Conservatives are enraged over “woke corporations” that have publicly denounced the Republican Party’s program of voting restrictions. They are not indignant enough to, say, raise corporate taxes. (Indeed, they are currently fighting against any increase at all in the corporate rate.) But they are shaking their fists angrily in the direction of “woke” corporate America.
Yesterday, Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Josh Hawley proposed to end Major League Baseball’s 99-year-old antitrust exemption. Cruz described their measure as merely one blow against a larger threat Cruz called “the Woke Corporation.”
It’s easy to understand why Republicans feel betrayed and disrespected by the spectacle of large corporations opposing what is, at the moment, their party’s central objective. What’s difficult to understand is the philosophical basis for their position.
Corporations are speaking out against voting restrictions for a combination of ethical and self-interested reasons. Some business leaders genuinely believe in expanding political participation. Others are responding to the demands of their customers and employees, both of which skew demographically to the left of the electorate (and far to the left of the political system, which overrepresents white rural constituents.)
Obviously this isn’t going to please Republicans. But on what basis can they claim it’s unfair?
Republicans have long stood for the position that corporations are entitled to extremely broad deference to engage in free speech. They generally apply this principle to the issue of campaign-finance regulation, but — to hear Republicans tell it — their passion for unlimited and undisclosed donations is merely a consequence of their deeper passion for the First Amendment.
Cruz in particular has long staked out a vocal stance on this principle. “To hear the Democrats tell it, all they want to do is stop ‘corporate influences’ from unfairly influencing the political debate,” he explained, before proceeding to warn that any limitation on corporate political influence would lead to a dystopian regime of government censorship. “I believe in free speech and the First Amendment, which means everyone here has a right to speak out in politics as effectively as possible. To speak out and make your views known, whether that is standing on a street corner on a soap box, whether that is printing out a yard sign, whether that is spending money to run a radio ad or a TV ad, effectively communicating,” he insisted at another point.
All that hooey about standing up on a soap box and expressing your opinion is just cover for permitting unlimited donations. The “free speech” principle applies to money, but not to actual speech.
National Review’s Dan McLaughlin attempts to identify a principled basis for the Republican complaints. The unfairness, he claims, is that these corporations are being extorted by Democrats:
The president, and his party’s lawyer, are urging multiple major corporations to combine to restrain trade for the purpose of making it harder for its political opposition to win elections, and using lies to restrict the president’s democratically elected critics from passing laws. If we saw this in another country, we would recognize it as a menacing step.
It certainly would be menacing if the president was threatening adverse consequences to firms that refuse to support his position. But McLaughlin cites zero instances of any Democrats threatening adverse policy steps against corporations that oppose them.
Indeed, the only elected officials threatening corporations are Republican politicians. Mitch McConnell warned of “serious consequences” for firms that take pro-voting-access positions. That sounds rather menacing! Meanwhile, here is a trio of Republicans senators proposing a bill that is explicitly designed to punish a company because it opposes the Republican line.
At their press conference yesterday, the Republican senators toggled back and forth between incompatible explanations for why they were introducing a bill to eliminate Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption. On the one hand, they insisted the exemption was simply unjustified. (Obviously, they’re not going to describe their own proposal as bad policy.) On the other hand, they openly described their bill as retribution for the league’s pro-voting-access stance.
The bill “underscores that there’s no reason Major League Baseball should enjoy special subsidies, corporate welfare no one else gets,” explained Cruz, “If they’re gonna play partisan enforcer, they shouldn’t see special goodies from Washington when they are dishonestly acting to favor one party over another.” The implication is that if they’re not going to play partisan enforcer, they should get special goodies from Washington.
Likewise, Hawley told reporters, “This is a league that wants to exert political influence, and at the same time, wants to get government handouts and government subsidies. They just can’t have it both ways.” Hawley’s public stance is that they can either get what he calls “government hand-outs and government subsidies” or they can “exert political influence.” They can’t have it both ways, though. If they get out of the Republicans’ way on voting rights, they can continue to enjoy what Hawley deems to be unjustified corporate welfare.
Republicans have a right to be upset that President Biden has described their vote suppression as worse than Jim Crow when it’s really just a watered down version of Jim Crow. But what they demand is more than an abstinence from hyperbole in describing their voting restrictions. They want to continue waging Donald Trump’s war against American democracy, but without the social opprobrium. If they wanted to be treated as a normal party that isn’t a threat to democracy, they should stop threatening democracy.