There are all kinds of good reasons for restricting the expansion of fast food restaurants, but are the political views of a chain’s founder enough? Boston’s Mayor Tom Menino, appalled by the “traditional marriage” stance of Dan Cathy,* founder and president of Chick-Fil-A, wrote Cathy to tell him of his views:
I was angry to learn on the heels of your prejudiced statements about your search for a site to locate in Boston. There is no place for discrimination on Boston’s Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it…I urge you to back out of your plans to locate in Boston.
Other mayors soon jumped into the fryer: Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel announced his–and his city’s–opposition to the chain restaurant, and he was followed by San Francisco’s Ed Lee, Washington DC’s Vincent Gray, and Pittsburgh’s Luke Ravenstahl. Politically, this is a relatively easy call for big city mayors; these days, they won’t lose elections by standing up for same sex marriage. Supporters on various social network sites were thrilled, like-ing, tweeting, and sharing in all sorts of ways.
But should the chief executive of a city use the powers of his office to prevent a business from operating because most of his constituents oppose the views of the owner? I haven’t seen any reports of Chick-Fil-A refusing to serve chicken sandwiches to anyone who wants to pay for them, nor refusing to hire someone to sell those sandwiches based on their political views or sexual orientation.
We should not be so quick to celebrate the use of local majorities to restrict the business of the unpopular. Notable Christian conservatives, like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin rallied to support the chicken chain, and there are surely civic leaders in less densely populated areas eager to support the opening of a new restaurant run by an opponent of same sex marriage.
(Would we expect the same areas to refuse to welcome an Amazon warehouse–now that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has donated $2.5 million, along with vigorous political support, to a campaign for same sex marriage in Washington state?)
There’s some sense in individuals making decisions about where to spend their money, trying to keep it out of the pockets of people who spend it on destructive politics, and to support entrepreneurs who do things we like. I drive 15-20 minutes to buy wax from a surf shop that treats its customers well–even though wax is available much closer; I buy not very tasty pizza from a local chain that offers tours for kids. At the national level, however, it’s harder to find businesses who haven’t done something you find problematic. If you like Jeff Bezos’s stance on same sex marriage, ask any publisher or independent bookstore about Amazon’s business practices….
It sometimes makes sense for movement organizations to target businesses engaged in practices and politics they deplore, but the boycott is a difficult tactic, and it’s laden with risk, not the least, of underperforming. Even when a boycott might be working, it’s hard for those without access to the company’s balance sheets to tell. Then again, maybe people just don’t like the chicken.
It’s wrong, however, to use local government to discriminate against unpopular views. New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a long time supporter of gay rights and same sex marriage, has this one right. Indeed, the mayors against Chick-Fil-A have since clarified their opposition and threats, emphasizing the bully pulpit rather than the arcana of zoning regulations. Mayor Menino, who initially warned about the difficulties of obtaining a business license, soon moved to emphasize his personal opinions rather than the power of the city. Mayor Emanuel, proud of his city, suggested that there wouldn’t be many customers for the chain.
Meantime, the restaurant chain has provided a ready target for activists. One group has called for a “kiss-in” on August 3, giving supporters something to do and demonstrating some of the support for anti-anti-gay activities–and businesses. There have already been pickets and demonstrations outside local restaurants. This approach is more viable for most activist groups than a boycott, and far more visible.
* Dan Cathy’s name was initially misspelled. Corrected August 3.