gun store owner in Arizona who took out an ad in the local paper proclaiming, "If you voted for Barack Obama, your business is NOT WELCOME at Southwest Shooting Authority," we aren't surprised. After all, hundreds of thousands of people—maybe millions—got an extra dose of partisanship at their jobs this year for the first time.

When the Supreme Court decided the Citizens United case in 2010, most of the focus was on the fact that the decision allowed corporations and wealthy individuals to participate in electoral campaigns in ways like advertising on television. But few noticed at the time that it also meant that employers could and would take direct steps to try to persuade or even threaten their employees to vote the way the CEO wanted them to. You've probably heard one or two stories about such efforts, but you may not know just how widespread it became in the 2012 election. It may not have been enough to sway the election in Mitt Romney's favor, but it changed the atmosphere in more than a few workplaces.

As one might have expected, Charles and David Koch led the way. Not content to operate only through the conservative organizations and super PACs they fund, the billionaire brothers sent a packet to all 45,000 employees of Georgia-Pacific (one of the companies they own) with anti-Obama and pro-Romney essays written by the brothers and a list of endorsements in the employees' own states. And they had plenty of company. David Siegel, the CEO of Westgate Resorts (and the subject of the recent film "The Queen of Versailles," about his and his wife's quest to build America's largest home), sent his employees a letter saying he might have to fire them if Barack Obama were re-elected. "The economy is falling apart and people like me who made all the right decisions and invested in themselves are being forced to bail out all the people who didn't," he whined. "If any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, as our current President plans, I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company." Sheldon Adelson wasn't the only casino mogul involved in the election; Wynn Resorts sent a booklet with the company's official endorsements to all its 12,000 Nevada employees. "It would be a complete disaster if Obama wins," said Steve Wynn, "which is why I'm urging my employees to vote for Romney." The home improvement retailer Menards had its employees participate in an online "civics course" that was little more than thinly-veiled anti-Obama propaganda.

It goes on. The CEO of ASG Software Solutions told his 1,000 employees that if Obama got re-elected, he might sell the company and up to 60 percent of them could lose their jobs. "If we fail as a nation to make the right choice on November 6th," he said, "and we lose our independence as a company, I don't want to hear any complaints regarding the fallout that will most likely come." The CEO of Lacks Enterprises, an auto-parts supplier that owes its survival to the auto bailout, sent his 2,300 employees a letter urging them to vote against Obama. "It is important that in November you vote to improve your standard of living and that will be through smaller government and less government." In a letter to his 1,400 employees, Mike White, the CEO of industrial equipment manufacturer Rite-Hite, warned that disaster would befall the company if Obama were re-elected, though "Rite-Hite nor I will ever prejudice any employee for their political views and totally respect your right to vote as you choose." Saddle Creek Logistics Services sent a more subtle letter to its 3,000 employees, outlining how the company's positions on issues lined up with Mitt Romney's but not Barack Obama's. "Never before," they said, "has a Presidential election posed such a contrasting view on how to achieve success for the most Americans." Scott Farmer, the CEO of the uniform supply company Cintas, sent a letter to his 30,000 employees just before the election denouncing the Affordable Care Act and other Obama administration regulations. "The communication was not an attempt to suggest to employees how to vote," said a company flak, "but rather it was sent to help partners make an informed decision." Coal company owner Robert Murray, who had forced some of his miners to attend a Romney rally and then docked their pay for the work time they missed, followed up on his threat to lay off workers if Obama were re-elected, responding to election day by reading his employees a prayer ("My regret, Lord, is that our young people, including those in my own family, never will know what America was like or might have been … the takers outvoted the producers"), then gave 156 of them pink slips.

And those were just the ones that were reported in the media. This wasn't a conspiracy, just one conservative CEO after another deciding on his own that action had to be taken (though Mitt Romney himself had encouraged business owners to do just that). Oddly enough, we didn't hear any stories of employers telling their employees to vote for Barack Obama, despite the fact that there are plenty of liberal businesspeople in America. Maybe they were just more restrained. Or maybe the conservative employers had been told so many times that if Obama won it would mean the very destruction of all they hold dear, that they just believed they had to use every means available to them to avert disaster. After all, when you're standing on the edge of a cliff, and the ungrateful peons on whose labor you rely are threatening to push you and everyone else to our collective doom, what choice do you have but to yell "Stop!"?

During the time between elections, we might hope that tempers will cool and people can go back to doing their jobs without worrying about whether their political preferences line up with those of the boys in the executive suite. And perhaps, after a second Obama term doesn't see a collapsed economy and billionaires being rounded up and sent to re-education camps, the new corporate activists will realize that their fears were overblown. But I doubt it. Politics can now be a part of any workplace, should the boss so choose. Four years from now (and probably two years from now as well), those letters will start showing up in paychecks once again.

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