Time was when conservatives and corporate America were on the same side, but the rise of woke companies acting at the behest of leftist advocacy groups has ignited a backlash on the right aimed at getting business out of the activism business.
The corporate uprising against Georgia’s new election law has acted as a catalyst, prompting boycott calls from top Republicans such as former President Donald Trump and Sen. Rand Paul, as well as the launch of conservative campaigns aimed at persuading CEOs to cut the cultural and political agitating.
“What I’m hearing is that people are just fed up,” said Alfredo Ortiz, president of the Job Creators Network. “I think people are finally saying, ‘You know what? Enough is enough. We don’t want politics in our sports, we don’t think there should be politics in the boardroom.’”
The American Conservative Union (ACU), which hosts the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, announced this week a campaign to push back against the “leftward lurch of U.S. corporations,” saying it would demand meetings with CEOs and warning of consequences for those who stay on the woke path.
“This is a fight we never expected to have to wage against entities that usually have been allies in economic battles, but we will wage it with all of our resources and talents,” the ACU said in a statement.
Last week saw the launch of Stop Corporate Tyranny, a center-right coalition that bills itself as “a one-stop shop that will reveal the Left’s takeover of corporate America and provide resources for hard-working Americans to fight back.”
“We’ve watched with growing concern the left’s efforts to infiltrate corporate boardrooms and use that power to force their agenda on Americans everywhere,” said Justin Danhof, general counsel of the National Center for Public Policy Research. “We are drawing a line.”
A well-known activist investor, Mr. Danhof co-founded the coalition with Stephen R. Soukup, publisher of the Political Forum and author of “The Dictatorship of Woke Capital: How Political Correctness Captured Big Business” (Encounter Books), which was released in February.
The group is promoting two petition campaigns: One urging Facebook and Twitter to “stay out of politics,” the other telling Amazon to stop funding Black Lives Matter.
Scott Walter, president of the conservative Capital Research Center, described Stop Corporate Tyranny as an effort to take a page from the left’s playbook by building coalitions to influence corporations, with one big difference: the goal is for companies to do less — a lot less — not more.
“The left has a very specific agenda, and they want you checking every single box on that agenda, and they’re going to hammer you if you don’t,” Mr. Walter said. “What we should be demanding, as far as business is concerned, is, just get the hell out of politics.”
For years, free-market conservatives have watched uneasily as left-wing activist groups cajole and hound corporate boards and executives to support a host of policy stances, but the overwhelming business antipathy to the Georgia bill came for many on the right as a wake-up call.
Not only did Major League Baseball pull its All-Star Game out of Atlanta in a show of opposition to measure, but hundreds of business leaders signed a letter Wednesday denouncing “discriminatory legislation” restricting voting rights.
Republicans sounded the boycott cry after the MLB move amid a flood of opposition to the Georgia law from companies including Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Cisco, UPS, Citigroup and ViacomCBS.
“If they want to boycott us why don’t we boycott them?” Mr. Paul said in an April 6 interview on Fox News. “This is the only thing that will teach them a lesson. If Coca-Cola wants to only operate in Democrat states and have only Democrats drink them, God love ’em, we’ll see how well they do when half the country quits drinking Coca-Cola.”
Mr. Trump issued a statement April 3 in favor of a boycott, saying it was “finally time for Republicans and Conservatives to fight back … Don’t go back to their products until they relent. We can play a better game than them.”
Not everyone is convinced. While progressives have had success with national boycotts, including the 2016 North Carolina campaign over the transgender “bathroom bill,” Mr. Walter said the right has a “terrible track record” on the boycott front.
“Name me a successful conservative boycott. Name me a second one,” Mr. Walter said. “It’s almost unheard-of for them to succeed. I get the anger, and it is a battle that needs to be fought, but we have to fight for the long run, and we have to find new and better ways to fight. The quick fix of a boycott makes us feel good, but it’s not likely to succeed.”
One problem is that the large number of woke corporations makes it nearly impossible to find politically neutral alternatives.
“If you’re angry at Coke, what, are you going to drink Pepsi?” he said. “They’ve been horribly left-wing for decades.”
The business embrace of left-wing policy positions comes as corporations increasingly move away from economist Milton Friedman’s 1970 doctrine that the “social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”
Mr. Soukup traced the progression from the SRI [socially responsible investing] movement of the late 1970s, highlighted by the South Africa divestment campaign, to more confrontational ESG approach adopted in the last decade by activist shareholders and organizations.
“What you’d have is these activists who were trying to change corporations, and that’s the line of demarcation” between SRI and ESG, Mr. Soukup said. “The goal of the first was to assuage your conscience. The goal of the second was to compel companies to behave in a manner that the activists see fit.”
Today, however, the activists aren’t the only ones touting ESG. The “big three” asset managers — BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street — increasingly are embracing the strategy, and among them they control $20 trillion in assets.
Last year, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink made history when he told CEOs in a letter that the firm would prioritize sustainability and climate change in its investment decisions. BlackRock controls $9 trillion in assets.
“You’ve got this enormously powerful company with an enormous amount of wealth behind it actively seeking to pressure companies to focus not on their day to day making of widgets, but focus instead on how they’re going to make the transition to a carbon-free economy, and that’s an enormous shift,” Mr. Soukup said in an interview with Capital Research Center.
The cards currently are stacked against foes of woke investing. “I will be the first to admit that it is definitely an uphill battle,” he said. “We’re not only outmanned, we’re outgunned considerably.”
Ultimately, Mr. Soukup predicted that the market would self-correct in reaction to such a “misallocation of resources,” but that small investors would bear the brunt of such a correction.
“My preference would be for investors and consumers to learn what’s going on, to make themselves aware of how it’s happening and why it’s happening, and to push back before the market self-corrects, because when the market self-corrects, a lot of people are going to get hurt,” he said. “But I believe in the end, the markets will self-correct.”
The irony is that many if not most companies would go out of business if they followed the left-wing economic prescriptions of the Democratic Party’s left wing, the ACU said.
The group said it would expose corporate leaders who are “publicly embracing and funding the Left while running companies that would cease to exist if the full extent of the Democrat’s leftist economic policies were implemented.”
“Our goal is to encourage the CEOs and directors of these companies to go back to running their businesses,” the ACU said.
Corrected from an earlier version which had an error regarding the coalition’s name in the 10th paragraph.
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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