Never in our decades of working on and around Capitol Hill and the White House have we seen as much anti-business sentiment among Republican lawmakers as we do today. And the trend shows no sign of abating.
There was a time when American corporations could count on unequivocal Republican support. To be a Republican was virtually synonymous with supporting free market principles, capitalism and business. Republican President Calvin Coolidge once said, “the chief business of the American people is business.” Today, however, many Republicans scoff when they’re told that big business’ trade associations are for x or against y. They believe many companies have abandoned their trust in market forces for a “crony capitalism” that protects favored industries. Industries that profit from government programs are viewed with particular suspicion.
Conservatives say that it is not they who have moved away from business, but rather business which has moved away from them. Many Republicans see corporate America as lining up with the Progressive agenda on climate, ESG, mandatory vaccinations, sexual orientation and gender issues, voter ID laws, gun rights, speech restrictions, policing and abortion, leading them to believe that Wall Street is adverse not just to traditional values but also to conservative economic and constitutional principles. Social media companies have gained special opprobrium from Republicans for their content moderation policies, which they believe favor Progressives and suppress conservative content.
In another sign of the shift, conservatives launched a website, “Stop Corporate Tyranny,” intended to push corporate America away from progressive causes. Other conservative groups have run million-dollar ad campaigns against corporations whom they believe have embraced “woke corporatism” or “stakeholder capitalism,” hoping to shame progressive-leaning corporations and deter other corporations from joining their ranks. There are regular meetings of conservative groups dedicated to stopping corporations from choosing sides on issues beyond their immediate economic interests.
Multinational corporations’ involvement in China is another cause for concern among Republicans. The Republican grassroots are driving lawmakers to advocate for decoupling from China, which they increasingly see as a Cold War adversary. Corporations that either fail to speak out against China’s behavior or lobby to preserve access to bilateral trade are sometimes singled out for public shaming. The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation has developed a “Corporate Complicity Scorecard” that examines American corporations’ direct or indirect links to certain Chinese government practices.
President Trump played a major part in both reflecting and accelerating Republicans’ move from their historically reflexive pro-business position to a more populist “Blue Collar Conservatism” (per the book by the same name authored by former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum). Among the policy prescriptions that increasing numbers of Republican lawmakers are considering — and which would have been anathema in years past — are expansion of antitrust enforcement beyond Robert Bork’s consumer welfare standard, narrowing of the liability protection afforded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and the selective removal of statutory protections in the realm of copyright and antitrust. There is also a high likelihood that in 2023 a Republican House will ask executives identified as “woke” or too closely entangled with the People’s Republic of China to testify at hearings to defend their views and practices.
Republicans have not entirely abandoned Big Business, but the influence the business community once had has clearly eroded. The House of Representatives is likely to flip to the Republicans after November’s election. American businesses can get ready for this by:
- making sure their trade associations and in-house lobbying teams do not take GOP support for granted,
- identifying ways to show support for real-world free markets and level economic playing fields,
- making sure policymakers understand their business models, especially when those models are complex or reliant on government programs; and
- making an effort to comprehend both sides of contentious cultural issues, understanding that weighing in on one side has the potential to alienate policymakers on the other.