How the Right and the Left Switched Sides on Big Business

Progressives and conservatives have changed their attitudes toward corporate political and cultural power.

Black-and-white photo of three men shaking hands in suits
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In a bygone era, Americans could be confident that conservatives, like the former General Electric pitchman Ronald Reagan, were friendlier to corporations than their ideological opponents, and that the most aggressive efforts to rein in corporate power were coming from the left.

Today, the relationship that the American left and right each have with Big Business is different. When corporations advance voting rights or acceptance of gays and lesbians, or oppose racism or laws that restrict the ability of trans people to use the bathroom where they feel most comfortable, many progressives are happy to see corporate power exerted as a counter to majorities in state legislatures or even views held by a majority of voters in red states. And some Republicans who pass socially conservative measures into law, like Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, have responded to corporate opposition with retaliatory rhetoric and actions that cast dissenting corporate speech as illegitimate and antidemocratic.

These changing relationships to corporate power are shaped by the left’s increasing focus on race and gender relative to class and by the rise of populism on the right. They also reflect the never-ending push and pull between public and private power that is found in all healthy free societies. Politicians on both sides of the aisle sometimes get overzealous in the behavior they try to restrict. Though the right and the left both lose sight of this whenever a company takes a stand they don’t like, non-state actors—including corporations—play an important role in tempering excesses of the state. Absent such counterweights to state power, liberty would be at greater risk.

The right has long understood the value of corporate speech when defending free markets and economic liberty. The left now appreciates it more clearly on social issues.

To understand all that has recently changed, recall the world as it looked during President Barack Obama’s first term. Before Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement or mainstream support for trans rights or the push for diversity, equity, and inclusion bureaucracies, Occupy Wall Street was the focus of grassroots energy on the left. Bernie Sanders, the senator most aligned with that protest movement, introduced a constitutional amendment with radical implications. Constitutional rights “are the rights of natural persons and do not extend to for-profit corporations,” it declared in part. On the contrary, corporations are “subject to regulation by the people through the legislative process,” it continued, “so long as such regulations are consistent with the powers of Congress and the States and do not limit the freedom of the press.”

Sanders’s attempt to end corporate influence on politics by stripping corporations of free-speech rights was a response to the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which said that First Amendment rights extend to corporations. “If the First Amendment has any force,” the majority held, “it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech."

Many progressives were furious about Citizens United. If corporations have the same free-speech rights as people, the decision’s opponents argued, they will be free to marshal power and resources far greater than most people to influence American democracy, calling the integrity of government by the people into question. Conservatives, in turn, argued that corporations were invariably made up of many people, just like labor unions and think tanks and foundations and institutions of higher education. Why should the state have more power to censor associations of people than individuals?

Of course, Sanders and his allies never came close to amending the Constitution and overturning Citizens United. But if they had, I wonder how the left would feel about the change now, as Republican politicians go after companies that take progressive stands.

This brings us back to one of the most powerful state officials opposed to progressivism, DeSantis, who pushed the Parental Rights in Education Act through the Florida legislature last year. Progressives called it a “Don’t Say Gay” bill and were upset with Disney, the most powerful corporation in Florida, for declining to use its power in the fight against the bill. Blasted by progressive activists, socially liberal employees, and left-of-center journalists and celebrities, who objected to the corporation’s disinclination to influence the political process, Disney reversed course. The company declared that it would use its corporate speech to advocate for the law’s repeal while giving millions of dollars to political opponents of the law.

DeSantis was apoplectic, responding as if corporate political advocacy and political giving were affronts to representative democracy. “You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you’re gonna marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state,” DeSantis said, sounding a bit like Sanders. “We view that as a provocation, and we’re going to fight back against that.”

Thus began a campaign by DeSantis to retaliate against Disney for its political speech. That retaliation ultimately caused Disney to file a lawsuit alleging a violation of the First Amendment rights that the corporation enjoys, rights affirmed in that 2010 Citizens United decision––rights that Sanders and others tried and failed to strip from corporations. Because Sanders failed, the GOP is far more limited now in how much it can constrain what the right calls “woke capital.” Just like “woke” persons, “woke” corporations have free-speech rights (and the right to shift jobs away from any state where the political leadership is not to their liking).

