Opinion: Biopharma leaders helped save democracy. Now what?

The rule of law must be upheld for free societies and free markets to flourish, and only a well-functioning democracy offers the levers for rational majorities to prevail.

Americans support causes and candidates. We debate and organize. Then we vote, respecting the outcome, knowing that soon enough, we’ll have the sacred right to do so again.

But what if a determined minority set out to damage democracy’s levers and undermine the integrity of the vote?


Two years ago, following the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, that was an open question. Fortunately, the American business community helped draw a line in the sand as the country focused on preserving democracy in the two years since.

The biopharmaceutical industry helped lead a charge as its two major trade associations and leading biopharma innovators stopped — or paused — political contributions to 147 lawmakers who voted against the 2020 election after all of more than four dozen lawsuits challenging the results were dismissed by state and federal courts. Major corporations like Amazon, American Express, BestBuy, Cisco, Dell, Disney, Dow, Hallmark, Marriott, Nike, Verizon, and Walmart did the same.


Just as important as announcing these campaign finance consequences, CEOs and business lobbyists made their concerns clear to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his staff. They listened.

Last month, after declaring his intention to “proudly” vote for the bipartisan Electoral Reform Act, McConnell helped move the legislation through the Senate and on to President Biden’s desk for enactment.

The law makes fake elector slates a historical relic by clarifying the role of governors and courts in ratifying the people’s choice. It disempowers partisans who would raise frivolous objections to valid electors, requiring 20% of members of the Senate and House of Representatives members to object instead of a single member in each body. It ensures that state legislatures can’t declare a “failed election” to overrule the will of voters. And it clarifies that the Vice President’s ceremonial powers do not include right of refusal to certify the electoral college vote.

We’ll never know if this landmark legislation would have become law if biopharma and other CEOs had stayed silent after the attack on the Capitol, because so many didn’t. This much is certain: If lawmakers hadn’t passed the Electoral Reform Act just five days before the 117th Congress adjourned for good, the bill would have been dead on arrival in the House during the 118th.

To me, the lesson from this harrowing victory upholding the pillars of self-governance is that CEO leadership has never mattered more. I will continue to use my personal platform to advocate for responsible governance and the preservation of Americans’ hard-won freedoms.

Some argue that it’s not the job of biopharmaceutical leaders to weigh in on policy matters outside of our wheelhouse. But we know that investors are loathe to invest in countries rife with democratic instability. In our high-risk industry, political uncertainty is an innovation killer. The biopharma ecosystem won’t function properly if our democracy doesn’t.

Churchill famously observed that democracy is the worst form of government except for all other forms that have been tried. In our own messy democratic experiment, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 12 years ago in the Citizens United case that, under the Constitution, businesses have a form of corporate personhood and may offer unlimited support to political candidates of their choosing. Love it or hate it, that’s the law of the land.

Now that we’ve seen the critical impact that industry can have as a defender of the rules-based democratic order, I urge my fellow CEOs not to underestimate the difference that values-based leadership from corporate America can make in our politics.

Paul Hastings is the CEO of Nkarta Therapeutics in South San Francisco. The opinions expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect those of Nkarta.

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Source: STAT