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Commentary: Are Republicans and big business headed for a breakup?

Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at The Rosen Shingle Creek on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022, in Orlando, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)  (Joe Raedle/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By David A. Hopkins Bloomberg Opinion

The alliance between big business and the Republican Party, one of the oldest in U.S. politics, is unusually frayed these days. The question is whether there will be a complete unraveling.

There is ample evidence of a strained relationship. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the current chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, introduced his “Rescue America” policy plan earlier this year with the accusation that “most corporate boardrooms” are now controlled by the “militant left.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has become engaged in a public battle with the Walt Disney Co. that led to the state revoking some of Disney’s long-held powers and tax advantages. Representative Jim Banks of Indiana, a potential member of House Republican leadership in the next session of Congress, recently said that Republicans are “so much healthier now that we’ve divorced ourselves from corporate America.”

Clearly, this isn’t the same Republican Party that nominated the proudly business-friendly ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan just 10 years ago. But the shifting dynamics within the GOP are only half the story. The behavior of the corporate sector is changing, too – and the rise of conservative populism has accelerated this change.

It once seemed like good business sense for major companies to avoid public entanglement in political conflicts. But corporate leaders have faced increasing incentives to align themselves with left-of-center positions on issues of social diversity and representation, while opposing Republican approaches to election management and vote-counting.

Taking these stands can attract potential customers among the young and well-educated, two economically lucrative demographic groups that collectively lean to the ideological left. Such stances also ease pressure from current or prospective 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 seem willing to risk alienating traditionalist conservatives to achieve it.

The list of conservative grievances is growing quickly. While Republicans have long complained of unfair treatment by major media and entertainment conglomerates, they have now extended this attack to include leading technology companies such as Google and Facebook – especially after Donald Trump was banned from top social media platforms in early 2021. Corporate endorsements of diversity initiatives, the Black Lives Matter movement, legalized abortion and transgender rights have provoked the charge that big business is infected by rampant “woke leftism.” Congressional Republicans also remain unhappy about the dozens of corporate political action committees that publicly promised to cease contributing to members who voted against accepting the 2020 election results (even though many have since reneged on those pledges).

So far, this newfound Republican disaffection has mostly been expressed through combative rhetoric. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, has denounced “weak corporate leaders” who oversee “nationless corporations that amass fortunes divorced from the fate of our great country.”

But more substantive forms of retribution, such as DeSantis’s punishment of Disney, may become more common. Proposals requiring tech companies to limit the moderation of political content on social media have gained support among Republican legislators at both the congressional and state levels. Republican members of Congress have also threatened embarrassing public hearings or investigations targeting disfavored companies if they take back power next year.

At the same time, the new populist trend in the GOP is distinguished much more 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 labor-union interests just as energetically in the Trump administration as they did during previous Republican presidencies, while an ambitious tax cut enacted represented Trump’s main policy achievement in office. Despite Republicans’ increasing tendency to aim rhetorical and even legislative fire at companies viewed as adversaries in the ongoing culture war, they remain committed to extending or further reducing the corporate tax reductions that Trump signed into law.

Republican politicians and conservative media figures have found a sympathetic popular audience for their attacks on “wokeness” in the executive suites. But as long as the party remains committed to conservative economic ideas that benefit corporate bottom lines, the Republican alliance with business, however battered, is unlikely to fall apart completely. 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.”