Corporate America will soon forget it found a conscience

US Politics: both sides are suited by the alleged rift between the GOP and big business

Florida governor Ron DeSantis runs one of America’s largest and most complex states to some, if not unanimous, acclaim. File photograph: Getty

Florida governor Ron DeSantis runs one of America’s largest and most complex states to some, if not unanimous, acclaim. File photograph: Getty

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If US liberalism’s nightmare is a competent populist, Ron DeSantis might be the one to give it corporeal form. Florida’s governor is Trump-ish in style (tales of corruption are “horse manure”) but runs one of America’s largest and most complex states to some, if not unanimous, acclaim. No governor is angling more conspicuously for the Republican presidential mantle in 2024.

It matters, then, that corporate liberalism has an enemy in him. As big brands oppose new voting constraints in Georgia and other states, DeSantis wonders “about all the other jurisdictions that you’re in that have, quote, more restrictive laws”. He names China and Cuba as two markets that are not known to wow the invigilators from Freedom House. Nice businesses you have there, he is saying. Shame if a backlash against double-standards were to come for them.

That US business will tie itself in ethical knots in the coming years seems grimly predictable. If customers, potential hires and even investors want good corporate citizenship, they would be strange moralists to confine that demand to national borders. And once companies’ global doings are up for scrutiny, those as vast and many-tentacled as Amazon and Delta Air Lines are going to flunk the standards they are now setting themselves.

Silence in the face of injustice is tawdry, no doubt, and perhaps bad business too. But selective righteousness, and the stain of hypocrisy, could be even worse. There was a reason for the political tact of the prior generation of chief executive, and it wasn’t uniform conservatism on their part.

For a sense of how deep the corporate conscience runs, it is fair to inquire as to its whereabouts until roughly five minutes ago

There are other reasons to doubt that corporate America’s activist phase, and therefore its estrangement from the Republican party, will last. For now, the substance of chief-executive liberalism is civic: it is racial justice and the electoral franchise that most exercise the bosses. Precious causes, to be sure, but also agreeably costless ones. It is when the definition of virtue expands to matters of tax, wage settlements and union rights that executives will regret making ethics as well as returns the measure of their work.

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For a sense of how deep the corporate conscience runs, it is fair to inquire as to its whereabouts until roughly five minutes ago. Yes, the Muslim travel ban of 2017 provoked some executive dissent, most volubly in the tech sector. When Donald Trump telegraphed his refusal to abide by an electoral defeat – no bluff, as it turned out – some C-suites spoke up. In vivid style, Nike also stood by the athlete Colin Kaepernick after he took the knee against racism.

In the round, however, big business was a picture of docility throughout what was probably the most contentious presidency since the civil war. Even if the Capitol siege of January 6th really was a moral epiphany for business, tax cuts and deregulation bought an eerie silence until that point. It is fanciful to think they will not achieve a similar effect as 2024 nears.

Whether or not it is DeSantis, a Republican who goes into that election pledging to undo President Joe Biden’s mooted corporate tax rise will not struggle for private-sector donors. And none of this reckons with a turn in public sentiment against the cultural left before then.

Even now, it is hardly as if the party is clawing around for corporate cash. You would not know from the recent hubbub that companies as public-facing as T-Mobile filled Republican coffers in February, just one month after the siege.

It suits both sides in the alleged rift between the Grand Old Party and big business to play up its severity. The politicians gain some populist bona fides; brands endear themselves to a new White House and a generation of conscientious shoppers. There is sparring going on, which is not nothing. The mistake is to conflate it with authentic pugilism.

Biden’s government is, in fact, less Wall Street-flavoured than Bill Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s

If there is nothing unfixable about the Republican link to business, there is nothing new about the Democratic one. As was his way, Gore Vidal overdid it when he described America’s as a single-party system, starring the Property Party, “with two right wings: one Democratic, one Republican”.

Still, to a degree that might be unique among the global centre-left, the Democrats are not just corporate-friendly but corporate-permeated. There is no UK Labour or French Socialist answer to the fluidity of movement between the party’s administrations and high finance in particular.

Far from pulling off an epochal capture of corporate America, Biden’s government is, in fact, less Wall Street-flavoured than Bill Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s. Business genuflects to his party and its mores because it is in power, not because of some historic realignment. Expect that loyalty to switch no later than the electorate’s does. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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