Steve April 16, 2021
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On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal published a remarkable editorial framed as a breakup letter with corporate America. “We have supported big business, including Amazon and Exxon, against the depredations of big government,” it reads. “We will again when warranted. But we’re under no illusions that big business is a reliable friend of capitalism.”

That last sentence has been justifiably pilloried, but it should be said that there’s something to the Journal’s lament. Some of the editorial speaks to natural tensions between the demands of ever-expanding, government-capturing megacorporations and the theoretical commitments of the free marketeers the Journals’ editors and readers like imagining themselves to be. The editorial’s characterization of Amazon and founder Jeff Bezos, for instance, isn’t really wrong. “His diversified company will benefit from R&D tax credits and especially from the Biden plan’s tax credits for investments in green energy for its server farms,” it argued. “Mr. Bezos can buy some political goodwill by providing cover to Democrats on taxes, while his company will benefit on the tax subsidy side of the ledger. Big businesses also know they can afford the higher costs of new regulation that smaller competitors cannot.”

But there’s more going on here than a dustup over laissez-faire principles. Corporations seek favors and largesse from Democratic and Republican administrations alike, and the Journal is generally happy to defend tax breaks, subsidies, and the power of big business as features of a well-running, job-creating free enterprise system whenever Republicans are in power. What’s bothering the Journal and a growing share of right-wing pundits and luminaries is the wave of progressive P.R. that companies have showered upon consumers over the last year, on issues from racial justice to climate change.

The latest showcase for corporate virtue, of course, has been the backlash to Georgia Republicans’ rewrite of the state’s voting laws, which prompted calls for state boycotts and a flurry of condemnatory statements from major firms. “They float above the messy but crucial details of electoral politics because they are essentially declarations of solidarity,” the Journal’s Board wrote bitterly. “They want to be on the side of the right (er, left) thinking, or at least of their woke 20-something employees and consumers.”

The Journal’s editorial is one sign that the rhetorical fight against “woke capital,” once confined to the rants of so-called populists like Tucker Carlson and Josh Hawley, has now fully caught on with the Republican establishment. Another came in an instantly infamous press conference earlier this month, in which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned major businesses to “stay out of politics,” before making a rather important caveat. “I’m not talking about political contributions,” he said. “Most of them contribute to both sides, they have political action committees, that’s fine.”

Corporate donors didn’t really need the reminder—many of the companies putting out pious statements now had no problem giving to Republicans under Trump and supporting the party’s state legislators even as they invested themselves heavily in partisan gerrymandering and restrictive voting laws under Obama. And some of the companies that made a big show of suspending their giving to the right after the attack on the Capitol on January 6 have been itching to get back into the game. Last month, Popular Information’s Judd Legum reported that Intel, AT&T, and Cigna, which issued statements after the attack announcing that they would halt donations to members of Congress who had opposed certifying the results of the election, had recently given to Republican organizations, such as the National Republican Campaign Committee and the House Conservatives Fund, from which those members benefit.

Obviously, corporations routinely play these games when it comes to policymaking. As TNR’s Kate Aronoff noted Tuesday, many of the companies now urging the Biden administration to commit to halving carbon emissions by 2030 are regular givers to the Republicans who have frustrated climate action, including Mitch McConnell. “Calling for this 2030 target costs these companies little,” she wrote. “It allows companies to collect some good P.R. and come out in support of something that sounds nice that can be announced through executive action, all while continuing to fund politicians who’ll ensure any such target lacks teeth.”

Here again, the Journal had a point. That P.R. is valuable precisely because it does help align major corporations with consumers and employees increasingly alienated from the right’s antics. But it’s preposterous to characterize them as material enemies of the right given that they clearly want to funnel money and resources to Republican lawmakers any way they can without raising hackles from vigilant activists. They owe their market power and low tax burdens to conservative policies, after all, and for all the right’s moaning and groaning about “woke capital,” Republican rule is still a better deal for them than Democratic governance.

The pretenses otherwise from right-wing “populists” are rhetorical constructions aimed at retaining the white working-class voters Trumpian politics has brought into the GOP. And the targets of this rhetoric have been chosen carefully. For instance, Josh Hawley’s jeremiads against cultural progressivism and conglomerates controlling the flow of information could easily be leveled at telecom and media giants such as AT&T and Comcast, which have amassed an extraordinary amount of influence over our politics and culture online and off. But it’s precisely that influence that seems to have made both companies too big to be seriously messed with by politicians on either side of the aisle. The newer and more attention-grabbing tech platforms—more associated with and responsive to liberal influence—are smaller dragons for Hawley to fight.

Likewise, of all the candidates our economy has offered up as potential foils for ersatz antitrust warriors like Hawley and his allies in the Senate, they chose, this week, to introduce a bill going after Major League Baseball—punishment for its decision to pull its All-Star Game and draft out of Georgia. “With their capitulation to the left-wing Twitter mob and support for Biden’s big lie about election integrity, they’ve forfeited any right to an antitrust exemption,” Hawley said this week. “They must be held to the same standard as the rest of American business.”

It’s not clear how deeply the voters Hawley and the Journal want to retain will fall for all of this, but it is fairly clear that not many really have to. Whether or not the anti-woke turn makes sense as strategy, Republicans are bringing us closer each day to a politics where strategy doesn’t really matter: The efforts to restrict voting rights in Georgia and elsewhere that companies have issued pro forma statements against are efforts to cement the GOP’s already incredible structural advantages, right down to the roots of political participation at the state and local levels. “Woke capital” would be happy to see them succeed.

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