“Corporate America’s rush to cancel those it dislikes should trouble you,” wrote Sen. Josh Hawley (New York Post, 1/24/21), after leading the charge to overturn the 2020 election cost him a book contract.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R.–Mo.), one of the right-wing ringleaders of the January 6 riot at the Capitol, told Fox News’ Sean Hannity (2/5/21) he is under attack—not by federal law enforcement, civil rights groups or ANTIFA, but by “woke capital,” a cabal of left-wing business elites using their commercial might to silence conservatives and promote cultural liberalism.
In his front-page New York Post rant (1/24/21) against “cancel culture,” Hawley painted a dystopia where an “alliance of leftists and woke capitalists hopes to regulate the innermost thoughts,” and where conservatives’ love of church and the US electoral system is under attack from “left and the corporations.”
It sounds a bit strange; after all, the right usually chastises the left for its anti-corporate politics and for promoting socialism. But Hawley and Hannity are hardly alone: Tucker Carlson of Fox News (10/9/20) sounded the alarm about “woke capital” more than a year ago, and in the middle of the Trump administration, conservative New York Times columnist Rose Douthat (2/28/18) explained that corporate campaigns against the National Rifle Association or the Trump administration’s demagoguery affirm
cultural conservatives in their feeling of general besiegement, their sense that all the major institutions of American life, corporate as well as intellectual and cultural, are arrayed against their mores and values and traditions.
The right-wing Spectator (9/8/20) said that corporate America has “lurched along” with the Democratic Party’s “lurch left on cultural issues.”
Murdoch media is reviving the phrase “woke capitalism” in the early days of the Biden administration. The New York Post (2/6/21) claimed that so-called woke corporations thwarted the “will of the people” in 2016 when the threw their support against state-level anti-LGBT legislation, and that of late they flex their
corporate muscles to deplatform, silence and even bankrupt apps like Parler, where users’ views about politics happen to vary, even slightly, from progressive orthodoxy.
The Wall Street Journal (2/5/21) blames the falling popularity of big business among Republicans to “managers…assign[ing] polarizing left-wing political texts to employees”—not on Donald Trump’s frequent attacks on corporations that anger him.
A Wall Street Journal editorial (2/5/21) lamented that “many Fortune 500 firms took the Black Lives Matter protests as an opportunity to pivot hard to the left,” while “Amazon [and] Nike donated large sums to progressive activist groups.” The editors went on to claim that “managers started to assign polarizing left-wing political texts to employees and adopted new racial hiring preferences.”
No matter that “racial hiring preferences” means ending discrimination, which is justice, not a sop. For the paper, this was an inexcusable sin by the companies: “They were bypassing the political process and intervening directly to transform highly contested parts of American life.”
What many of these pieces get right, especially the Times and Spectator articles, is that many corporate overtures to diversity, racial justice and progress are marketing gimmicks that don’t actually address structural economic inequality, and, at worst, are meant to distract from any kind of class reckoning.
This prompts the question of why, then, does conservative media care so much? After all, none of these pieces ever quantify to what degree the nation’s top firms have thrown their resources behind any kind of progressive agenda. These pieces tick off some names and some examples, but simply never line them up against how much money finance and industry pour into every election cycle.
Oil companies lobby against environmentalist policies, and Wall Street firms want less government regulation. A look at Fortune 500 companies shows names like Walmart, one of the biggest advocates against organized labor, and Home Depot, whose co-founder Bernie Marcus is well-known advocate for the Israeli right.
Or take last year’s vote in California, where a proposition was approved by voters to deny gig workers basic employment protections. According to the Los Angeles Times (10/16/20), these so-called woke companies voted with their economic interests to support the proposition: “Uber with $52 million and Lyft, $49 million. Delivery companies have also kicked in big: DoorDash has spent $48 million and Instacart, $28 million.”
Does corporate promotion of LGBT rights or diversity in hiring outweigh all this? These media don’t tell us.
At first glance, it’s easy to write off this outcry as oversensitive whining: Conservative editorialists and producers are fine with corporate spending and political influence as long as it meets the interests of the Republican Party. Start supporting gay rights or Black Lives Matter, though, and all of a sudden corporate America has gone too far.
One gets a sense of these editorialists’ John Birch Society–style paranoia that even our CEOs and boards of directors have fallen under the spell of “cultural Marxism.” And let’s not forget that for the cultural right, finance (based in New York City), big tech (based in the San Francisco Bay Area) and entertainment (Los Angeles) are capitalist sectors associated with blue state geography that is culturally out of touch with “real America.”
But much like woke signaling for corporations can be read as cynical public relations, so too is this a branding campaign for the right. Since the 1990s, the American left has built its momentum on anti-corporate anger, from the Seattle WTO protests to the college anti-sweatshop movement to Occupy Wall Street. This energy protesting inequality and the influence of big business on policy making gave rise to the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The right is playing catch-up: “We’re anti-business, too!” The Republican Party can’t really afford to defend corporate rapaciousness, like it did under President Ronald Reagan. Instead, it is looking toward a rebranding where it can channel anti-business rage toward standing athwart social progress on race, gender and sexuality.
Does anyone really think that the Murdoch media empire wants to see a politics that unites the poor and underpaid against the ownership class? Take Hawley, who the right-wing media have made their poster child of populist revolt: He has a lifetime legislative scorecard of 5% from the AFL-CIO, supported the anti-union “right to work” campaign and opposes increasing the minimum wage. Meanwhile, the US Chamber of Commerce gives him a 56%, which isn’t that high for a Republican, but compare it to scores for real economic populists like Sanders (18%) or Sen. Ed Markey (26%). Hawley’s top donors include investment firms, manufacturers and the fossil fuel industry.
The overuse of this contradictory phrase “woke capital” is a clear indication that right-wing media are trying to steer anti-corporate animus away from the interests of workers and the poor. Don’t fall for it.
Featured image: Fox News‘ Sean Hannity (2/5/21) interviewing Sen. Josh Hawley.