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Republicans Are Too Subservient to Corporate America to Wage War on “Woke Capitalism”

Big business has no reason either to believe or worry about the GOP’s empty threats.

Mitch McConnell talks to reporters on Capitol Hill.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“From election law to environmentalism to radical social agendas to the Second Amendment, parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government. Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order. Businesses must not use economic blackmail to spread disinformation and push bad ideas that citizens reject at the ballot box.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, April 5

The phenomenon of a Republican Party leader threatening corporate America never seemed that noteworthy when President Donald Trump did it, because Trump, after all, exhaled narcissistic bluster in every direction. But when an ice-cold Machiavellian like Mitch McConnell does it, that’s a signal for the rest of us to pause for a moment to recover our bearings.

Have corporations suddenly gone leftist? Did the power relationship between the business lobby and the Republican Party reverse itself while we weren’t looking, rendering corporations the servant and the GOP master?

On considered reflection, the answer to both questions is “no.” But power relationships are always more subtle than we imagine, and McConnell’s outburst gives us an opportunity to remember that the dance between business, the federal government, and the Republican Party is far more nuanced than that Thomas Nast cartoon we all carry around in our heads.

The phrase “woke capitalism” was coined by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who described it in 2018 as “a certain kind of virtue-signaling on progressive social causes” undertaken by C-suite big shots to “blunt efforts to tax or regulate our new monopolies too heavily.” That’s about right. Granted, woke capitalism also reflects the mindset on social issues of the college-educated urbanites who tend to work at major corporations. You won’t find a lot of born-again Christians working at Google or General Motors. But Douthat sees it mainly as a feint to appease Democrats whenever they take power in Washington, as they did this past January. I would add that it’s also a manifestation of corporations’ natural inclination to avoid riskand that the extremism of today’s GOP scares them out of their wits.

Over the past three decades, corporate virtue signaling tended to succeed with a Democratic Party that was loath to challenge corporate power too aggressively and eager to solicit corporations’ financial support. Those imperatives haven’t disappeared, but the Democrats are now pushing a somewhat more left agenda on issues that affect corporations’ bottom lines. President Joe Biden wants to hike the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent; he wants to eliminate the “right-to-work” option wherein certain states allow workers in union shops to avoid paying union fees to cover their share of collective bargaining; and he may soon commit the United States to lowering greenhouse gases 50 percent by 2030.

McConnell is telling corporate America, in effect: Look who you’re dealing with. Gestures like Major League Baseball moving the All-Star game from Atlanta to Denver to protest Georgia’s new ballot law won’t appease today’s Democrats. He may be right. (Let’s hope he is!) But McConnell’s threat that the business lobby will suffer “serious consequences” from Republicans for trying to appease Democrats isn’t credible, and the business lobby knows it. 

For the past four years we’ve seen a steady march of news stories asserting that the relationship between business and the Republican Party was weakening. It has frayed somewhat, but that’s mainly because corporations treated the GOP more roughly, not the other way around. After Trump equivocated about white supremacist and neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville, so many CEOs quit his American Manufacturing Council that he was forced to disband it. After the January 6 Capitol insurrection, more than 50 corporations said they would suspend or end political contributions to the eight Republican senators and 139 House members who objected to one or more certified electoral ballots.

These corporations weren’t “hijacking our country from outside the constitutional order.” They were registering anxiety about the increasingly reckless behavior of their natural ally, the GOP.

It’s sometimes said that a new strain of anti-corporate conservatism lies aborning within the Republican Party, reflecting a shift of working-class white voters, and even some working-class Black and Hispanic voters, from the Democrats to the GOP. The New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann calls them “the Reversalists.” According to Lemann, they favor “a new, socially conservative and economically liberal strain of Republicanism.… Culturally, Reversalists present themselves as champions of provincialism, faith, and work, but they aim to promote these things through unusually interventionist (at least for Republicans, and for centrist Democrats since the nineties) economic policies.” 

But Reversalism hasn’t found much purchase in elective politics, and I doubt it ever will. (Marco Rubio has Reversalist sympathies, but Rubio is fickle and can’t be counted on to stick with it when inevitable practical obstacles arise.) Implicit in McConnell’s warning to the woke capitalists is that if they don’t throw their support behind his party’s efforts to limit the franchise, then he just may go Reversalist on them himself. But the prospect of McConnell ever giving big business a hard time is less plausible even than the prospect of Rubio doing so. If you take a look at the top contributors to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2020 cycle—among them Charles Schwab Corporation, Fisher Investments, and FedEx—you will quickly understand that it’s woke capitalists who pay the GOP’s bills.  

Stuart Stevens, a top strategist to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign who parted ways with the GOP over Trump’s nomination in 2016, says he thinks the only meaning to be gleaned from McConnell’s April 5 threat is that he’s “still shell shocked” from the January 6 insurrection, which was also the day McConnell passed from majority leader to minority leader. McConnell has no leverage with corporate America; his threat to punish it is empty. “Mitch McConnell,” Stevens explained, “needs them more than they need Mitch McConnell.” Amen.