Republicans have issued increasing warnings in recent weeks to major businesses that have dared to oppose voter suppression laws in Georgia and elsewhere. From Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., deriding “oligarchy” and threatening trust busting to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s warning businesses to “stay out of politics,” Republicans have signaled that opposing their agenda on voting will carry consequences.
Although these threats might seem jarring given that Republicans have long been seen as the allies of business, this push on the right is actually nothing new. For members of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), “canceling” insufficiently conservative businesses has been a historic point of pride. The group’s efforts illustrate how conservatives’ commitment to free enterprise has always been conditioned upon support for their broader political and cultural agendas. This history also shows the irony of the right’s purported opposition to “cancel culture” in 2021.
Today’s Young America’s Foundation began as Young Americans for Freedom. It was founded in 1960 at the family estate of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. The conservative youth organization laid out its commitments to Christianity, the Constitution and the market economy (in this order) in its founding document, the Sharon Statement. The mission statement’s conclusion branded communism “the single greatest threat” to liberty, emphasized that the United States “should stress victory over, rather than coexistence with, this menace” and endorsed an America First foreign policy.
This approach to the Cold War brought YAF into conflict with a multitude of leading American businesses during the 1960s. Although the organization believed in free enterprise, its commitment to anti-communism superseded other values. YAFers were therefore aghast that the U.S. government allowed American trade with Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and other Soviet-dependent states as part of the Johnson administration’s “bridge-building” policy with the Soviet Union. They saw this trade as a form of “national suicide” because it propped up communism, which was locked in a life-or-death struggle with American capitalism.
And so, the YAFers undertook boycotts against a who’s who of American companies: American Motors, Firestone, Ford, IBM, JPMorgan Chase Bank and Mack Truck manufacturing company.
These efforts began in the early 1960s when YAF first attempted to intervene in deals between American Motors, Firestone Tire and Soviet satellite states, specifically lobbying Firestone to halt construction on a rubber plant in Romania. YAF pamphlets asked “Are we financing our own destruction?” and modified the company’s slogan: “When Red wheels are rolling, the name is Firestone.” Members even threatened to fly a small jet banner reading “The Viet Cong ride on Firestone” at the 1965 Indianapolis 500 race. The plant was never built in “Red Romania,” but there is no indication that YAF’s 20-person pickets led to termination of the $50 million deal.
The youth group waged a similar boycott against Chase Manhattan Bank for offering loans to Eastern Bloc nations to buy subsidized U.S. wheat — though this benefited American farmers, in addition to the bank.
Despite YAF’s efforts to publicly condemn these corporate giants, American Motors, Firestone and Chase continued their global trade unfazed by disaffected college conservatives.
But this did not deter YAF. Later in the decade, the group focused its cancellation energies on computer giant IBM. YAFers protested outside IBM offices in Massachusetts, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin demanding the corporation cease selling engines, trucks, radar, scrap metal, crude rubber and other “nonstrategic” industrial supplies to friends of the enemy. Picket signs decried IBM customers in Texas as “traitors,” while the University of Wisconsin YAF hung a cardboard effigy of a computer outside of the Madison office.
These emboldened youths then delivered their grievances directly to IBM’s corporate leaders at a 1968 shareholder meeting, purchasing single shares of stock to gain access to the Boston conference. Meanwhile, their cadres distributed fliers outside exposing the corporation’s “suicidal trade with the enemy.” Two YAF leaders secured a perfunctory meeting with IBM Chairman Thomas Watson, though the historical record gives no evidence to suggest that the young men’s efforts were fruitful in any way. And it doesn’t appear that YAF was able to sway IBM, Chase, Ford or Firestone’s customers into doing business elsewhere.
Even so, conservative students did not stop at trying to launch boycotts of businesses. In the public sphere, YAF condemned Soviet cultural exchange programs that could “lull Americans into the idea that Russians are good guys.” They picketed Russian circuses and ballets, equating attendance at such events with an endorsement of “slavery.”
In 1968, conservative college students briefed party leaders at both the Republican and Democratic conventions on their efforts to stamp out “anti-American” business and cultural practices. In these meetings, YAF Vice Chairman David Keene (future chairman of the American Conservative Union and president of the National Rifle Association) lobbied both parties to halt U.S. trade in machine tools, data-processing equipment and other goods with Eastern European states, arguing that communist North Vietnam received its military supplies indirectly from Soviet allies. While conservative members of Congress in both parties served on YAF’s board and nurtured the group’s efforts, mainstream members of both parties saw them as a nuisance, with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) referring to YAF as a “minor vigilante group” and Richard Nixon describing the young conservatives as “about as nutty” as New Left radicals who engaged in extreme tactics.
This sense among mainstream politicians might explain why YAF’s noisy interventions did little more than make headlines. And while media attention was a point of pride for the members, their tactics failed to influence the broader public into boycotting these corporate giants. Nor did they actually influence business practices or threaten the companies’ bottom lines in any meaningful way. However unsuccessful, these early pickets against corporate giants served as the group’s first foray into cancel culture. YAF’s small influence on institutional actions would not come until several years later, when its members sued to reopen universities after nationwide closures following the Kent State massacre.
Unlike Gen Z, YAF baby boomers didn’t have TikTok, Twitter or other social media to message to their peers in an instant or viral way. What they did have — provocative signs, scathing fliers distributed widely, organized protests and access to political authority figures of both parties — they used exhaustively in their attempt to punish American businesses despite purportedly being staunch advocates of the free market.
This history highlights the hypocrisy of conservatives’ current condemnation of calls to boycott businesses and individuals that arouse grievances rooted in ableism, homophobia, racism, sexism and other social justice concerns held by young, left-leaning Americans. It also reveals that the conservative commitment to free enterprise was never ironclad, long before its current ire against Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola and Major League Baseball, among others.
The right’s enthusiasm for allowing companies to do what is best for the bottom line has always been conditioned upon adherence to its broader cultural values and political priorities. The modern opposition to cancel culture is a newfound development, one far more about disliking the cause than any deeply held conviction about the free expression of ideas or market forces.
Lauren Lassabe is the coordinator for student accountability at the University of New Orleans. This history was inspired by her current book project “Resistance from the Right: Conservative Forces in American Higher Education in the Era of the New Left.” This piece was written for The Washington Post.