THOUGH THE divide has never been tidy, for the past century Republicans have been seen as the party of big business in America and Democrats as the party of labour. Under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama the Democrats found friends in Silicon Valley and, to a degree, on Wall Street, but they never overcame the essential Republican formula of cutting taxes, opposing regulation and reaping corporate campaign support in return.
But Donald Trump’s populism, the power of the consumer and the accelerating centrifuge of American polarisation are tearing at the age-old partnership. President Joe Biden’s push to increase corporate taxes is likely to limit defections, but companies are nevertheless coming under tremendous new pressure from the left. Some fear customer boycotts if they fail to take stands on divisive social questions, while others, less vulnerable to consumers, fear revolts within by their progressive MBAs and software engineers. Some chief executives are worrying about coming battles in the culture war, for example, over abortion rights, a matter making its way back towards the Supreme Court.
The latest source of conflict is a law passed in Georgia, where the Democrats narrowly won both Senate seats in the last election. Mr Trump lost there, too. As he did nationally, he assaulted the legitimacy of the vote and belittled Republican state officials, including the governor and secretary of state, who stood by it. The Republican-controlled legislature responded last month with the new law, which facilitates voting in some respects but also makes voting by mail more difficult, imposes new voter-ID requirements and gives the legislature more control over the process.
Democrats accused state Republicans of trying to suppress voters, black voters in particular. Mr Biden called the law “Jim Crow in the 21st century”. In America’s raging culture wars, not to pick a side in such a fight is to be accused of picking a side—in this case, to be accused of standing for a bigoted law. After initially hanging back, Coca-Cola criticised the law last week. Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta Air Lines, which like Coca-Cola has its headquarters in Atlanta, called the law “unacceptable”. In the boldest stroke so far Major League Baseball (MLB) announced it would move its annual all-star game out of Atlanta, though even Democratic leaders in Georgia lamented the lost revenue.
Republicans are threatening reprisals of their own. The Georgia House of Representatives has already voted to strip Delta of a jet-fuel tax benefit worth $35m. That bill awaits action by the state senate. Mr Trump called for Republicans to “boycott all of the woke companies”. He later put out a list that included not only MLB, Coca-Cola and Delta but others who criticised the law, such as JPMorgan Chase and ViacomCBS. In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal called the intervention of businesses a “major event” and accused the critical CEOs of “supporting the direct electoral interests of the Democratic Party”. It warned that Mr Biden “may be the most anti-business President since FDR”.
The conflict, which is intensifying, is reversing political polarities and exposing double standards on all sides. Republicans, who have posed lately as the defenders of free speech against “cancel culture”, are seeking to cancel the corporations, while Democrats, who usually decry the involvement of business in politics as a corrupting abuse of free speech, are demanding that companies speak up. Having rallied to the cause of voting rights in Georgia, some companies are being asked why they do not do so elsewhere. “Will Major League Baseball now end its engagement with nations that do not hold elections at all like China and Cuba?” asked Senator Marco Rubio in a letter to the baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred. He also wondered if Mr Manfred would keep his membership at Augusta National Golf Club, which is in Georgia.
With Republicans seeking to pass voting laws in other states, the fight is spreading. The Business Roundtable, a civic-minded association representing CEOs of major American companies, said “unnecessary restrictions on the right to vote strike at the heart of representative government”. American Airlines and Dell Technologies, which have their headquarters in Texas, have come out against a proposed law there that, among other changes, would limit extended voting hours and ban drive-through voting.
Somewhat left to one side have been the details of what Georgia’s law does and how much effect it will have. Officials in the state have defended the law, though in ways that at times revealed how damaging Mr Trump’s attacks on the electoral system have been. Gabriel Sterling is a Georgia election official who passionately defended its elections against Mr Trump’s attacks. He told the Dispatch, a conservative website, that lawmakers had managed to leave out more extreme proposals but felt they had to respond to “the level of anger, and fear, and sorrow, and despair” among Republicans who believe Mr Trump won. “I can’t put into words the level that these elected representatives are dealing with,” he said. “You respond to the fears and concerns of your voters.”
Inroads made by Mr Trump with working-class voters, and the stampede of college-educated voters toward the Democratic Party, have given some Republicans hope they can make a play for the labour vote. Mr Rubio, for example, last month backed a union organising drive at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, saying that “Amazon has waged a war against working-class values”. Mr Biden’s own working-class appeal, together with the corporate-tax hike and construction initiatives in his $2trn infrastructure bill, argue against the parties swapping constituencies any time soon. Yet the old dividing line between the party of business and the party of labour is likely to continue to blur, particularly as more companies pick a side.
As with Georgia, they may have to decide in a hurry, maybe without consulting their boards or shareholders. In 2018, Nike ran ads celebrating Colin Kaepernick, a football player, for kneeling during the national anthem. Mr Trump and other Republicans called for a boycott, and Nike’s sales jumped. But that was a case of a company choosing its battle and the terrain on which it would fight. More and more, corporations, like politicians, can expect to be recruited into a fight—to come under pressure to react to controversies. They will be asked not only to speak up but also, like MLB, to act. Politics is seeping into every corner of American life, and it has become dangerous to shrug and say, as Michael Jordan once did, in another era, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”