And if the Disney lawsuit goes to the Supreme Court, many progressives will be rooting for the corporation’s victory––rooting, in effect, for the Citizens United precedent to stand––in part because the most common progressive view in 2023 is not that corporations should stay out of the American political process but that corporations are obligated to intervene on the side of progressives. As Joni Madison, then the interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, one of the largest LGBTQ-advocacy organizations in the United States, put it during the legislative fight in Florida, “We need Disney’s partnership in getting the bills heading to DeSantis’s desk vetoed. And if that doesn’t happen, to get these bills repealed. But this is not just about Bob Chapek [then the CEO of Disney] and Disney. This is about every CEO and company in America.”

Progressive nonprofit corporations are wildly successful at lobbying their corporate cousins on some issues. In 2016, the business community largely opposed a North Carolina bill that sought to restrict which bathrooms trangender people could use. In 2021, as Republican-controlled state legislatures sought new restrictions on voting, hundreds of companies, including Amazon, Coca-Cola, and General Motors, publicly opposed the GOP. Meanwhile, as The New York Times reported, “Senior Republicans, including former President Donald J. Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell, have called for companies to stay out of politics.” Of course, even when progressives applaud and conservatives denounce corporate influence on a particular issue, politicians from both ideological camps continue to eagerly seek and accept corporate contributions.

None of this is to say that the right and left have completely switched places. There are many issues on which the GOP remains more aligned with corporate interests and many elected Republicans who remain sympathetic to corporate power. But neither coalition is reliably aligned with or opposed to the power of corporations. The relationship, on both sides, tends to be issue-specific, transactional, and opportunistic, with the left more likely to be closely aligned on social issues and the right more likely to be aligned on fiscal issues.

Principled stands against all corporate influence are few.

Take corporate influence on the education system. As recently as 2016, leftist outlets like AlterNet that were sounding the alarm when the Walmart Family Foundation exerted money and influence to change the public-education system, particularly when it supported the often right-coded solution of charter schools. Today, however, Walmart and the nonprofits associated with it are using their money and influence to support the expansion of left-coded diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in Arkansas schools, according to the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon, which is raising concerns, even as most progressives don’t seem to mind.

Corporations wield cultural power, too, apart from electoral contests and legislative fights. And there, too, the left and right coalitions are adopting noticeably different postures than before.

Consider the past and present of major beer brands.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, labor disputes at Coors Brewing and opposition to the conservative politics of the Coors family fueled a beer boycott that lasted into the ’80s.

“Women’s groups are joining labor unions, Chicanos and homosexuals in an informal but increasingly powerful boycott,” the Copley News Service reported in March 1978. “Though the National Organization of Women is not participating in the anti-Coors campaign, local chapters of NOW are carrying ‘Don’t Drink Coors’ banners in their newsletters.”

By the mid-’80s the company worked to end the boycott by making concessions to the left. “The boycott stirred up negative feelings for a long time, and the job now is to wipe them away,” Peter H. Coors, then president of the Coors brewery division, told the Los Angeles Times. “Who wants to drink a beer when the guy on the next bar stool might say, ‘The people who make that beer are anti-union, or anti-this or that’?”

The beer industry, especially its advertising, was a common target of feminist critique that same decade. By the ’90s, such critiques of sexism in beer advertising were sufficiently common and well known for The Simpsons to spoof the conflict in a 1993 episode. As recently as 2015, Anheuser-Busch was under fire from feminist critics for its “Up for Whatever” campaign, which included the slogan “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night” on bottle labels.

Across all those years, a premise of the feminist critiques was: Beer advertising matters in that it shapes American culture. And those critiques got results. In 2016, The New York Times reported that beer companies were moving away from misogynistic advertising messages. “It was fine to show a frat party making fun of girls five or eight years ago,” a brand consultant told the Times. “But it’s ineffective and potentially damaging to do today.” In March of this year, at Forbes, Jeanette Hurt wrote that Miller Lite had launched a new campaign to “collect sexist advertisements and turn it into compost to grow hops for women brewers.”

