Depending on how it is seen, Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ successful effort to eliminate special tax exemptions for the Walt Disney Co. is either an unwarranted retaliation against a company’s free speech or a legitimate exercise. of power politics. More broadly, however, it heralds an inevitable political shift: the breakdown of the more than 150-year-old alliance between big business and the Republican Party.
The GOP has always been the political vehicle for big business interests. The party’s 19th-century adoption of protective tariffs and subsidies for internal improvements such as railroads helped fuel the American Industrial Revolution. The rise of the Democratic Party’s allegiance to higher taxes, big spending, regulation, and unions cemented the GOP as a natural ally of business through much of the 20th century. Even the movement of the Democrats to the center after the presidency of Ronald Reagan only undermined this fundamental fact.
Our political realignment along cultural lines – due in large part to class shifts in party coalitions – is unearthing this cornerstone of American politics. Many businesses today find themselves without a natural home policy. On cultural issues that Republicans prioritize, they are more aligned with Democrats. But their economic positions are even closer to those of the Republicans.
Data from a recent Pew Research Center survey highlights these trends. In 2019, 54% of Republicans said big business had a positive effect on the way things were done in the United States. That number fell to 30% in 2021, statistically indistinguishable from the opinion of Democrats and independents. Republican views toward banks and tech companies also turned sharply negative during this period.
This creates a huge problem for business, as Democratic voters are almost uniformly hostile to its economic interests, as Pew’s 2021 political typology shows. Between 83% and 97% of Democratic voter groups believe the US economic system unfairly favors powerful interests. Between 74% and 97% of Democratic voter groups think corporations make too much profit, and more than three-quarters of each group think taxes should be raised for people earning more than $400,000 a year. Supermajorities in every Democratic group also believe that regulating business does more good than harm.
This dilemma is complicated by the fact that significant portions of the Republican coalition also have a negative view of business and its traditional priorities. The group that Pew calls the “populist right,” which makes up nearly a quarter of Republicans, has views on the fairness of the economic system and corporate profits that are nearly identical to those of Democrats. The nation’s main swing-voting group, the “Stressed Sideliners,” is also closer to Democrats than Republicans in their views on business, taxation and regulation. That means nearly 40% of Republican voters hold hostile views toward the party’s traditional base. When corporations also anger core Republican voters — the “flag and country conservatives” — by openly opposing their religious and cultural values, it creates a supermajority of opposing Republicans.
So DeSantis’ decision makes perfect political sense; his crusade against Disney responds to the cultural and economic views of a large majority of his constituents. That his anger targets a special, Disney-only tax break also engages the more libertarian element among Republicans who historically see themselves more as free markets rather than big business. He thus delivered a political masterstroke, regardless of what one might think of the merits of his effort.
This should serve as a wake-up call for big business. If he prioritizes cultural positions, he should expect to be methodically ousted from the GOP coalition. But joining the Democrats means he will be locked in a constant war with that party’s growing progressive wing. Trying to play the two sides off against each other will likely antagonize activists from both parties and leave companies friendless to defend them when the chips are down. Thus, large companies must increasingly decide what matters most to them: its culture or its profits.
GOP’s days as a megaphone for the country club are over, forcing business leaders to choose between unpalatable sets of political alliances. What they decide will help determine the course of American politics for years to come.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.