Is “Woke Capitalism” For Real?

Republicans are attacking big companies for pushing a progressive social agenda. Is this anything more than political game-playing?

Photo by visuals for Unsplash

After a chorus of Fortune 500 companies criticized Georgia’s new law imposing new voting-rights restrictions, and Major League Baseball pulled this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta, a chorus of Republicans responded by inveighing against what’s often called “woke capitalism” — big companies flexing their muscles in defense of progressive social causes. Donald Trump called on his followers to boycott a laundry list of companies that had come out against the Georgia law: “Major League Baseball, Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, JPMorgan Chase, ViacomCBS, Citigroup, Cisco, UPS and Merck.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned corporations to stop behaving like a “woke parallel government” pushing “radical social agendas.” And Missouri senator Josh Hawley, a would-be populist, told a Fox News audience that “woke corporations” were trying to “tell you what to think.”

Given the stereotypical image of big corporations as bastions of stick-in-the-mud conservatism, it’s easy to dismiss the GOP’s anxiety over woke capitalism as an illusion or mere political game-playing. But in fact what Republicans are unhappy with is something real: a substantive change in the political outlook of many big American corporations. Corporations have moved to the left on social issues like women’s rights, gay rights, trans rights, and racial justice, and they aren’t just paying lip service to these issues — they’re using their economic power to try to advance them. Indeed, MLB’s boycott of Georgia is squarely in line with similar corporate boycotts (or threatened boycotts) that greeted anti-LGBTQ laws in states like Indiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Georgia from 2015–2017, and that led to the veto or amending of those laws.

The emergence of woke capitalism is sometimes framed as mainly a matter of corporations responding to a customer base that’s more educated and urban than it once was. And certainly companies that are choosing to speak out publicly against anti-progressive legislation are doing so in part because of their customers—when Delta issued a statement about the Georgia law that seemed to downplay its seriousness, there were immediate calls for a boycott of the company, leading Delta’s C.E.O. to quickly declare the law “unacceptable.”

But companies have always been concerned about their customers, and about what’s good for their bottom line. (As far back as the late 1950s and early 1960s, business leaders in cities like Dallas and Charlotte pushed those cities to desegregate public accommodations, rather than engaging in the massive resistance you saw in cities like Birmingham.) What’s distinctive about big companies today is that their embrace of progressive social issues isn’t just, or even primarily, about customers — it’s also about the fact that they have employees and executives who have progressive views on social issues, and who want their workplaces to reflect those values. In other words, companies are becoming “woke” not just because of outside pressure, but because of inside pressure as well.

The reason isn’t surprising: large corporations increasingly employ and are run by highly-educated urbanites. This is obviously true if you look at, say, the tech industry. But it’s also true in more surprising places, like professional sports. The general managers of major-league baseball teams, for instance, used to be mainly old baseball guys, who had spent most of their lives in the sport. Today, they’re increasingly young and highly-educated (40% of major-league GMs went to Ivy League schools), characteristics that correlate strongly with opposition to restrictions on voting rights and support for LGBTQ rights. This means that in practical terms, companies are going to be leery of building offices or running productions in states where employees will be discriminated against because of their race or gender identity, or sexuality. It also means that this kind of discrimination is increasingly seen by many corporations as contrary to their values.

Indeed, on issues like LGBTQ rights, big corporations aren’t playing catch-up — they’re actually ahead of most politicians, as evidenced by the fact that nearly every Fortune 500 corporation has an explicit policy banning anti-LGBTQ discrimination, while only a small number of states do. That’s why, in 2016, Disney threatened to pull all of its productions out of Georgia if the state’s governor signed a so-called “religious freedom” bill that would have allowed for discrimination against gays and lesbians, and PayPal canceled plans to put an operations center in Charlotte, N.C., after that state passed an anti-trans “bathroom bill.”

Of course, being “woke” on social issues does not translate into adopting more progressive stances on things that directly affect capital’s power and profits — regulation, unions, taxes. Companies can advocate for LGBTQ rights, and racial diversity, while still firmly opposing increased rights for workers or greater government regulation of their businesses. But that doesn’t mean the corporate commitment to progressive social issues is illusory, or simply a matter of P.R. It means a lots of big corporations have become exactly what Josh Hawley wishes they weren’t: they’re “woke” and they’re “capitalist” at the same time.

I’m the author of The Wisdom of Crowds. I’ve been a business columnist for Slate and The New Yorker and written for a wide range of other publications.

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