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The GOP-Big Business Divorce Goes Deeper Than You Think

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Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a legendary business professor and associate dean at the Yale School of Management, has watched this split grow in recent years, and has heard it from CEOs he knows and works with. What the GOP cares about and what major businesses care about are, increasingly incompatible, he says.

“The political desire to use wedge issues to divide—which used to be fringe in the GOP—has become mainstream,” Sonnenfeld says. “That is 100 percent at variance with what the business community wants. And that is a million times more important to them than how many dollars of taxes are paid here or there.”

Over the weekend, Sonnenfeld hastily organized a Zoom conference with roughly 100 major corporate executives to talk through the voter restrictions being considered by state legislatures throughout the country, and about the way top Republicans like McConnell and Ted Cruz are responding with attacks on businesses that speak up in opposition.

Most of the CEOs on the call were Republicans; Sonnenfeld himself has been an informal adviser to Republican and Democratic presidents, but he has a longstanding relationship with McConnell, and spoke at the senator’s wedding to Elaine Chao. The CEOs “ranged from amused to outraged” in their reaction to the GOP attacks on businesses, says Sonnenfeld. “Their comments ranged from talk about ‘taxation without representation’ to the paradox of ‘cancel culture’: It’s OK if they speak out, but only as long as they stay on script?”

As the GOP tries to position itself as the home of “working-class values,” capturing loyalty with a steady campaign against the perceived excesses of progressive culture, it’s running afoul of a business community that can’t simply silo off “culture war” topics. In the eyes of major corporations, issues like voting rights, immigration and transgender-inclusive restrooms have economic impact, too. The millions of people alienated by those fights aren’t just their future customers, many of whom expect to support brands they believe in, they’re the companies’ employees.

“The bad news for Republicans is that they seem to have a 1920s view of who Big Business’ workforce is,” says Sonnenfeld. “That workforce is, at a minimum, highly diverse—and they get along. Trying to stir that up is misguided.”

The new Republican penchant for mocking corporations for being too socially aware—for instance, Sen. Ted Cruz’s Twitter threat to use the power of the state to harm Major League Baseball’s business, signing the message off with “go woke, go broke”—fundamentally misunderstands what matters to business in the 21st century, says Sonnenfeld. “Basically, business leaders believe that it’s in the interest of society to have social harmony. … Divisiveness in society is not in their interest, short term or long term.”

If the marriage between the Republican Party and the business community is on the rocks, what does that mean for politics? What do we misunderstand about what really matters to CEOs? And why aren’t business executives more afraid of boycott threats from the right?

For answers to all of that and more, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Sonnenfeld this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.





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