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Republicans' 'woke capitalism' has sent Marco Rubio and co. into panic mode

Republicans were not ready to lose corporate America to younger progressives.

When a U.S. senator attacks American corporations for feeling "no obligation to act in the best interest of our country,” or claims that “corporate greed annihilated an entire way of life,” it’s natural to assume that senator is a Democrat — and a very liberal Democrat at that.

Given that Republicans have traditionally been the party of big business, this kind of open warfare is something new.

But in fact those quotes do not come from someone like Sen. Elizabeth Warren; those words are written by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in an op-ed published Monday in the New York Post.

At its heart, Rubio’s op-ed is a tirade against what is sometimes called “woke capitalism” — big business’s embrace of progressive positions on things like LGBTQ rights, abortion and voting rights. It has become a huge issue for Republican politicians in the wake of the corporate backlash against Georgia’s new voting law, which puts measures in place that will make it harder for many citizens to vote.

After that law passed, major corporations across the country issued public statements attacking the bill as discriminatory and inimical to democracy. Major League Baseball announced it was pulling the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest of the law. And in the weeks since, corporations have become even more vocal in their opposition to voting-restriction measures, which Republicans have introduced in state legislatures across the country.

In mid-April, Amazon, Google, BlackRock, Starbucks, General Motors and hundreds of other companies and corporate executives signed a public statement opposing “any discriminatory legislation.” In response, Republican politicians like Rubio have attacked what they call “woke corporations” and their attempt to use their economic power on behalf of causes they support.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told corporations they were acting like a “woke parallel government.” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, attacked what he called “the rise of big business enforcing a woke standard.” Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said companies were “playing to the leftist mob,” and suggested that it was “time to make corporate welfare a thing of the past.” Gov. Rick DeSantis of Florida made the quid pro quo explicit when he told big business: “If you’re going to stick your beak into issues that don’t directly concern you, then I think elected officials are then going to stick their beak into issues that may not concern them.”

Some Republicans have done more than talk. After Delta Airlines came out against the Georgia law, the Georgia House of Representatives voted to eliminate a tax break worth millions to Delta. (The Georgia Senate recessed before it could vote on the bill.) And on April 13, conservative senators — including Cruz and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. — introduced a bill that would revoke Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption.

Given that Republicans have traditionally been the party of big business, this kind of open warfare is something new. And while many liberal pundits have dismissed the clash as little more than rhetorical posturing, an “entirely superficial” way for GOP politicians to play to socially conservative voters without doing anything substantive, the reality is more complicated — and more interesting.

Politicians like McConnell and DeSantis were not so much threatening big corporations as pleading for their help.

While Republican politicians are certainly trying to keep the party's base happy, their warnings to corporate America are not just a put-up job. Instead, they reflect the very real dilemma that the GOP establishment now finds itself confronting thanks to the rise of “woke capitalism,” which is putting serious stress on the traditional Republican alliance between big business and white social conservatives.

In telling (or, in reality, asking) corporations to stay out of hot-button political fights, politicians like McConnell and DeSantis were not so much threatening big corporations as pleading for their help. They were saying, in effect, “if you keep doing things like this, it’s going to fracture the Republican coalition.”

They’re right to be worried. The current Republican coalition is a stripped-down version of the one Ronald Reagan assembled, in which corporations and pro-business conservatives on the one hand and social conservatives (particularly Christian evangelicals) on the other were essential parts. But while this coalition has been undeniably successful over the last 40 years, it was always somewhat jury-rigged.

Business elites often didn’t care about, or personally oppose, the GOP stance on things like abortion and gay rights. And social conservatives — many of whom are working class — didn’t necessarily care about corporate tax cuts or deregulation. The coalition held together because each side got something of what it wanted. It was a marriage of convenience, one that depended on neither side treading too far onto the other’s turf.

But for years now, that marriage has looked increasingly fragile. “Woke capitalism” didn’t start with the fight over voting rights. It goes back at least to 2015-16, when corporations used their economic power to get states to kill or revise anti-LGBTQ laws (which were often given the misnomer of “religious freedom” laws). When North Carolina passed such a law, more than 80 companies signed a public letter urging that the ordinance be repealed, and companies like PayPal said they were canceling plans to invest in the state. That law was soon revised.

Georgia’s Republican governor, meanwhile, vetoed a “religious freedom” bill after Disney said it would halt all film production in the state if it passed. And it wasn’t just LGBTQ rights; during the Trump presidency, social media and tech companies earned the ire of conservatives for what they perceived as unfair treatment: booting people (including, eventually, Trump himself) off services like Twitter and Facebook, placing warnings on certain kinds of speech, and refusing to do business with hard-right services like Parler.

The clash over voting rights is, then, the latest battle in a conflict that’s been brewing for years. But what is distinctive about it is how open that conflict has become, and how vociferously GOP politicians have responded. That’s the result of Republicans moving further to the right on social issues (including race and immigration), even as corporations have been moving aggressively to the left on those same issues. If, in the past, corporations could avoid speaking out on LGBTQ issues or voting rights, that’s no longer an option for most of them anymore, or even something they want to do.

Their customer base is increasingly urban and liberal on social issues. Perhaps even more important, their key employees and their executives are younger and more educated than ever before, two characteristics of voters with more liberal views on social issues and more support for voting rights. So the pressure not to sit quietly by is strong.

Put simply, the problem for the establishment GOP is that when it comes to social issues, the interests and positions of most big corporations are now in direct opposition to the views of the GOP base. And the fascinating question is: Where do Republicans go from here?

The GOP has historically depended heavily on money from corporations and corporate executives, and has also been ideologically committed to a very business-friendly agenda: anti-union, low taxes and fewer regulations. But its base now consists of white noncollege-educated voters who care a lot more about social conservatism than laissez-faire economics and have no love for big business.

The sensible thing strategically would be for the GOP to attach some real economic populism to its cultural populism, supporting aggressive antitrust policy, higher corporate taxes and, as Scott suggested, an end to corporate welfare. (Rubio’s op-ed implied he might be in favor of some such measures.) That would please many social conservatives, and probably wouldn’t lose the GOP many votes, since not too many American voters are big fans of large corporations.

The challenge is that doing this wouldn’t just risk losing corporate donations. It would also require the GOP to give up on an idea that it’s been committed to for four decades: Big business is good. And breaking up, as we all know, is hard to do.