The Business Of Democracy
For the fourth time this year, Republicans in the Senate have filibustered a voting rights bill that has passed the House. This latest bill to fall victim to Republican obstruction was a supposed “compromise” negotiated by Joe Manchin that was supposed to garner Republican votes. Perhaps in Manchin’s world, it might look like a success because he got one Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, to vote for the bill. But in the alternate reality of the current US Senate, Manchin needed another nine Republicans to overcome a filibuster and even allow a simple debate on the bill.
In light of this repeated obstruction, Democrats seem to be inching toward some kind of carve-out to the filibuster for voting rights similar to what exists for budgetary matters and judicial confirmations. Just the other day, Senator Carper declared, “No barrier — not even the filibuster — should stand in the way of our sacred obligation to protect our democracy”. Carper now joins Senator King in abandoning their prior skepticism about filibuster reform and instead changing the process for voting rights and democracy reform. Earlier, even President Biden finally admitted that the filibuster needed to be “fundamentally altered” for “certain issues”, clearly alluding to both the debt ceiling and voting rights. But Biden made clear any discussion of making that fundamental alteration would have to wait until after his economic program, including both the bipartisan infrastructure plan (BIF) and Build Back Better (BBB) are passed. The second of those, of course, has been held up for months because of objections from Manchin and Sinema, both of whom have shown little inclination to also reform the filibuster.
As Democrats in Washington dither, the assault on democracy continues apace. Massive voter suppression efforts are in effect in places like Arizona, Texas, Florida, and Georgia, specifically designed to disenfranchise Democratic voters. Extreme partisan gerrymanders are already in the process of being implemented for the 2022 election in a number of states. Democrats, having effectively handcuffed themselves by implementing non-partisan or bipartisan redisctricting commissions in important states they control, are trying to counter extreme Republican gerrymanders in places like Texas, Ohio, Wisconsin, Georgia, and North Carolina with gerrymanders of their own in places like New York and Illinois. These gerrymanders are built to last the decade, with maps, for example, including vacant lots in already packed Democratic districts in the belief that apartments will be built on that location in the coming years that will probably include predominantly Democratic voters. After these maps are finalized, it will be a lot harder for federal legislation to undo the damage before the 2022 election and will result in extensive court battles that will end up before the conservative Supreme Court which has shown no interest in protecting voting rights.
The net effect of all these efforts is to basically disenfranchise certain voters in both parties, but predominantly Democratic ones. It increases the likelihood that, like Wisconsin in 2018, one party can consistently maintain state legislative control even when they do not win the majority of votes. That situation mirrors what is already happening at the presidential level where the Republican has won the White House with fewer votes than the Democrat in two of the last six elections. With a swing of under 50,000 votes in 2020, Trump would have made that three of the last six.
If all this weren’t bad enough, the Republican party now seems to be fully committed to authoritarianism. The party has latched on to a legal theory that would allow state legislatures to overturn the will of their own voters and award the state’s Electoral College votes to the candidate of their own choosing. In addition, the theory would allow the Vice President at the time to choose between any competing slates of Electors, potentially determining his or her own election. At least 10 Republican attendees of the failed 1/6 coup actually won election for various offices last Tuesday, with three of them elevated to a state legislature.
Across the country, Republicans are waging a broad assault on free speech and academic freedom, a long-recognized tactic of budding autocracies. In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is turning schools into arms of the state, trying to determine the political views of faculty and students and using his influence on the boards of a public university to prevent professors from participating in litigation that opposes DeSantis’ agenda, while allowing those who do. In addition, DeSantis is apparently illegally withholding funding from two school districts who defied the Governor’s mask mandate ban. In a remarkably similar story, a renowned female Black journalism professor who founded the 1619 Project was denied tenure by the board of the University of North Carolina, overturning a recommendation from the school’s tenure committee and representing the first time tenure had been denied to the person occupying the academic position that she held. The UNC board is basically made up of white men appointed by the state legislature and the appearance of both state and donor influence was unmistakable. The faux-populist J.D. Vance, running in the GOP Ohio Senate primary with money provided by the true billionaire fascist Peter Thiel, just declared that “Professors are the enemy”. The phrase directly echoes both Trump and Nixon, the two presidents who have come closest to ending American democracy in my lifetime.
