Should the American People Boycott States?

Economic action works far better against corporations than it does against legislators.

A “Welcome to Georgia” sign in Augusta. Source: Augusta Chronicle

The American political lens has once again turned to the Peach State in recent months. Georgia has found itself as a center of political controversy as a result of its new so-called election reform law. The Election Integrity Act of 2021, passed on March 25, enacts a number of harmful restrictions that will make it more difficult for poor people, African Americans, and other traditionally Democratic constituencies to vote. The bill became notorious for restricting volunteers from handing out food and water at the polls, sometimes to people who have to wait several hours to vote. Commentators immediately denounced the bill as racist and a clear power grab against the democratic process, with some likening it to the Jim Crow election restrictions of the early 20th century.

One common tactic against terrible laws is a state-level boycott. The idea is that economic pain will cause state legislators to rethink their decisions and to reflect the will of activists and their own unhappy residents. Groups have already responded with boycotts for this bill. Will Smith announced recently that he will not film his new movie Emancipation in the state due to the law. MLB also moved its All-Star Game to Denver.

The decision to boycott Georgia is understandable, especially among Democrats still reeling from their mixed performance in the 2020 election. But a statewide boycott can sometimes harm the same people whom Democrats want to help.

There are differences between boycotting a company and an entire state. A boycott of a particular company is a targeted effort against its behavior. Companies run on a bottom line, meaning that they will go out of business if they do not bring in enough money to cover their expenses and service their debts. This flexibility makes them extremely sensitive to boycotts in the social media age, when a well-targeted boycott can reduce income significantly. A few weeks of lost revenue can harm a company’s stock price and cause extended damage. Consider the case of Coca-Cola, which reversed its position on Georgia’s elections law just days after a public pressure campaign began.

States, on the other hand, operate according to entirely different rules than companies. A state can respond to lost revenue not by going out of business but by increasing taxes and cutting social services, the same services that help poor and marginalized groups. Most state residents do not have the ability to choose where to live. Over 13% of Georgia’s residents live in poverty. They do not have the money to pay for transportation or basic services, let alone relocation to a new state. These men and women will suffer as the result of a national boycott. They may lose their jobs. Their businesses will see decreased revenue from the loss of events such as the MLB All-Star Game. As Bernice King argued in a tweet back in March, “Please stop the #BoycottGeorgia talk. That would hurt middle class workers and people grappling with poverty. And it would increase the harm of both racism and classism.”

In addition, the tool of the boycott does nothing to threaten the position of Georgia state lawmakers. These lawmakers are answerable to the people of the state as subdivided in gerrymandered legislative districts. Many of the constituents they need to win over are not in hospitality or tourism-related industries and are mostly immune from the threat of boycotts. Also, these men and women receive a steady stream of conservative news that places liberal boycotts easily in a culture war frame that may actually provoke turnout. A Republican state senator, supported by their base of car salesmen, lawyers, farmers, and tech workers in Gainesville, couldn’t care less if Will Smith decides to shoot his movie in Virginia rather than Georgia. The loss of the state’s prestige does not matter for that senator’s electoral future.

The most obvious example of the short-sighted nature of statewide boycotts is North Carolina. In 2016, the state legislature passed a law forcing people to use the bathrooms correlating to the gender on their birth certificate. This effort was abhorrent, impossible to enforce, and anti-trans. Many national institutions responded with a boycott of the state. The ACC tournament pulled out, and, in a trial run of this year’s decision, the NBA declined to hold its All-Star Game in Charlotte for two years.

At first, the effort was successful. Governor Pat McCrory lost his seat to Democrat Roy Cooper, and the law was eventually repealed. But the boycott caused significant economic harm while doing nothing to punish the people who had originally crafted the legislation. Republicans actually made legislative gains in 2020. With this power, they ended up proposing another odious anti-trans law in 2021. Some groups will undoubtedly begin discussing another boycott if the bill passes.

In the social media age, there is a drive to do something to combat legislation that a particular group believes will be harmful. The politically engaged individual of the 21st century does not want to wait until the next election. But they can still work in the political process to effect change. They can donate to organizations such as ActBlue that fund political candidates outside of traditional election years. They can shift their focus to local races, which fly under the radar of Twitter-driven debates and have been devastating for Democrats in recent years. In addition, politically engaged individuals can amplify protests throughout a wide range of municipalities. All of these efforts will be more targeted, and likely more successful, than a blanket boycott of one of the nation’s 50 states.

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.

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