Will big business ditch the GOP over social issues?

Will big business ditch the GOP over social issues?
Governor Ron DeSantis Screengrab

I’m skeptical of the idea that the Republican Party and Big Business are heading for an acrimonious divorce. To be sure, Disney took hellfire after saying its “goal” was repealing Florida’s barbarous new Don’t Say Gay law. GOP bottom feeders have, moreover, called America’s most family-friendly brand “pro-child predator” and “pro-pedophile.”

But corporations know which party has favored them for decades. They know that, for all his bluster, they still got sweetheart tax cuts from the former president. Many have even resumed contributions to the 147 members of Congress who voted to overturn the last election.

Still, the Disney melee is different in intensity – and absurdity. Again, this is Disney we’re talking about. “Pro-pedophile”? Really? In that absurdity, perhaps there’s something telling us history is turning. The business-friendly Republican Party isn’t what it used to be. Indeed, we might be witnessing the making of a “business-skeptical conservatism.”

Perhaps it’s better to say Big Business itself is splitting up. On the one hand are the extraction industries – oil, gas, mining. They are less inclined to move with cultural trends. They are less concerned with the tastes and mores of an emerging generation of consumers. They are probably going to stick with the Republican Party, even though many gas and oil firms see the coming end of the fossil-fuel era.

On the other side are Disney and all the other publicly traded companies with a public face. Their only concern, after widening their profit margins, is meeting consumers where they are. If the culture is getting more enlightened – if it’s less willing to tolerate laws openly discriminating against subgroups – companies will follow suit.

Will they stick with the Republicans? Will they find a new home with the Democrats? To find out more, I talked to Corey Richardson. Along with being a (much too infrequent) contributor to the Editorial Board, he’s a marketing executive for a major advertising firm in Chicago.

Corey knows business, especially how politics influences it. He told me the old Republican Party, the party of Ronald Reagan, has collapsed. Its rightwingers no longer feel they need Big Business. That’s why many of them are daring to call Disney, of all things, “pro-child predator.”

That can’t last, Corey said.

“The right is counting 20 percent,” Corey said. “More people watch The Mandalorian than vote. More watch Iron Man than vote. Spider Man is bigger than elections. Picking a fight with not just any corporation, but a corporation that essentially owns pop culture? That's just stupid.”

In the GOP, are the right-wing and business wing splitting?

Let's go back to when the unholy alliance became what it is. A confluence of business interests, evangelical Christian interests and conservative interests created the current Republican coalition.

The evangelicals gave the energy, the [intellectual] conservatives gave the ideas and the business community funded the whole operation.

It was a simple transaction. You give us tax breaks and we'll make sure your people get elected. That alliance lasted about 40 years.

But now we've gone from conservatism to populism.

Culture wars are no longer a secondary or tertiary thing. The right recognizes they control the Supreme Court, they control the state legislatures and they can pass all kinds of restrictive and regressive social policies. They don't need that corporate money anymore.

So that's history. Let's talk about the future.

The future of America looks different 40 years later. Forty years from now, it will, too. It’s going to be a browner, more diverse country.

Businesses understand this. The folks I work with, in marketing, are looking at the future and saying, “Well, we got to diversify our offerings, because our consumers are going to be diverse.”

So when we say there’s a breakup coming, we should say the breakup has come. It was a marriage of convenience. It’s no longer working. There's no couples counselor they can go to to get this one fixed.

I think the business community was caught flat-footed.

They didn't see this coming.

They thought, “We pay for everything, right?”

Generation Z is 47 percent multicultural. They don’t have the same hang-ups or issues of identity. Businesses have to think about not just the consumer base, but a labor force. They also need shareholders.

They need board members. Consumers, labor force and stack- and stockholders. They don't want white guys running everything.

As the Republicans become entrenched in a heteronormative view of a Eurocentric patriarchal America, businesses are catering to the tastes of their constituents. They don’t have voters. They have a bottom line.

If you're an American corporation and you are not aligned with the values of the people who are buying your stuff and working in your stores and sitting on your boards, you're going to be out of business.

It seems there’s no better illustration of this pattern than GOP rightwingers accusing Disney of being pro-pedophile and anti-kid.

That's just it. The conservative movement has been hijacked by a 20 percent fringe. That 20 percent is now the tail wagging the dog.

With respect to Disney, it's not so much that consumers are going to believe what these people say. Republicans are doing it to placate a ravenous base of conspiracy theorists and wingnuts. Ron DeSantis believes he's going to need them to win a presidential primary in 2024.