In Texas, there is an effort to ban over 800 books from libraries and classrooms, a majority of which cover racial and gender equity and are written by minority authors. At least eight Republican-controlled states are introducing laws to ban so-called Critical Race Theory (CRT) or defund schools where it is theoretically taught. These laws are written in such a way as to eliminate any recognition of our country’s long history of systemic racism and Native American genocide and require that opposing points of view to historical events must be presented, leading at least one school district to instruct its teachers to “make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives”. In Texas, a Black principal was actually fired because of his alleged attempt at the “implementation of critical race theory in our district”. Of course, CRT is not being taught in that district and his firing appears to be more associated with the fact that his wife is white.
As noted above, the Democratic party seems unable or unwilling to take the necessary steps to protect our democracy from the Republican assault. While the media does a fantastic job of documenting the authoritarian acts of the GOP, it seems incapable of properly contextualizing what that means for the country, instead still relying on that same “both-sides” framework that Republicans want to use to teach about the Holocaust. Another segment of US society that should be equally concerned but remains largely silent and even quietly supportive of Republican authoritarianism is the business community as a whole. As Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on authoritarianism, notes, “One of the biggest myths of authoritarianism is that it is ‘good for business’. Big Capital may prosper – especially oil, weapons, anything involved in infrastructure expansion – but anything below that becomes fair game…Anyone with a profitable enterprise becomes a target, regardless of their political sentiments. Business people should know that this can happen anywhere, to anyone, if autocrats take power”.
Early this year, corporations seemed willing to actually respond to the Republican threat to our democracy in the wake of the failed 1/6 coup and the subsequent attempts at making it harder for core Democratic constituencies to vote. A whole host of major companies promised to cut off campaign donations to those Republican members of Congress, the so-called Sedition Caucus, who still voted against certifying Biden’s election just hours after the failed coup. In April, hundreds of companies including Amazon, Google, GM, and Starbucks joined together to declare their opposition to legislation that would make it harder to vote that was being implemented around the country. Major League Baseball even moved the All Star game out of Georgia because of such legislation.
But, a few months later, all those words and promises have amounted to nothing. Voting restrictions continue to be implemented in red states with very little pushback from the business community. NBC reports that eight major companies that declared their support for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act back in July ended up contributing over $150,000 to Republican Senators who have now filibustered voting rights legislation four times. A mere six months after the election, most companies had resumed funding to the Sedition Caucus or were supporting PACs that supported those Republicans.
These new Republican voter suppression efforts can be incredibly harmful for business. A consulting group recently estimated the new voting restrictions in Texas would cost that state nearly $30 billion just over the next four years. Restrictions on early, weekend, and mail-in voting result in more workers taking unpaid time off simply to exercise the franchise. According to the consulting group, the resulting combination of lost wages and lower earnings would reduce Texas’ GDP by around $15 billion by 2025. Another $15 billion or more would be lost by both a talent drain out of the state and reduced investment in the state.
As Ben-Ghiat warned, the GOP targeting of businesses is increasing. Republican Senator Marco Rubio has a piece in the American Conservative where he decries the lack of what he labels “corporate patriotism” and proposes solutions often seen in other emerging autocracies. In an almost fascistic rant, Rubio writes, “The companies that control the vast majority of America’s economic resources and curate the information we see and hear on a daily basis now say that America is a racist or sexist country. These oligarchs believe the very existence of America is fatally flawed…They aim to remake our society, our culture, and our country…It is time we push companies to meet their obligations to America…First, that means getting wokeness out of the boardroom. At a minimum, we should require that the leadership of large companies be subject to strict scrutiny and legal liability when they abuse their corporate privilege by pushing wasteful, anti-American nonsense…Right now, the burden is on the shareholder to prove these woke, anti-American stances—like boycotting a state for governing its own election laws—are bad for shareholders….We should require that companies disclose to investors and be held to account for their investment in America—facilities, workforce training, number of Americans hired—as opposed to off-shoring jobs overseas, or showing how diverse their workplaces are”.
