Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ head-scratching public vendetta against Disney over its opposition to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” law, sends a clear message to boardrooms across the country: Stay the heck out of politics.
The law bans the discussion of LGBTQ topics in classrooms from kindergarten to third grade. When the bill was first introduced, Disney employees and customers called on the company’s CEO to publicly denounce it. After initially refusing to do so and suffering backlash, he made an announcement criticizing the legislation. DeSantis responded by signing a bill that revoked the company’s special self-governing district status, which had been in place since 1967.
Thankfully, CEOs are finally waking up and realizing that the Republican Party is not their friend anymore.
But the DeSantis versus Disney imbroglio is a mere preview of a much larger collision underfoot within the GOP between the MAGA-inspired cultural warriors who now control the party and the traditional low tax and deregulation conservatives. It’s a clash that is finally breaking the decades-long alliance between Big Business and the GOP.
Thankfully, CEOs are finally waking up and realizing that the Republican Party is not their friend anymore. The cultural zealots that have hijacked much of the GOP are pushing America to the precipice of the biggest political realignment in nearly 100 years. It’s one where corporate America’s strategic interests — keeping their paying customers and workforce happy — will begin to align more closely with Democrats than Republicans, marking a seismic shift in the political landscape.
In the months and years ahead, we expect to see an increasing number of large corporations join Disney in playing more activist roles in supporting progressive policies and decrying the erosion of rights and liberties, thereby naturally aligning themselves with Democrats.
Some of America’s most powerful companies — Tesla, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, to name just a few — are already providing additional benefits to employees who live in states where they would need to travel for abortions and other types of health care that local Republican lawmakers have targeted. And the likely reversal of Roe v. Wade later this summer will only serve as a jolt of adrenaline, accelerating the exodus of business interests from the grips of the GOP.
Like any decades-long marriage that ends in divorce, this split will be tough for Big Business to swallow. After all, it’s a relationship that has paid off handsomely over the years. Corporate CEOs routinely provided financial support to GOP war chests, and, in return, they were bestowed with a bounty of business-friendly policies such as low corporate taxes and deregulation. Case in point: Corporate taxes as a share of U.S. gross domestic product are only about 1 percent, the lowest in over 70 years.
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As tough as it might be to break off ties with the GOP, for the CEOs of America’s largest corporations, remaining on the sidelines is no longer a tenable option — not at a time when one of America’s major political parties is hell-bent on clawing back a host of hard-fought rights from women, LGBTQ people and other marginalized communities while promulgating ludicrous conspiracy theories that led to, among other things, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Regardless of their personal politics, America’s business leaders cannot ignore the writing on the wall: Millennials and Gen Zers — the two generational cohorts that represent the next 50 years of America’s workforce as well as the lion’s share of its consumer base — are decidedly more progressive, diverse and inclusive in their social and political outlook than past generations.
To quote a 2020 Pew Research Center study “similar to Millennials, Gen Zers are progressive and pro-government, most see the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity as a good thing.” The GOP’s many attempts (and at times successes) at eroding the rights of marginalized communities are not supported by most people nationally. Whatever their historic allegiance to the party of Reagan, corporations that are blind to these shifting sentiments may end up being canceled and suffering irrevocable reputational harm.
As Big Business begins to distance itself from an increasingly unpopular GOP, its leadership shouldn’t expect Democrats to welcome these corporate castoffs with open arms.
Moreover, given how vocal customers and activist employees have been holding business leaders’ feet to the fire in the ongoing cultural wars, CEOs have nowhere else to turn than to the Democratic Party.
However, as Big Business begins to distance itself from an increasingly unpopular GOP, its leadership shouldn’t expect Democrats to welcome these corporate castoffs with open arms.
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has traditionally disliked Big Business (even treating it as a punching bag). It will take time for Democratic leadership to rethink its strategic relationship with corporations, where distrust over profit-taking, CEO pay and America’s growing gulf between the haves and have-nots runs deep.
Yet, over time, many Democrats — even those with a natural suspicion of corporate interests — may come to see CEOs and the companies they helm as valuable counterweights against a Supreme Court loaded with conservative justices and a Senate whose composition will always favor red states. Whether it’s channeling its massive funding to support more Democratic candidates, leveraging its robust media and communication channels to sway popular opinion, or intensifying its lobbying efforts in Congress, Big Business has a lot to offer the Democratic Party.
It’s worth noting that this would not be the first major realignment of its kind between Republicans and Democrats. In the mid-19th century, the roles of the two parties were essentially reversed from what they are today, with Democrats finding their base of support in the slave-owning South while the Republican Party, which dominated the northern states, orchestrated an ambitious expansion of federal power. It was the Republican Party — the party of Lincoln — that even passed laws that granted protections for Black Americans and advanced social justice issues in landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1866. But by the New Deal era of the 1930s, the two parties essentially flipped positions, solidifying the alignment that we have had since.
We often refer to the media as “The Fourth Estate.” As Big Business continues to weigh in on cultural and political issues — especially as the country’s democracy endures its greatest test since the 1860s — it’s perhaps appropriate to begin describing it as the “Fifth Estate,” an integral and essential component of our political system. Corporations are already formidable vectors on some of the biggest and most vexing social issues of the day, and their influence will only grow.
Whether its leaders realize it or not, Big Business is already drifting away from the GOP. Navigating this transition, however, will be no easy task. What corporate boards across the country should be asking themselves is this: Do we have the right leadership in place to deftly manage this historic transition? Companies will need CEOs who are up to the test.