AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
The clash in Florida between Governor Ron DeSantis and the Disney corporation has caused exultation among members of the Republican base, who for years have seen the party and the conservative movement subordinate all other principles to Calvin Coolidge’s maxim that “the business of America is business,” even as corporate America has embraced the cultural agenda of the radical left. At the same time, there has been extensive soul searching among more traditionally conservative voices such as Charles Cooke in the National Review, expressing concern that attacking the privileges of a corporation because of its political speech is authoritarian, something often associated with Marxist regimes. They worry it could be the start of a slippery slope.
The problem is that like all slippery slope arguments, this merely proves that almost any policy, when taken to extremes, is a bad idea. For example, to suggest that concentrations of wealth or power in unelected hands can be a challenge to democracy does not support an argument for nationalization or socialism, which would of course be far more insidious in their subversion of democracy. It is simply not a betrayal of conservative principles to support actions to curtail the influence of large corporations.
In an article for AMAC Newsline entitled “The Conservative Case for Breaking up Big Tech” last year, I warned that:
For decades, a principled commitment to capitalism has sometimes drifted into an unconditional deference to concentrations of power, provided that power was located in the private sector. It was, and remains, inconceivable to many conservatives why corporate leaders would back the Democratic Party, much less champion causes such as lockdowns, environmental regulation, critical race theory, or media rules which seem designed to hurt the private sector. They have forgotten that, while the Left does hate corporations because they are wealthy, it was conservatives who once backed anti-trust laws because corporations had become too powerful.
Historically, conservatism did not support the free market or capitalist principles out of some sort of moral deference to wealth. Rather, conservatism was founded on a skepticism of mankind. It is the belief that mankind is fallible, and that given power, the tendency will be to abuse it. Conservatives supported capitalism and the free markets precisely because in the hands of many people, freedom was the greatest check on abuses of concentrated power because it decentralized power. The alternative to this approach — government officials deciding who is paid what – would raise the stakes in political conflicts, encouraging those in power to buy political support by offering wealth and advantage to those most able to help them seize and maintain power, not directing wealth to those who could use it most efficiently.
As I concluded last summer, ever since Adam and Eve, humans have been fighting the temptation to God-like power, and the temptation to abuse it was too much for the best men and women. Republicans and conservatives need to make clear that government will not tolerate the interference of unelected individuals who use their market power to thwart democracy, not because they distrust businesses, but because they value them and want to protect them from those who wish to use government to destroy free enterprise. Not all would-be socialists are poor.
The flaw of modern American conservatism has been an obsession with the potential abuses of governmental power that has blinded far too many to the threat posed by concentrations of private power. The role of Twitter was highlighted during the 2020 elections, when the company, along with Facebook and the Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos) took it upon themselves to determine what was and was not “misinformation” by suppressing the story of potential Biden family corruption contained in Hunter Biden’s laptop.
Then came the banning of Donald Trump, the President of the United States, from social media in January of 2021. Who elected those who made that decision? Not the American voters. Nor did the Twitter shareholders elect those who fought tooth and nail to prevent Elon Musk buying the company.
This highlights a flaw of the libertarian belief in markets. The idea that all businesses have an interest in a free market and a free society ceases to work at a level of scale when those in charge of companies care more about control of government — and the rules of the market that matter to them — than the health of the overall economy. Almost all small- and medium-sized businesses benefit from a healthy U.S. economy. But Amazon, for instance, saw unprecedented profits and growth from the COVID-19 lockdowns even while the rest of the economy suffered. Those lockdowns also drove many of Amazon’s rivals out of business by confining tens of millions to their homes, and the company raked in billions as people turned to online ordering. The destruction of Amazon’s rivals in the wider economy was, if anything, a bonus for the company.
Interests will always diverge, but matters change fundamentally if the powerful have significant interests that diverge from those of the American economy and, more consequentially, if they also have the power to effectuate those policies. Jeff Bezos is the owner of the Washington Post, giving him a major voice in U.S. politics, one which he used last week to directly target a Twitter account that exposes the dangers of progressive ideology. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, of course, spent almost $400 million in 2020 on local election administration in heavily democratic areas in several swing states.
This brings us to Disney. Democrats and National Review-esque conservatives would like to portray Disney’s foray into Florida politics in opposition to Florida’s recent laws regarding sexual instruction in grades K-3 as an act of principle, and the loss of their special economic zone near Orlando unjustifiable as political punishment. But Disney’s principles have always been limited by pragmatism; look no further than the company kowtowing to China, even on sacred LGBT or racial issues, such as removing a lesbian kiss from Star Wars in China, or when they removed African American star John Boyega from all Chinese posters for the films.
Disney’s recent corporate behavior has been therefore to defer to those it cannot defy, and to dictate to those whom it can dominate. When it comes to China, Disney chooses appeasement. In the U.S., Disney faces cancellation from the Left and cultural elites if it defies them, hence the willingness to fire fan favorite Gina Carano from the hit Star Wars spinoff series “The Mandalorian” for refusing to put pronouns in her Twitter bio and being a Republican. Carano, one of the first female MMA fighters, is a trailblazer, but she was fired because Disney assumed any outrage among viewers or conservatives would be minimal, while their left-wing employees and the entertainment media would harass the company until they acted.
Disney has been correct in their calculus – until now. That is the real purpose of Florida’s actions. It is not, per se, about Disney’s opposition to the recent law. Efforts to stop it were ineffective, and the law passed. It was rather about changing the incentive structure. Disney was willing to oppose the Florida law and Governor DeSantis because the company believed that if they did not, left-wing activists and the media would attack them, but if they did, they would get cheers from the left and media while DeSantis and Republicans would shrug and do nothing. The incentive was clear. Being “woke,” even ineffectively, was free. That, in a nutshell, explains corporate wokeness: it is a rational cost-benefit calculation, not a broad-based ideological commitment to some sort of post-modernist Marxist worldview.
By not “doing nothing,” but rather taking action, Governor DeSantis, the Florida legislature, and newly assertive conservatives have sent a very clear message not just to Disney but to every company: the incentives have changed. If you decide to attack conservatives on the assumption they will merely “take it,” then you will now face retaliation.
This will not, as the National Review worries, endanger corporate free speech. If Disney executives and shareholders feel that “wokeness” is worth a financial tradeoff, they are free to pursue it. There are undoubtedly many woke consumers in America. But Disney will now have to balance pandering to them with the newly clarified costs of alienating everyone else – which will not mean abandoning all political positions that aren’t conservative, but likely will involve avoiding issues where 70% of the public is opposed to the message the left wants them to push. Pandering to vocal minorities will no longer make business sense.
This is a “conservative” approach to the antitrust goal of thwarting the abuse of concentrated economic power, in methods as well as ends. It functions not through coercion, but through the same incentive structures as the free market. By changing the costs and benefits of options, it forces companies like Disney to think much harder about taking biased political stands. That, ultimately, is what conservatives should seek in any sort of marketplace. A balance, in which no one side becomes all powerful.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.