Republican efforts to interfere in private business decisions have only increased in the wake of the pandemic. Again in Florida, Republicans passed a law prohibiting businesses from asking for proof of vaccination and established a $5,000 fine for each violation. The law makes it impossible for private businesses to enforce vaccine mandates or even offer vaccinated-only events. In Montana, the legislature banned vaccine requirements as a condition of employment, claiming it amounted to discrimination. In Texas, Governor Abbott signed an executive order that prevents businesses from requiring vaccinations for any individual who objects for “any reason of personal conscience”. In Tennessee, Republicans not only passed a law banning businesses from imposing vaccine requirements but also allowed individuals who felt adversely affected by vaccine requirements to sue the businesses that had imposed them. An effort to even include mask mandates in the law narrowly failed. Even worse, because the legislature knows federal mandates will have supremacy over state mandates, the bill exempts Tennessee businesses with federal contracts. By doing so, the state has essentially set up two classes of businesses – one where vaccine mandates are allowed and one where they are not. In addition, the bill allows the state to claw back any state funding from a business that violates the state ban.
Republicans love to claim that the real tyranny involves vaccine and mask mandates. The critical difference is that, for over a century, the legal system has recognized the ability for government to mandate actions such as required vaccinations for private businesses during public health emergencies. Of course, it is unclear whether this reactionary Supreme Court will still uphold that precedent.
Republicans now display a similar desire to interfere in the decisions of private businesses as more and more conservative voices get banned from social media for advocating violence and/or spreading lies, claiming the right of “free speech” must now apply to what private businesses allow on their platforms. Rachel Bovard of the Conservative Partnership Institute rails against “woke capital – corporate power bent on enforcing a political narrative against its user base” as illustrated by banks that no longer lending to gun manufacturers or servicing gun dealers and booksellers refusing to offer Covid denial books. She writes, “The problem is, instead of calling it what it is – totalitarian social control meted out at the corporate level – we are still calling it free enterprise…[T]he Right has no answer to this collusion of corporate and media power directed against free thought in a free society—one that endangers our very way of life. But it’s time we start casting about for one. It is becoming quite clear that, as my friend Josh Hammer has put it, ‘big business is not our friend'”.
Certainly Democrats are also concerned about concentrated corporate power but are focused on restraining that power through the traditional democratic methods of regulation, taxation, and anti-trust enforcement (or at least that is the focus of progressive Democrats). The problem for Republicans is that those traditional methods are both an anathema to the party’s ideology and endangers the already weakening support of their business base. As Eric Levitz writes, there are “two challenges facing the enemies of ‘woke capital’: 1) forcefully contravening the interests of corporate America as whole would jeopardize the Republican Party’s remaining business support, while 2) proposing the selective deployment of state power against firms that antagonize conservative constituencies would mean explicitly embracing authoritarianism…Conservatives can’t secure the cultural dominance they long for within the confines of 21st-century capitalist democracy. If they can find the will to replace that system with one more statist and authoritarian, however, their overrepresentation at every level of government may offer them a way”.
It seems quite clear that the Republican party is becoming more and more committed to embracing that authoritarian option and treating big business as an enemy. It also seems clear that business leaders are still underestimating the threat they face, either because of the classic short-term thinking that dominates the CEO class or an unwillingness to alienate one portion or another of a polarized electorate or the mistaken belief that an autocratic Republican party would still be better for business than the Democrats. Whatever the reason, perhaps America’s business leaders should pay less attention to blocking marginal changes in tax rates that will barely effect their profitability and more attention to the fact that Donald Trump shaved $1 billion off of Boeing’s market value with just a single tweet simply because the company’s CEO offered the mildest of criticisms of the President’s trade policies. That, and far worse, is the real danger America’s CEOs face as the GOP declares business the enemy in its march to autocracy.