Corporations such as Coca Cola, Delta and Major League Baseball condemned Georgia’s restrictive voter laws and some even took action by taking their business out of the state. This angered Senator Mitch McConnell and he warned corporations to “…stay out of politics.” Unironically, he hastened to add that this does not include political contributions.
McConnell went on to threaten corporations, asserting that they are acting like a “woke parallel government.” While Republicans are advancing the narrative that the out-of-control left is pushing cancel culture, Republicans are urging consumers to boycott these companies to pressure them into changing their behavior. They are also calling for state legislatures to punish these companies with the coercive power of the state. Somewhat ironically, the call has been to roll back the special tax breaks that the Republicans worked so hard to provide their corporate sponsors.
Some might accuse the right and McConnell of being inconsistent. On the one hand, this does have some plausibility. After all, when the right attacks what they call “cancel culture” they profess to value free expression and contend that the left is acting wrongly by coercing corporations into doing their bidding. Alternatively, they accuse the corporations of being woke and imposing their values on others and thus presumably impose on consumer choice by restricting products or changing brands. But McConnell is explicitly threatening corporate people with the coercive power of the state. Republicans profess to accept that corporations are people, that they thus have free speech rights, and that money is speech. As such, this would seem to directly violate their professed principles: they are the ones trying to cancel free speech. McConnell also seems to explicitly advance two inconsistent views: that corporations should stay out of politics while they keep making political contributions. But that would appear to be impossible: campaign contributions are political by nature.
On the other hand, if one ignores the surface rhetoric of the Republicans and McConnell and attempts to sort out their likely principle, then the inconsistency is dissolved. McConnell’s core principle in this situation seems to be that corporations should do what benefits McConnell. Engaging in political speech that opposes the Republican agenda of voter restriction is contrary to McConnell’s and Republican interests, so they are threatening corporations to “cancel” their speech. Corporate contributions to McConnell and his fellow Republicans serve their interests, so they want the money to keep flowing. Corporate contributions to the Democrats also help the Republicans in a way—Democrats who accept corporate money tend to act in the interests of the corporations which is generally what Republicans want. Or used to want. The Republican party seems to be shifting from a traditional pro-business approach to focus more on appealing to the Trump base—something that can put them at odds with corporate America in certain areas. But one should not be tempted to think that the Republicans are going leftist and becoming pro-worker and anti-business.
The left has historically been critical of corporate involvement in politics for a variety of reasons. One is that corporations have great economic power and laws and court rulings have enabled them to translate this directly into effectively unlimited political power. The other is that corporations tend to use their economic and political powers in ways that are detrimental to what the left professes to care about such as the environment and people outside of the 1%. The left has, however, learned to adapt to this corporate power. Some people have figured out that they can influence corporations through consumer pressure and thus, somewhat ironically, get corporations to support what the right would tend to see as leftist—such as maximizing citizen participation in elections. It is not that corporations are now ruled by woke leftists; they are simply keeping an eye on the bottom line: they rely on consumers for their profits and need to ensure that they present the proper sort of brand and product line that will maximize these profits. Because most Americans are not on the far right, appealing to most consumers can make corporations appear to be on the left in certain respects.
But, as I have argued in other essays, these corporations are do not have leftist policies in any area that they would harm their bottom line. Corporations focus on profits and act accordingly. We do not see, for example, Amazon embracing unions. We do not see McDonald’s rushing to raise workers’ salaries and benefits. As such, the alleged wokeness of corporations is mostly just marketing and branding. If they were truly leftist, then they would not operate as they do. That said, these corporations can and do operate in ways that the current Republicans see as being contrary to their interests and thus they can make unlikely allies on some issues the left cares about.
I do partially agree with McConnell: corporate influence in politics needs to be reduced. McConnell gets this when he is the one being harmed. But my view is based on a broader principle: I am not solely concerned with the harm to me, I am concerned about the general harm being done. When corporations act in ways McConnell likes, he is happy to allow them unlimited expression. But if they express views he dislikes, he is quick to threaten to “cancel” them for exercising the very powers that the Republicans toiled so hard to give them. McConnell’s solution is for the state to use its coercive power to threaten corporations into acting as Republicans wish. But this does not address the underlying problem: corporations have disproportionate power, and this is corrosive to democracy. Reducing that power would still allow the corporate rulers to express themselves, but it would allow others to use their freedom of expression more effectively. As the usual analogy goes, corporate America has a concert grade sound system to blast its speech while other citizens are limited to trying to yell over that blast. So, we should not “cancel” corporations, but their power needs to checked and balanced. And not just to serve the interests professed by the left—corporate power is also a threat to the right.