You’re More Powerful as a Customer than as a Citizen (and that’s bad)

If you’re an early adopter, you likely sign up for a wide range of new products and services. A number of these startups inevitably fold, and then you receive their closing-shop emails. The correspondence making up this genre tends to be fairly upbeat and concise, painting over what are surely far more lurid tales of unrealized dreams and blown investments. The email I received announcing the demise of Moxy Vote broke with this pattern and offered an unusually candid, clear explanation of how and why they failed. And their failure points to a strategic problem today’s would-be social changemakers face.

If you’re frustrated by the state of our country and the world, and have been thinking about the need to operate a wider range society’s levers to create social change, Moxy Vote was for you. It was one of those ideas so brilliant, you end up evangelizing it despite having no ties whatsoever to the effort. Something like a third of all publicly traded shares are owned by your average retail (armchair) investors. Because each of our 401ks represents such a small percentage of a major corporation, we ignore our shareholder voting privileges even more than we ignore our citizen voting privileges. Moxy Vote was based on the premise that if we were to get together in any meaningful numbers, we could begin to have real sway with the powerful corporations that we are, at the end of the day, investing our earnings in. They sought to allow retail shareholders to vote online, and even automatically vote in support of positions taken by personally trusted nonprofit groups (e.g. environmental organizations). This shareholder organizing successfully pressured a number of corporations to make decisions that were better for board diversity, division of power, animal rights, and the environment, among other victories.

Shareholder rights is an avenue of activism that has received significant attention because of the disastrous Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates for corporate spending in our elections. If our voice as a citizen is completely drowned out by SuperPACs, the thought goes, perhaps our voice as a consumer can still resonate. Fittingly enough, Moxy Vote’s tagline was “Let your voice be heard.” Today, fulfilling that promise requires stock ownership.

We’re seeing this strategy play out on a number of fronts. Corporate lobbyists have successfully filed down the teeth of most government regulations, but many consumer-facing companies are still quite sensitive to their brand reputation. In today’s world, we’re more likely to convince a company to do the right thing with our Twitter accounts than with our federal government. Advocacy groups like Greenpeace have realized this twist of fate and adjusted accordingly, shifting their attention to consumer-driven brand campaigns, from Apple to Barbie to Shell. Change.org, for its part, enables a long tail of citizen-driven public pressure campaigns and regularly helps petitioners adjust their sights towards still-sensitive targets (think movie studio press offices rather than congressional committee chairs).

The institutions we trust to run our society are broken (See: SEC oversight, congressional inaction, etc.). We’ve adjusted by shifting our energy from our increasingly symbolic civic powers to our still relevant consumer powers. Campaigns like Bank Transfer Day focus on specific, concrete financial actions that consumers can take to create impact with or without the permission of co-opted public offices. Billions of dollars were transferred to local credit unions as part of Bank Transfer Day. Nearly 200,000 people signed up for the (admittedly wonky) Moxy Vote service.

Yet Moxy Vote’s demise highlights the limits of this approach to activism. First, our agency as citizens in a democracy should outweigh our capabilities as customers in a market. But more immediately, the significant changes we need still require going through our slow and probably corrupted public institutions. Moxy Vote was a brilliant idea to allow us to create change through our capitalist identities rather than our democratic selves, but at the end of the day, they ran into the same bank-controlled quagmire that controls the rest of our economy:

1. Individual shareholders have no legal grounds to compel their brokers to deliver ballots electronically to internet voting platforms. And, unfortunately, many brokerage firms have stated clearly to us that they will send them only when required to do so by regulators.
2. Proxy distribution/collection agents are presently charging significant fees to internet voting platforms for vote collection – a fee that should be paid by public companies and one that proves substantially more burdensome to individual voters than institutional voters.

In the face of institutional inaction, we naturally pivot into the areas where we still wield some power. While these efforts are exciting and lately, the only approach that seems to work, this cannot be our ultimate strategy.

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