Saturday, 17 Apr 2021

Is Big Business the Democrats’ New Best Friend?

“Parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government.”

That was Senator Mitch McConnell on Monday, weighing into the national debate over the role of business in politics. The debate came to a head after Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star Game from Atlanta to demonstrate its condemnation of Georgia’s new voting law, which some Democrats have compared to Jim Crow voter suppression. Dozens of companies, from Coca-Cola to Delta to Microsoft, have publicly decried Georgia’s law and similar efforts that Republicans are proposing in more than 40 states.

Mr. McConnell and his colleagues have in turn said that companies would “invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs.”

For some, it may seem odd to see Republicans and big businesses hurling insults and threatening each other. Republicans have, for a century or so, supported business-friendly policies and free markets, including the right of companies to use their money and clout to influence government policy.

It might seem even more strange to see Democrats teaming up with big business. But Democrats, especially the more progressive members of Congress who made their careers bashing big business and corporate money in politics, may need to rethink their friends, too. Big business has become one of the most powerful forces in the country to advance social equity issues.

Companies from Netflix to Citigroup got behind Black Lives Matter last summer; boycotts, including by the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Game, pushed North Carolina to repeal a law preventing transgender people from using restrooms that match their gender identity; and now, companies are speaking out against efforts that disproportionally suppress minority votes.

While business still gives more money to Republicans than Democrats, in recent election cycles an increasing amount of corporate money has been moving toward Democrats. When the United States Chamber of Commerce recently began backing a few more Democrats, Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, accused the trade group of purging “most, if not all of its real Republicans in top ranks.”

But perhaps these apparently shifting alliances should not be so surprising. That’s because business doesn’t have a political party. Its party is profit.

Business is aligned with Republicans when it comes to taxes and regulations because … well, profit. And business is aligned with Democrats on social issues that its customers and employees care about because … well, profit.

“American big business in particular has led the way toward making America more socially inclusive,” Tyler Cowen, an economist, wrote in his book, “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.” But Mr. Cowen also noted that it is “profit maximization alone — not to mention the consciences of some C.E.O.s” that “puts big business these days on the side of inclusion and tolerance.”

Still, statements by companies about their social priorities deserve a healthy dose of skepticism.

Indeed, some of the same companies taking part in the stampede of statements critiquing voting laws, like Facebook, Google, and AT&T, also recently donated money to the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group that supports many of the voting initiatives. Judd Legum, a journalist, pointed out this hypocrisy in his Popular Information newsletter, noting that Republican state lawmakers have introduced bills to restrict voting in 47 states.

In the case of businesses like Coca-Cola and Delta, their more forceful, specific statements against the voting law in Georgia came only after the bill passed and 72 senior Black executives had spoken out, giving them cover.

And statements — even moving an All-Star Game — are not expensive. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, made this point in a letter to M.L.B.’s commissioner, Robert Manfred, calling its move “an easy way to signal virtues without significant financial fallout.”

Mr. Rubio also told Mr. Manfred, “I am under no illusion you intend to resign as a member from Augusta National Golf Club,” which is based in Georgia. “To do so would require a personal sacrifice, as opposed to the woke corporate virtue signaling of moving the All-Star Game from Atlanta.”

The decision to move the game will impact “countless small and minority owned businesses in and around Atlanta,” Mr. Rubio wrote.

On that last point Mr. Rubio has an ally of sorts in Stacey Abrams, the Democratic organizer in Georgia, but not because they agree on the underlying issue. Ms. Abrams said, “I am disappointed that the M.L.B. is relocating the All-Star game; however I commend the players, owners and League commissioner for speaking out. I urge others in positions of leadership to do so as well.”

She added, “I respect boycotts, although I don’t want to see Georgia families hurt by lost events and jobs. Georgians targeted by voter suppression will be hurt as opportunities go to other states.”

The truth is that business has always been a Frankenstein mash-up of the views held by Mr. Rubio and Ms. Abrams — and others across the political spectrum.

“My heart is Democratic but my brain is kind of Republican,” Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, has said.

And the Business Roundtable, which last week issued a statement against voting restrictions, this week criticized the Biden administration’s support for a global minimum tax for corporations.

In the end, as much as one political party may want to applaud or decry big business’ seeming lurch one way or the other, corporate America will never neatly pass a left-or-right, all-or-nothing purity test. But that’s business.

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