Still, Disney has had a tough year. The downward trend in its stock price that started in late 2021 continues. In November, the company abruptly announced the replacement of their (relatively new) CEO with his highly regarded predecessor.
But, as with any conflict, the fact that a fight ends without resolution doesn’t mean that no damage has been done. Disney has paid a price for speaking out against the Florida legislation, including being the focus of widespread anger on the right over corporate efforts to acknowledge social inequality. For example, Fox News mentioned Disney at least 2,900 times in the past 12 months, and published more than 3,200 online articles mentioning the company during the same period.
DeSantis emerged largely unscathed. He was easily re-elected despite attacking one of his state’s major employers over a highly controversial bill he supported — part of his apparent but as-yet-unannounced plan to seek the White House in 2024 important step. And, as Joshua Green from Bloomberg Businessweek says, DeSantis sees the intended route to Washington: continuing to use corporate America as a tool of the liberal left to scapegoat.
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Green noted that, like many other positions advocated by DeSantis, his use of government power to respond to private industry efforts is entirely new.In a book he wrote shortly before his first run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011, DeSantis rebuked President Barack Obama for “exercising the[ing] The authority that makes the rounds to scrutinize the business decisions of many large corporations,” said it was part of the president’s habit of “bullying . . . private business.”
But back then, the Republican Party was still largely oriented around things like working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to reduce taxes and regulation to boost economic growth. Businesses are big donors to the Republican Party, and in return Republicans are champions of a hands-off approach.
By 2011, though, Republican voters’ enthusiasm for business had waned. Prior to 2000, at least one-third of Republicans in the General Social Survey, conducted every two years in the United States, consistently expressed “very” confidence in large corporations when asked. However, this weakened in the 2000s and surged around the 2008 economic collapse.
Republican sentiment on business recovered, but collapsed again in 2021.
Why? Green pointed to the summer of 2020, when a Minnesota police officer killed George Floyd, which prompted many companies to voice their support for the new Black Lives Matter movement. The green dots in Gallup’s data show that opposition to corporate influence rose from one-third to two-thirds of Republicans in the months after Floyd’s death.
Issues of race, gender and sexuality in particular are inextricably linked to DeSantis’ focus on big business. Disney, you’ll recall, was sparked by the company’s opposition to the governor’s backed legislation that would limit discussion of same-sex relationships in schools. That’s what its opponents have dubbed the “Don’t Talk Gay” bill, and DeSantis’ spokesman announced opposition to the “beautician” bill.
The BLM protests of the summer of 2020 and the subsequent presidential campaign elevated race to the forefront of the political right. Much of early 2021 has been devoted to the threat of so-called “critical race theory,” a theme DeSantis has also taken aim at. Then the focus on the right widened to issues of sex and sexual identity, and DeSantis was there too.
Green contrasted the governor’s 2011 remarks with his speech at the end of 2021.
“If you use your power as a corporation and use it to try to advance an ideology, I think that’s very dangerous for the country — I’m not going to stand by,” DeSantis said at the time.
Here’s a straightforward explanation of the point. DeSantis understands that Republicans are frustrated with efforts to address racial, gender and LGBTQ inequalities and have used state power to try to stop them. But he also knows that governments have limited influence over the larger cultural battles — except that governments often make the rules for corporations as much as they make rules for themselves. So, under the broad and nebulous umbrella of fighting “sobriety,” DeSantis is also doing business.
Companies never want to be the target of public condemnation, making them a soft target. And, Green noted, DeSantis doesn’t see his fundraising being hurt by the switch, partly because he’s still governor and partly because, one Republican told Greene, because of DeSantis’ Donors are “financial people who don’t like the direction American culture is going” at. “
What’s unclear, though, is how effective that argument might be outside his party.
In April 2021, Gallup asked Americans whether the actions of companies affect their willingness to do business with those companies. The pollsters found that a majority of Americans say companies’ attitudes toward the environment and efforts to promote diversity influence their purchasing decisions at least to a considerable extent. More than a third of Americans and more than half of Democrats say diversity efforts are very important. (So did one in five Republicans.)
It’s not that Americans are unimpressed by what corporate America is doing. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center during the 2020 BLM event found that a majority of Democrats and Republicans believe public statements about race are the result of public pressure rather than genuine concern.
But these companies are responding to public pressure, which suggests they need to. Disney, for example, opposed DeSantis’ bill only after its employees began motivating the company to take a stand.
Part of the shift is also due to the fact that American business leaders are culturally more liberal than in the past. There are many reasons for this: the leftward shift of college-educated Americans, rising sociocultural issues, and the political leanings of young workers who now work for corporations. Most industries saw their political donations shift more to the left between 2016 and 2020, although most industries still give more to Republicans (circles above middle line, below).
In other words, corporate America has actually deviated somewhat from the Republican Party, both institutionally and culturally, in recent years. The GOP base has fought back, often through the same “woke up” lens as DeSantis. Part of the shift to the left, though, is due to consumer demand — if not from voters.
If DeSantis runs for president and he should use corporate America as a foil, what might be revealed is not (as Elon Musk et al. speculate) some left-leaning cabal bent on weeding out the American right. Instead, he may expose the company’s current relative political incompetence, the latest in a string of once-fearing institutions to be recently designated as Potemkin’s enemies.
Whether the strategy works beyond the Republican primary is unclear, though.