The Business – Republican Cold War
The rap has always been pretty simple: Republicans were the party of big business and Democrats were all about the little guy. While this was never completely true, it was once a lot truer than it is now.
The old assumptions don’t work anymore. As the Republicans have gone populist, bashing big companies is now at the top of their playbook. (This isn’t the first time, by the way. Teddy Roosevelt did it more than a century ago.)
A Pew study found that “the share of Republicans saying large corporations have a positive impact in the US declined 24 percentage points from 2019 to 2021, from 54 to 30 percent. At the same time, “Democrats have become slightly more positive toward corporations since then; positive views have risen from 23% to 28%.”
Florida state’s republican legislature followed through on Governor DeSantis’ law revoking the “special privileges” that Disney uses “to essentially self-govern its 27,000 acres of theme parks and other properties in central Florida.”
In April 2021, companies like Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola protested restrictive voting laws in Georgia. In an op-ed written for the Wall Street Journal, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz took to the offensive, saying, “to them [big corporations] I say: When the time comes that you need help with a tax break or a regulatory change, I hope the Democrats take your calls, because we may not. Starting today, we won’t take your money either.”
Sen. Mitch McConnell voiced his dislike for corporations at a news conference in Louisville saying, “so my warning, if you will, to corporate America is to stay out of politics. It’s not what you’re designed for. And don’t be intimidated by the left into taking up causes that put you right in the middle of one of America’s greatest political debates.”
At the November National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Florida, Senator Marco Rubio, like other speakers at the event, took an anti-business stance. He remarked that “the first is that any time it (Marxism) appears there are always some who think they can protect themselves from its wrath by cooperating with Marxism. That is why right now big business is all in. With major American corporations boycotting states that pass laws which are not ‘woke’ while sending our jobs to a China ruled by a genocidal government. It’s why tech companies…have become enforcers, censoring views they don’t like and silencing those who dare to speak out.”
I’m seeing this mutual loathing close up. For the first time in my long career, veterans from a Republican White House — Trump’s — are having trouble getting corporate jobs. One industrial client characterized Trump administration people as being “radioactive.” Indeed, on the consulting side of things, in the past twenty years, companies have been desperate to bring in people with Democratic pedigrees, the more progressive the better.
Republicans feel they’ve become ugly stepchildren, and there is the legitimate assessment that they have brought this on themselves by staking out increasingly reactionary positions on social issues.
But this is beside the point if you make your living working on controversies that manifest themselves in the policy arena, as I do. I have to advise companies on how to navigate in this environment in order to help them operate whether I agree with the players or not.
When it comes to special interest donations, companies would rather pay big money in the hope that progressives won’t attack them than pay pennies on the dollar to conservatives who will cheer them on. There is no comparison here in what I see happening: On the occasions I’m asked to help raise money, I can get twenty times the commitments for progressive groups than for conservative or free-market groups.
Big PR firms have been especially adept at separating companies from their money by ostentatiously invoking woke rhetoric while promising that strategically allocated funds will buy them friendship from those who hate them. This is rarely true in the world of issue activism, but sometimes true in politics. And, yes, Republicans are still getting plenty of money, but they know they’re getting it while the check-writers are holding their noses.
If businesses are going to survive the challenges, they will need to revisit their strategy. There are no magical solutions, but there are a few baby steps to start with:
Be wary of corporate advisors who claim to have a monopoly on “doing what’s right” or understanding the zeitgeist. Chances are they’re just peddling their narrow ideological agenda or looking to feather the nests of their allies — all the while characterizing it as being “strategy.”
Don’t oversell “our values.” We all know how much you love transparency. We all do. But it’s become a worse cliché than billionaires writing op-eds about how much they’ve learned from failure. Virtue-signaling also invites scrutiny of your business practices, ranging from harvesting resources from China or Africa to your stances toward unions. Sometimes it’s better to demonstrate that you’re trying than to self-congratulate too loudly.
Prioritize your audiences. Who are you trying to please? Employees? Shareholders? Elected officials? You’re not going to get everybody. If you lose face with some audiences, you might as well pocket a win.
Support issue-specific advocacy groups — and don’t be dissuaded from such support on the grounds that it’s “pay-to-play.” Fact is, everything is biased and partisan now. “Preaching to the choir,” once derided as futile, now elects presidents. Besides, there are diminishing returns to paying people who dislike you to attack you less.
Advertise. If you can’t find support among politicians or advocacy groups, advertising online, including creating advocacy videos, is one way to ensure you can speak.
Don’t expect your priorities to align perfectly with any one party or interest group. Politicians have diverse agendas and priorities. Seeking support on a particular issue doesn’t mean you have to agree with a politician on everything, especially in a period of such political volatility.
With poll numbers skewing heavily in favor of Republicans, we may see some of these companies change their tune once the party holding the majority shifts.