In April, Bud Light partnered with the transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney in a social-media promotion. “Some conservative commentators and celebrities began calling for a boycott,” The New York Times reported soon after. The conservative boycotters believed that beer ads matter in that they shape American culture––and they, too, got results. The Times wrote, “After Bud Light’s sales slumped and the brand found itself thrust into the nation’s culture wars, Anheuser-Busch, the beer’s brewer, announced last week that two of its executives were taking a leave of absence. The company also said on Thursday that it would focus its marketing campaigns on sports and music.”

I have tended to believe that beer advertisements pander to existing attitudes in society rather than shaping future attitudes, so I don’t know if this change in Bud Light’s marketing strategy really matters. But some on the right consider it a major victory. “I’m not sure if most people fully appreciate the significance of this Bud Light stuff,” the socially conservative, anti-transgender-rights commentator Matt Walsh declared. “We made an iconic American brand toxic, virtually overnight, because it endorsed gender ideology. This is a pivotal moment. A map to follow going forward.”

What are the next 10 years likely to bring in the left’s and right’s relationship with corporations? I’d wager that corporations will continue to side with progressives and against democratic majorities on some social issues, even as they continue making campaign contributions to many Republicans.

As Josh Barro once explained at Business Insider, “Free markets are not small-d democratic. Some consumers matter more than others.” That is to say, many corporations want to attract consumers who are young and affluent, two demographics that are trending progressive on most social issues. “And that’s why ‘woke capitalism’ is likely to persist even if it’s not an effective strategy for getting Democratic lawmakers to stay away from tax increases and new regulations,” Barro wrote. “As long as companies’ core customer demographics remain opposed to cultural conservatives on these issues, companies will end up in opposition to cultural conservatism––not as a lobbying strategy, but as a customer retention strategy.”

In turn, I suspect that the more those corporations articulate values that Republicans dislike, the more Republican politicians will try to use the power of the state to constrain corporations, even as they themselves keep raising as much as they can from corporate donors. Finally, corporations will sometimes be targeted by both the right and the left, as when conservatives and progressives scrutinize content-moderation policies at big social-media companies.

As the left and right coalitions change their positioning relative to Big Business, it will be tempting––perhaps even fruitful––to point out instances of hypocrisy. But those instances should also serve as an opportunity for people on all sides of American politics to better understand why well-meaning fellow citizens have always been on all sides of the questions of if, when, and how corporations should influence America’s political and cultural disagreements. When corporations wield power, they do so undemocratically. They might be acting to advance the interests, values, or opinions of shareholders, their board of directors, their CEO, their employees, or some complicated combination thereof. Regardless, the general public doesn’t get a say. And corporations often succeed in influencing government in a way that serves their special interests rather than the general interest. Such rent seeking can fuel unjust inequality. And no matter what stances a corporation takes, there is never a moment when any citizen can go to the ballot box and replace it.

There are good reasons, in other words, to have checks on corporate power. But one can go too far in that direction. “Corporations are fundamentally illegitimate,” the leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky declared in an interview that appears in the 1998 book Common Good. “Just as other oppressive institutions—slavery, say, or royalty—have been changed or eliminated, so corporate power can be changed or eliminated,” Chomsky continued, championing the power of the state. “What are the limits? There aren’t any. Everything is ultimately under public control.” The Italian fascists had a similar formulation: “everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” But it is actually better for a society if power is not concentrated wholly in the state. A healthy society has many power centers, including undemocratic ones like churches, media outlets, universities, fraternal organizations, and, yes, corporations.

None of those alternative repositories of power are fully unaccountable.

For-profit corporations are all accountable to consumers and all corporations are subject to  laws––but also benefit from the limits on state power set forth in the Constitution. The Obama administration could not force Hobby Lobby to fund contraceptives for its employees because of the company’s religious-freedom rights. The Trump administration could not force Nike to nix relations with athletes who kneeled during the national anthem because of that company’s free-association rights. Such limits on the state enable America to have a thriving civil society and a private sector that generates wealth and innovative goods that Americans enjoy as much as Disney World and use as often as Google Search. The result isn’t perfect but is better than systems where businesses are powerless to dissent, whether fascism or communism or an alternate America where Senator Sanders and Governor DeSantis could suppress corporate speech. If you don’t like the status quo, you can boycott a corporation or start your own.