You know, I can only imagine the CEO of Disney is hearing about all this and going, well, “Huh?” This is outside of the realm not just of political gravity, but rational judgment. Republicans like Ron DeSantis know they're not telling the truth. They're doing it to score points.

What about the idea of corporations like Disney saying “whatever, just make sure I get a tax cut.” They could ride the storm easily.

Consumers wouldn’t allow it.

Their labor force will allow it.

DeSantis made the choice binary. Either you're with “Don't Say Gay” or you're a groomer. Consumers and other stakeholders within the Disney universe had to say no – we take a stand against this bill.

The right is counting 20 percent. More people watch The Mandalorian than vote. More people watch Iron Man than vote. Spider Man is bigger than the elections. Picking a fight with not just any corporation, but a corporation that essentially owns pop culture? That's just stupid.

I think the business community is going to be further and further alienated from their political home in the Republican Party.

Conversely, you have pro-business Democrats who are going to become increasingly alienated from the left-wing of their party.

These pro-business forces could align somewhere in the middle.

Instead of thinking about small government, think about smart government. Instead of private sector solutions to public problems, take public sector scale and apply private sector thinking to it.

That’s what happened with the rollout of the covid vaccines. It’s a perfect example of government scale, private business incentives.

Progressives aren’t anti-business. They would be foolish. They want prices controlled. They want to make sure products are made available on an equal basis. I think they’re capable of negotiating.

We need more transactional politicians.

We need politicians making deals more than taking stands.

But we don't have the stomach for deal-making like we used to.

This is where business in this country can look at the parties and think, “We can make more deals with Democrats than we can with Republicans. They’re more interested in sound bites, tweets and getting on Fox. But Democrats, we might be able to make a deal.”

In your last piece for the Editorial Board, you said voters are not going to forget the J6 insurrection. You said it’s premature to say the Republicans will sweep the midterms. Where do things stand now?

I'm more optimistic.

I don't think the Democrats will lose a historic number of seats. There’s a 60-40 chance the GOP takes the House. They won’t take the Senate.

But the midterms won’t be a consequence of policy-making as much as it will be a consequence of playing different political games.

Republicans have gerrymandered homogenous voter blocks. They can control the narrative. They know all they need is 50 plus one.

The Democrats, however, still need to run on policy, not antipathy.

That said, I don't think news cycles regarding the J6 insurrection will get any better tomorrow. That story is only going to get worse.

The more evidence that comes out, the more people are charged with crimes – it's not going to be a good look for the Republicans long term.

I don't know if House races are going to be about J6. Some Senate races might be. 2024 is going to be about all the evidence coming out. People will have to choose between the party that tried stealing the last election or the party that’s trying to preserve democracy.

I don't see antipathy winning the day.

We will have been 12 years into this cycle, counting the Tea Party. By 2024, people are going to be tired. First, the pandemic. Now a war in Ukraine. People are going to want to feel good about something.

As you know, Biden's numbers are pretty soft. That stems mostly from dissatisfaction among young Democrats. To what extent are they hearing signals from the business class, like Disney?

They're not.

I don't think the future of the Democratic Party is as progressive as some would like it to be. I think progressives in the 2020s are where evangelicals were in the 1980s. There’s going to be a lot of lip service to the party’s base but they don’t have the numbers to change policy.

The people driving the conversation are in the suburbs. Those are typically purple districts. That’s where the left gets drowned out.

The business community has interests, not ideology. Whichever party is showing alignment with that will benefit from their largesse.

The policy folks within corporate verticals are thinking, “What is our five-year 10- to 20-year strategy? What are the policies we need to hit our goals? Who are the politicians speaking our language?

Over the past week, it's become clear Republicans are not necessarily as wedded to the business community as they used to be.

That’s an opening for Democrats.

They won’t immediately benefit, though.

It will take time for a more rational thing to get going – a realignment of the center. That realignment is going to come from combining pro-business Republicans and pro-business Democrats.

If your interest is favorable tax policy, you don't necessarily care about abortion or critical race theory or any culture war issues. You care about them when they are problematic to your bottom line.

Apple has a giant facility in Austin. Most of its people live outside that city’s urban core. They are immigrants. They are members of the LGBTQ-plus community. They are women. They have kids.

Thanks to new regressive state laws, Apple is going to have a problem attracting talent when its people are being targeted or ostracized. The business community is going to be asking, “Will our people be OK?”

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