It Doesn't Take a Weatherman ...

... to know which way the wind blows - unless you're a Republican politician.

What’s Going On?

McConnell’s Dangerous Game

One of the long-standing truisms of national politics is that big business allies itself with the Republican Party. On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell took direct aim at that alliance.

In an extraordinary press release, McConnell blasted “woke” corporations for siding with Democrats on a host of policy issues.

“From election law to environmentalism to radical social agendas to the Second Amendment,” said McConnell, “parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government. Our private sector must stop taking cues from the Outrage-Industrial Complex. Americans do not need or want big business to amplify disinformation or react to every manufactured controversy with frantic left-wing signaling.”

Even for McConnell, the hypocrisy on display here is breathtaking. For the past decade or so, McConnell, along with the conservative jurists that he has packed on the nation’s federal courts, promoted the view that corporations have free speech rights, particularly when allocating campaign finance dollars. McConnell and his fellow Republicans had no problem with corporations playing a role in the political process, so long as it was done in support of Republican politicians and their policy goals. Now that the shoe is on the other foot - and corporations are criticizing the GOP’s efforts to restrict voting rights in Georgia - he is hopping mad.

McConnell also made clear that the GOP has a long memory. “Corporations,” he wrote, '“will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.” The subtext here is clear: someday we will be back in power, and when we are, we will remember who was on our side - and who wasn’t.

But McConnell’s latest move feels like a flailing and empty threat from a politician with a quiver devoid of arrows.

After all, as we speak, Republican politicians are criticizing the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan because it will increase taxes on the same corporations that McConnell is attacking. If the minority leader truly wanted to show meddling corporations that he meant business, he’d signal support for higher corporate taxes. The chances of that happening are approximately equivalent to me becoming the starting centerfielder for the Red Sox (though with the way things are going, I like my chances of becoming the team’s fifth starter).

Republicans are instead using corporations as a temporary punching bag while trying to divert attention from the terrible press they are getting because of the Georgia law. But they are playing a dangerous game and one that shows just how out of touch they are with the country’s larger social and cultural trends.

Corporations, by and large, are apolitical actors. They care about policy issues like voting rights or environmental protection insofar as it affects their brand equity. They prefer fewer regulations, lower taxes, and less government involvement in the economy, which is why they have long supported the Republican Party. Implicit in McConnell’s threat is the belief that when push comes to shove, most major companies would prefer Republicans to be in power than a bunch of “socialist” Democrats. That is still largely true.

But American companies do not operate in a vacuum. They spend millions of dollars every year developing and promoting their brand identity to consumers. A nod to LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter, or the fight against climate change reflects smart corporate branding, but as the Georgia voting rights bill shows, that may no longer be enough.

All else being equal, most companies would prefer to find a way to straddle the fence - neither alienating Democrats nor Republicans. Delta, headquartered in Atlanta, initially tried that by putting out a statement about the Georgia voting law that praised changes to the bill while also making clear that it still had concerns. That led to a fierce backlash, which pushed the airline to come out more forcefully against the law.

Ultimately, Delta made the business decision to side with voting rights, which in our polarized times means siding with Democrats. They were not alone. Coca-Cola, which is also headquartered in Georgia, publicly criticized the state’s new voting laws. So too did Major League Baseball, which announced they are moving the annual All-Star game out of Atlanta. A host of other powerful CEOs spoke out against the legislation as well, from the heads of financial giants Black Rock and Citi to technology companies like Microsoft and Cisco.

Their actions suggest that they believed they had more to gain (and less to lose), from a public relations perspective, by siding with those who opposed Georgia’s efforts to restrict voting rights than remaining quiet.

These companies also care about their image not just with customers but their employees. This is arguably the more important issue. Delta and Coke, like any company, want to retain and attract the best talent. In an era when young people, in particular, are more attuned to issues of social justice and diversity, there is little upside for big corporations to be seen on the wrong side of an issue like voting rights. Major League Baseball is not a “woke” organization. Still, the owners likely didn’t want pushback from the players union - and baseball players with their vast social media footprint - by holding a major event in Georgia.

Of course, that didn’t mean there wasn’t a backlash. McConnell’s broadside against “woke” corporations (which is truly a contradiction in terms) is being matched by his fellow Republicans. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott refused to throw out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers home opener. In Georgia, Republican legislators are looking to rescind a jet fuel tax benefit that puts $35 million in Delta’s coffers and has announced that they will no longer stock their offices with Coke products. Across social media, prominent Republicans practically fell over themselves, chiding “woke” corporations for speaking out against the Georgia law.

It’s difficult to imagine two things that are as quintessentially American as baseball and Coke, and Republicans are now at war with both of them. Could apple pie be next? But in an era when partisan polarization has turned practically every issue into a question of us vs. them, and whose side are you on, the GOP has decided that it’s more important to rile up their resentment-filled, woke-liberal hating base than worry about getting in a food fight with American’s most iconic institutions and companies.

This is not a sustainable long-term political strategy. Yes, in the near term, this will play with GOP voters. Still, rank-and-file Republicans are not about to abandon Coke, baseball, or flying (indeed, because of Republican-supported airline deregulation, most Americans have few choices in which companies airplanes they choose to fly on). But constantly playing to their fringe supporters eventually takes a toll.

Major companies are already deciding that allying themselves with Democrats is better than supporting Republican extremism and anti-democratic efforts. Will corporate donors continue to want to hold fundraisers with Republican politicians, donate money, or be seen publicly with them? Will they cower in fear at the childish, intimidating attacks by McConnell et al. or instead decide that maybe the Democrats don’t look so bad after all? Big businesses are no longer monoliths, and there are plenty that value consumer opinion more than they do the ins and outs of federal regulatory policy. Republicans are playing with fire by making yet another set of powerful enemies.

I wrote the other day that polarization is key to the GOP’s continued influence in American politics, but it’s a double-edged sword. To maintain their partisan base's backing, Republicans must consistently play on their supporters’ fears of societal, cultural, and racial change. It’s a never-ending game of grievance politics. But that also means fighting against larger progressive trends in American society. The political and cultural winds are flowing in one direction, and Republicans are trying to command them to reverse themselves. Doing so might please their rabid followers, but it further shrinks their opportunity to expand their political support. In the near term, it keeps Republicans relevant and politically powerful. In the long-term, it’s the road to oblivion.

Baseball is Back

Off the catcher’s helmet and right into the behind-home plate camera is a helluva shot.

Musical Interlude

The images above - and the title of today’s post - comes from this legendary Bob Dylan video for the song “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which appeared in the documentary “Don’t Look Back.”

Last night I listened to about a dozen cover versions of this song, and I have concluded that this one, by professional busker Gee Gee Kettel and his daughter Soluna Samay, is the best.

This Michael Franti version is also pretty great.