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Can Ron DeSantis ride an anti-business message to the White House?

The great war between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and the Walt Disney Company has for months been mired in a stalemate.

The governor, irked at Disney’s stated opposition to legislation he supported, launched a furious offensive against the company, despite Disney’s large footprint in his state. He endorsed a plan to revoke the special district that governs Disney’s properties in Orlando and later signed it into law. But that plan (like other splashy DeSantis announcements) has since eroded and may well end up being abandoned.

Disney nonetheless had a rough year. A downward trend in its stock price that began in late 2021 continued. In November, the company suddenly announced the replacement of their (relatively new) CEO with his well-regarded predecessor.

As in any conflict, though, that the fight ended without resolution doesn’t mean there was no damage done. Disney paid a price for its public objection to the Florida legislation, including becoming a focal point of the generalized right-wing anger at corporate efforts to recognize social inequality. Fox News, for example, has mentioned Disney at least 2,900 times over the past 12 months and published more than 3,200 online articles mentioning the company in that same period.

DeSantis emerged largely unscathed. Despite attacking a major employer in his state over a highly controversial bill that he championed, he was reelected easily — an important step in his obvious but as-yet-unstated plan to seek the White House in 2024. And, as a new report from Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green suggests, DeSantis sees an expected route to Washington: continuing to scapegoat corporate America as a tool of the liberal left.

Green notes that, as with many other positions DeSantis advocates, his use of governmental power to respond to the efforts of private businesses is new. In a 2011 book written shortly before he first sought election to the U.S. House, DeSantis excoriated President Barack Obama for “exercis[ing] a roving review authority over the business decisions of a number of large companies,” calling it part of the president’s habit of “bullying … private industry.”

But back then, the Republican Party was still largely oriented around things like working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to scale back taxes and regulation with an eye toward economic growth. Businesses were big donors to the GOP, and in return Republicans were champions of a hands-off approach.

By 2011, though, the enthusiasm of the Republican base for business had waned. Before 2000, at least a third of Republicans consistently reported having a “great deal” of confidence in major companies when asked as part of the General Social Survey conducted every two years in the United States. In the first years of the century, though, that waned, spiking around the time of the economic crash in 2008.

Republican views of business recovered, only to collapse again in 2021.

Why? Green points to the summer of 2020, when the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota prompted a number of companies to express support for the renewed Black Lives Matter movement. Green points at Gallup data showing that opposition to the influence of major corporations went from a third of Republicans to two-thirds of the party in the months after Floyd’s death.

Issues of race, gender and sexuality in particular are inextricable from DeSantis’s focus on big business. The trigger for Disney, you’ll recall, was that the company came out against legislation backed by the governor that limited discussion of same-sex relationships in schools. This was the bill dubbed “don’t say gay” by its opponents, the bill that DeSantis’s spokesperson declared was opposed by “groomers.”

The BLM protests in the summer of 2020 and the ensuing presidential campaign elevated race as a focus of the political right. Much of the early part of 2021 was spent focused on the purported threat of “critical race theory,” a subject that DeSantis has also targeted. Then the right’s focus expanded to issues of sexuality and sexual identity, and DeSantis was there, too.

Green contrasts the governor’s 2011 rhetoric with a speech in late 2021.

“If you’re using your power as a corporation and you’re leveraging that to try to advance an ideology,” DeSantis said then, “I think it’s very dangerous for this country — and I’m not just going to sit idly by.”

It’s a direct explanation of the point. DeSantis understands that Republicans are frustrated at efforts to address racial, gender and LGBTQ inequalities and has deployed state power to try to block them. But he also knows that the government’s effect on bigger cultural fights is limited — except in that government often sets rules for businesses as it does for itself. So, under the broad, vague umbrella of battling “wokeness,” DeSantis is taking on businesses, too.

Corporations never want to be a target of public excoriation, making them a soft target. And, Green notes, DeSantis hasn’t seen his fundraising damaged by the turn, in part because he’s still governor and in part, a Republican told Green, because DeSantis’s donors are “financial guys who don’t like the cultural direction America is going in.”

What’s not clear, though, is how effective this line of argument might be outside of his party.

In April 2021, Gallup asked Americans whether corporate actions would affect their willingness to do business with those companies. The pollsters found that most Americans said a business’s approach to the environment and efforts to promote diversity mattered at least a fair amount in their buying decisions. More than a third of Americans, and more than half of Democrats, said diversity efforts mattered a great deal. (So did a fifth of Republicans.)

It’s not that Americans are dewy-eyed about what corporate America is doing. A Pew Research Center poll conducted at the time of the 2020 BLM activism found that most Democrats and Republicans considered public statements about race to be a function of public pressure, not genuine concern.

But that those companies were responding to public pressure indicates there was such pressure to which they needed to respond. Disney’s opposition to DeSantis’s bill, for example, came only after its employees began agitating for the company to take a position.

Part of the shift is also that American business leaders are more culturally liberal than they used to be. There are a lot of reasons for that: the shift to the left among college-educated Americans, the increased salience of cultural issues in society, the political inclinations of the younger workers who now staff their businesses. Most industries saw their political giving move more to the left between 2016 and 2020, even while most industries still gave more to Republicans (the circles above the middle line, below).

In other words, in recent years corporate America has actually somewhat moved away from the GOP both in its institutional and cultural formulations. The GOP’s base has pushed back, often through the same “wokeness” lens as DeSantis. Part of the shift to the left, though, is a reflection of demand from consumers — if not from voters.

Should DeSantis run for president and should he focus on corporate America as a foil, what will probably be revealed is not (as people like Elon Musk have speculated) some left-leaning cabal of actors hellbent on eviscerating the American right. Instead, he may expose the relative political impotence of corporations in the moment, the latest in a series of once-feared institutions to be newly designated as Potemkin foes.

Whether that strategy works beyond a Republican primary, though, is unclear.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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