Americans Trust Businesses More Than Government—Except Social Media, Which They Hate

15 February 2020, Bavaria, Munich: Mark Zuckerberg, Chairman of Facebook, will give his presentation on the second day of the 56th Munich Security Conference. Photo: Sven Hoppe/dpa (Photo by Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images) Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images

With an economy ravaged by the coronavirus, and a society wanting to know where corporations stand on Black Lives Matter, it’s worth asking how people feel about big business in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Are they critical of major corporations or more willing to cut big business a break?

An Axios-Harris poll released on July 30th shows that most Americans are more likely to trust companies, not the federal government, during the pandemic. The numbers are damning for the government; 75 percent of respondents said that “companies were more reliable than the federal government in keeping America running,” while 81 percent agree that large companies “are even more vital now to America’s future than before the pandemic.”

This shows a much greater level of support for businesses than even at the beginning of the year, before the coronavirus began ravaging the health and economy of America. In a Gallup poll conducted over the first two weeks of January, just eight percent of respondents described themselves as “very satisfied” with the size and influence of major corporations, while another 33 percent considered themselves “somewhat satisfied.”  This stands in contrast to those who were either “somewhat dissatisfied” (26 percent) or are “very satisfied” (32 percent).

Some of that pre-pandemic dissatisfaction with companies comes from Americans being unhappy with how the major corporations are (or aren’t) monitored by the government.  By a slight margin (44 percent to 41 percent) more respondents are dissatisfied than satisfied with government regulations of big business, according to that same Gallup survey. Of those upset with the setting of rules for the large firms, half want more regulations, while the other half want them decreased.

So what do people want from business in the era of the coronavirus?  In a February poll by RealClear Opinion Research, a third of respondents said that they believed that American business had a responsibility to take positions on social and political issues facing the country, while 26 percent disagreed.  Another third said it “depends,” while the remainder were unsure.

Interestingly, Americans seem to draw a distinction between making public statements and taking concrete actions. In the same survey, respondents were much more firm on corporate responsibility.  More than 75 percent agreed that “the purpose of a corporation is to maximize financial returns for its shareholders, but also to deliver value to their customers, invest in employees, deal ethically with suppliers, and support the communities where they work.” Only 15 percent backed the statement that “the single purpose of a corporation is to maximize financial returns for its shareholders.”

“The bottom line seems to be that most U.S. voters don’t demonize business, but they do expect a lot— and this is especially true of those under 40—from the private sector,” Carl M. Cannon wrote at RealClear Politics.

Then again, values are in the eye of the beholder. The survey also noted that 53 percent of Democrats are more likely to buy from companies that prioritize progressive change and policy, while nearly 20 percent of Republicans say those ethics would make them less likely to patronize a business. Conversely, half of Republicans would be more motivated to buy from a company that prioritizes conservative values, while 32 percent of Democrats say that would drive them away. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the nation, the desire to support ethical businesses has only increased. In the Axios-Harris poll from last month indicates, these businesses include grocery stores, technology firms, and telecommunications firms. People have even given a net positive approval rating to pharmacies and drug stores in these tough times.

The assessments backed up the RealClearPolitics poll’s findings on ethics, as it “ranked firms based on scores given by consumers on affinity, citizenship, ethics, culture, vision, growth and products and services, with affinity weighted higher than all the other categories.”

There is one industry that draws universal animosity: social media companies. 

Nearly 75 percent of all American adults “believe social media companies have too much power and influence in politics,” while 21 percent think the regulation is “about the right amount” and 6 percent think they don’t have enough power, as revealed by a July poll by the Pew Research Center.  Republicans (82 percent) are more likely to agree with this position, though 63% of those supporting the Democratic Party agree with this position.

In late July, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google CEOs spoke before the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee after a lengthy congressional investigation. They were roasted by members of both political parties, with Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos taking a particularly rough drubbing during his first congressional testimony.

Soon after, each company posted huge quarterly earnings.

Do corporations need to change?  According to Michael O’Leary with Market Watch, “The risk here is not that we don’t return to business-as-usual: it’s that we do. We must seize this chance to redirect the course of capitalism onto a more sustainable and socially responsible path.”  He added that only one in four trust corporate executives.   

What can companies do?  O’Leary recommends companies focus on their “social purpose” and who and what they serve.  Already, in the wake of protests over George Floyd’s murder, companies have taken on a substantial role in thinking about social change, even though they were not explicitly the target of the protesters.  Efforts have been made in businesses to reduce racism and sexism that corporate leaders and even much of the public turned a blind eye towards, recognizing that such issues do matter to their customers, especially younger people and liberals, who are the most skeptical toward the large corporation.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia.  His views are his own.  He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.

Americans Trust Businesses More Than Government—Except Social Media, Which They Hate