‘Woke Capital’ Doesn’t Exist

Republicans have no plan or intention to curb corporate power; they simply want to use it for their own purposes.

An illustration of a sheep with a wolf’s mouth.
Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Republicans are ready to take on “woke capital.”

After losing elections for president and U.S. Senate, Georgia Republicans passed a series of restrictions that specifically targets the voting methods used disproportionately by Democratic constituencies during the unusual circumstances of the pandemic.

Whether those restrictions will have the desired effect of either placating the conservative base, which regards any election loss as definitionally fraudulent, or granting Republicans a partisan advantage at the polls remains unclear. But the law has already sparked a massive backlash, because most Americans rightfully believe that their right to vote should not be curtailed just because they choose not to vote Republican.

That backlash engulfed entities that do business in Georgia, with Major League Baseball pulling its All-Star Game, and Coca-Cola and Delta stating their opposition to the measure. Republicans have responded by, among other things, threatening to revoke MLB’s antitrust status and attacking these firms for, in the words of Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, “caving to the ‘woke’ left.” Georgia Republicans are threatening to punish Delta by repealing a state tax credit for jet fuel. After a year of Republicans warning about the “woke” war on free speech, they are intent on using the power of the state to sanction speech they oppose.

Woke is a nebulous term stolen from Black American English, repurposed by conservatives as an epithet to express opposition to forms of egalitarianism they find ridiculous or distasteful—in this case, the idea that constituents of the rival party should have an unfettered right to vote. Wedded to the term capital, it functions as an expression of the hollowness of conservative populism, which is opposed not to the concentration of corporate power so much as to the use of that power for purposes of which conservatives disapprove. Their aim is not to diminish corporate power, but to use it to their advantage. They seek to ensure that large firms use their influence to maintain the dominance of conservative cultural mores and Republican political power.

“Parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared from the Senate floor. “Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.” As the Associated Press notes, McConnell is “among the most outspoken champions of the role of big money in elections, promoting the free-flow of undisclosed dollars to campaigns as a form of Constitution-protected free speech.” Apparently, corporations are allowed to behave as parallel governments only when they are vehicles for right-wing billionaires to hijack the country from outside the constitutional order.

The union drive at Amazon provides an example of the hollowness of Republican anti-corporate rhetoric. Warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are seeking better pay and working conditions, which are famously abysmal. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida wrote an op-ed supporting the drive on the grounds that “companies like Amazon have been allies of the left in the culture war.” Needless to say, the largely Black workforce in Bessemer is organizing because it labors in poor conditions, is not paid enough, experiences invasive surveillance on the job, and wants better benefits, not because it’s upset about white guys being unable to drop N-bombs at work. The trade that Republicans are offering corporations is clear: If they want to keep their sweet tax breaks and permissive regulations, they need to take the right side in the culture war.

Republicans cannot imagine labor relations as exploitative except in that someone might have to sit through a tedious video on race or gender sensitivity in the workplace. They do not perceive the concentration of corporate power as perilous unless companies’ desire to retain their customer base interferes with Republican schemes to entrench their own political dominance. They see freedom of speech as vital, unless it prevents them from using the state to sanction forms of political expression they oppose. Their criticisms of “woke capital” go no deeper than this.

As such, the Republican anti-corporate turn is entirely superficial. That’s a shame, because the concentration of corporate power has had a negative effect on American governance, leading to an age of inequality in which economic gains are mostly enjoyed by those in the highest income brackets. Since the 1970s, despite massive gains in productivity, most Americans have seen their wages rise very slowly, while the wealthiest have reaped almost all the gains of economic growth. That outcome was a policy choice, not an inevitability.

“Starting in the 1970s, the people in charge of designing and implementing the tax code increasingly favored those at the very top,” the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote in Winner-Take-All Politics. “The rich are getting fabulously richer while the rest of Americans are basically holding steady or worse.” Notably, they argued, this trend “is not obviously related to either the business cycle or the shifting partisan occupancy of the White House.”

Economists on the left have concluded that this is because the extremely wealthy have a stranglehold on American politics that prevents policy changes that would more fairly distribute economic gains. And that, in turn, helps explain the seemingly high stakes of the culture war over corporate-branding decisions: The concentration of corporate power means that large companies wield outsize cultural influence, and their policy priorities are more often translated into law than those with broader public support.

“One thing that is clear from the emerging evidence is that economic inequality reinforces differences in political and social power, and these in turn affect market outcomes,” the economist Heather Boushey, now a member of President Joe Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in Unbound.

This diagnosis lends itself to certain solutions, some of which are apparent in the Biden administration’s agenda. Although in the past, Democratic Party policies have exacerbated the problem, in recent years, much of the party has moved left on economic issues and now appears to recognize the threat that extreme inequality represents. The obvious Republican insincerity on deficits, and the depth of the coronavirus crisis, expanded the horizon for Democrats as they contemplated policy changes. The design of generous unemployment provisions, direct-aid payments, and the recently passed child allowance, all of which disproportionately benefit the low-wage workers who have borne the brunt of the pandemic, reflected that new ambition, and Biden has already proposed modestly raising corporate tax rates in his infrastructure plan.

But reducing corporate power, and with it the grip of the wealthy on government, will require more than that. Strengthening organized labor through the PRO Act, which would make it easier to unionize, would provide a needed counterbalance to corporations. The Biden administration has also indicated a willingness to use antitrust regulations against tech firms that have amassed a stunning amount of power over Americans’ daily lives in the past few decades. Proposals from the left wing of the party to reestablish postal banking and mandate worker representation on corporate boards would further diminish the influence of the extremely wealthy.

Perhaps Republicans don’t like these ideas. They are, after all, liberal and left-wing ideas. But when it comes to breaking the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the very wealthy, Republicans have no ideas of their own to speak of, beyond issuing colorful threats to employ state coercion against firms that fail to do their bidding.

The GOP is unbothered by the concentration of wealth or power as such, which is not only why it opposes all of these measures, but also why the centerpiece of its agenda the last time it controlled both Congress and the White House was a massive and regressive tax cut. What vexes Republicans is the sight of corporations responding to market incentives by making public displays of support for egalitarianism and nondiscrimination, which is not the same as corporations actually supporting those things.

Putting out statements supporting Black Lives Matter or adorning their logos with pride colors is very easy for big corporations, but such gestures do not signal a commitment to fair wages, safe working conditions, or a willingness to pay their share in taxes, let alone racial egalitarianism in all but the most cosmetic sense. They are merely brand management. “Woke capital” does not actually exist, only capital—and its interests remain the same as they have always been.

Like the Republican turn against democracy, the newfound opposition to the market fundamentalism that conservatives once espoused and the free-speech principles they pretended to revere is superficial and contingent. Free speech, democracy, and free-market capitalism were fine as long as Republicans could expect victory in these arenas. But with public opinion shifting against them on key priorities, their focus has now turned to rigging the rules of the game to their advantage rather than winning over a larger share of the public. They do not seek to achieve a more equitable distribution of either money or power, but to ensure that the present inequities work to their political advantage.

An irony is that the era with which the right is enraptured was in part a product of a set of mid-century economic arrangements—higher taxes on the wealthy, greater union density, stronger regulations—that the left is attempting to restore, in some form, while including a novel commitment to racial and gender equality. Republicans have no interest in curtailing corporate power in this fashion—not when they believe that power could be used to reimpose a diminished cultural hegemony. These so-called populist Republicans do not wish to throw the one ring into Mount Doom; they simply want to wield it on their own behalf.