Writing in the years following World War I, Rudyard Kipling lamented Europe blindly accepting the ideologies of the day, as its nations failed to realize their principles would lead to the continent's destruction. Even Europe’s strong governments and prosperity could not prevent its ruin, Kipling saw, noting in The Gods of the Copybook Headings that “though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy.”
Republicans have likewise become concerned with their past ideological commitments, concerned that their economic policies, while having created a strong business sector, may have undermined conservatism’s long-term prospects. Republicans have long been the ‘pro-business’ party; but businesses, especially large ones, are no longer returning the favor. Large companies regularly promote progressive views on issues ranging from gun control to abortion. More concerning to conservatives, however, is that businesses have been publicly pressuring Republican lawmakers to reject certain laws, and threatening to move out of a state or moving a major conference if those laws are passed. Earlier this month, Major League Baseball moved this summer’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta over a voting law, a decision that will cost the Georgia economy $100 million in lost revenues.
Republicans of all stripes have expressed outrage over these corporate criticisms. But the GOP’s unified front hides an inner divide on how to treat corporations that regularly pressure Republican lawmakers on cultural issues. To some conservatives, the Republican Party must push back, lifting protections and raising taxes as a warning against future political involvement. Others reject this view, insisting that advancing pro-business policies are more important than getting revenge over cultural spats.
These two views are not irreconcilable, as each side gets part of the picture right. Good economic policies should not be abandoned, nor should Republicans let themselves be made powerless by corporate pressure.
In response to corporate outrage, some Republican lawmakers have declared that large businesses are not natural allies—if not adversaries. Senator Marco Rubio maintains that deference to big corporations like Amazon runs against conservatives’ interests, calling the retail giant “openly hostile to everything we would call conservatism and traditional values.”
These views may be in the minority among Republicans, but they have gained favor among conservatives worried about the fusion of corporate power and progressive ideology. Without the threat of tax hikes or the removal of subsidies, these conservatives argue, corporations will wage the culture wars on progressives’ behalf. Ohio Senate hopeful J.D. Vance has advanced this argument, calling for higher tax rates for activist businesses and “whatever else is necessary to fight these goons.”
Other Republicans, however, argue against targeting corporations. As The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger notes, most corporations aren’t social activists—only a vocal minority are. Retaliatory tax hikes would harm the majority of non-activist business owners and risk alienating them. Better to remain faithful to free-markets, as Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) argues, and “fight for the right economic policy” than to inflict “punishment” on unwitting businesses.
Opponents to retaliation are right in one regard: lawmakers should be cautious meting out punishment on private parties. Reexamining conservative economic policy is one thing. But Republicans should not scrap the bulk of their economics to target a few progressive corporations.
Of course, spineless Republicans aren’t worth much. Conservatives are right to worry about business getting captured by progressive interests and exercising an economic veto against conservative policies. Progressive corporations are not a mere matter of free speech, but a threat to prosperity and good governance. The actions of the Major League Baseball, Delta, and other corporations will cost Georgians hundreds of millions of dollars. Voters expect their lawmakers to represent their interests, not those of a few corporations. Legislators should take economic threats as a challenge to their duty to represent their constituents.
Corporations should not be surprised that when they enter the culture wars, politicians will begin treating them like political agents. Taking away a tax credit here or a subsidy there should not be out of the question for lawmakers upset with a company that has cost their constituents real dollars for a political purpose. Businesses will continue to pressure Republican politicians on any progressive cause until they receive pushback.
Republicans should pressure businesses to resist involving themselves in the culture wars and fight for leadership in the competitive marketplace. Conservatives, meanwhile, must regain their political footing. For so long as big business exercises its power for progressive causes, the culture war will remain a losing battle.