By David A. Hopkins
The alliance between big business and the Republican Party, one of the oldest in American politics, is unusually frayed these days. The question is whether there will be a complete collapse.
There is ample evidence of a strained relationship. Senator Rick Scott of Florida, current chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, introduced his “Bailout America” policy plan earlier this year with the charge that “most corporate boardrooms” are now controlled by the “militant left”. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has engaged in a public battle with the Walt Disney Co. that led the state to revoke some of Disney’s powers and tax advantages. Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, a potential member of the House Republican leadership in the next session of Congress, recently said that Republicans are “much healthier now that we’ve divorced ourselves from corporate America.”
Clearly, this is not the same GOP that nominated the proudly pro-business ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan just 10 years ago. But the changing dynamic within the Republican Party is only half the story. The behavior of the corporate sector is also changing, and the rise of conservative populism has accelerated this change.
It once seemed like good business sense for big business to keep the public from getting mired in political strife. But corporate leaders have faced increasing incentives to align with center-left positions on issues of social diversity and representation, while opposing Republican approaches to election management and vote counting.
Taking these positions can attract potential clients among the young and well-educated, two financially lucrative demographic groups that collectively lean to the ideological left. Such stances also ease pressure on current or potential employees to oppose the populist turn within American conservatism. Corporate executives want their companies to be perceived as welcoming and inclusive workplaces for feminist women, racial minorities, LGBT communities and other cultural progressives, and they seem willing to risk alienating traditionalist conservatives to do so.
The list of conservative complaints is growing rapidly. While Republicans have long complained about unfair treatment by major media and entertainment conglomerates, they have now extended this attack to include major tech companies like Google and Facebook, especially after Donald Trump was banned access to major social media platforms in early 2021. Diversity initiatives, the Black Lives Matter movement, legalized abortion, and transgender rights have sparked the accusation that big business is infected by a “ awakened leftism” rampant. Congressional Republicans also remain unhappy with the dozens of business political action committees that have publicly promised to stop contributing to members who voted against accepting the 2020 election results (although many have since reneged on those promises).
Until now, this new Republican disaffection has been expressed mainly through combative rhetoric. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has denounced “weak corporate leaders” who oversee “corporations without a nation that amass fortunes divorced from the destiny of our great country.”
But more substantive forms of retribution, like DeSantis’ punishment of Disney, may become more common. Proposals requiring tech companies to limit moderation of political content on social media have garnered support from Republican lawmakers both at the state level and in Congress. Republican members of Congress have also threatened embarrassing public hearings or investigations targeting disadvantaged businesses if they regain power next year.
At the same time, the new populist trend in the Republican Party is much more distinguished by its strong emphasis on nationalism and cultural nostalgia than by any movement away from traditional conservative economic doctrine. Executive branch appointees pursued deregulation and opposed union interests as vigorously in the Trump administration as they did during previous Republican presidencies, while an ambitious tax cut enacted represented Trump’s main political achievement in the position. Despite the growing tendency of Republicans to aim rhetorical and even legislative fire at companies seen as adversaries in the ongoing culture war, they remain committed to further extending or reducing the corporate tax cuts that Trump signed into law.
Republican politicians and conservative media figures have found a sympathetic popular audience for their attacks on “waking up” in executive suites. But as long as the party remains committed to conservative economic ideas that benefit corporate bottom lines, the Republican alliance with business, battered as it is, is unlikely to completely unravel. Despite claims to the contrary, it’s not a divorce, it’s just a strained marriage.
David A. Hopkins is an associate professor of political science at Boston College and the author of “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.”