There was nothing terribly unusual about South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem’s recent decision to bar trans girls from participating in sex-segregated sports. After all, Noem has become a darling of the most socially conservative wing of the Republican Party. Prior to taking office in 2019, she had been an ardent opponent of same-sex marriage; since then, she has spoken multiple times at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and has sought to “crack down” on her state’s abortion providers.
What was unusual was how long it took Noem to back the restrictive legislation. In 2020 and 2021, the governor faced fierce opposition from the state’s business elite, many of whom cautioned that a strident stand against transgender rights might invite destructive boycotts. Regional chambers of commerce warned that laws banning sports participation would alienate Amazon just as it was set to expand its operations; cities, too, might lose lucrative contracts with sports associations like the NCAA. The state’s largest health care network, Sanford Health, opposed another proposed bill that would criminalize transition-related care for trans youth. Some of Noem’s closest staff warned that going too hard and too fast on the issue could elicit the same business backlash that had doomed previous attempts to curtail LGBTQ+ rights by governors such as Indiana’s Mike Pence in 2015 and North Carolina’s Patrick McCrory in 2016. Noem’s reticence incited fury among conservative media figures who scandalized the fact that her chief of staff and advisors were affiliated with businesses that opposed the legislation. Despite the outrage, pressure from the business sector hindered the legislation. Unlike Governor Ron DeSantis’s willingness to punish Disney for the company’s opposition to an anti-LGBTQ+ state law, Noem was cowed by economic threats. She moderated and balked for two years.
Of course, this trend of corporate activism is not confined to queer rights or even progressive causes. Following Georgia’s enactment of anti-voting rights reforms in March last year, a group of over 100 business executives organized a business blockade against similar endeavors. In the fall of the same year, Match Group CEO Shar Dubey announced her opposition to Texas’s anti-abortion SB8 legislation. At the same time, right-wing counterreaction has itself been a highly coordinated corporate affair. The interest groups and media outlets that advance assaults on queer rights, reproductive health, and election law—including The Federalist and the Alliance Defending Freedom—are bankrolled by shadowy industrialists like Charles Koch and Betsy DeVos, who see a benefit in scapegoating minorities en route to larger power grabs. This libertarian-traditionalist alliance has grown steadily over the past half-century. Since the dark money floodgates were opened in 2010 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, such right-wing business activism has swelled.
How is it that dueling associations of economic elites came to hold such sway over civil rights, and what do these struggles over “woke capital” portend? In our era of diminished democracy, capitalists of various ideological stripes play the most prominent role in nearly all political developments. As the strength of the trade union movement and mass membership in civic organizations have depleted, political power has been consolidated among wealthy individuals and industrial leaders who now hold the reins of U.S. democracy. For individual firms and business associations like the Chamber of Commerce, championing a range of liberal causes is lucrative. On the other side of the aisle, billionaire libertarian ideologues and their avatars in government, such as DeSantis, have discerned that such economic motivations can easily be undone—that what look like robust pledges to uphold the principles of diversity and social equality are actually thin commitments based on investment calculations.
This harsh reality does not mean that business support for social justice is any less meaningful when it does deliver on civil rights. Of course, a substantive policy change such as a more inclusive antidiscrimination law that protects a person’s ability to put food on the table and remain in one’s home is something entirely different than a Wall Street firm holding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) workshops. The incessant debate over whether one or the other is more “real” or “authentic,” however, is an argument based in obfuscating abstractions—a “mystification.” They are both the products of a capitalist class that largely determines the country’s policy landscape (which can have positive or deleterious effects for minority rights) and an ideological manner through which that class rationalizes the current state of affairs—i.e., the notion that, historic rates of economic inequality aside, we are steadily moving toward a more just society if 7 percent of boards of directors identify as LGBTQ+ to reflect their estimated proportion within the American population.
What the ongoing corporate conflict demonstrates most of all is the long defeat of working people’s movements for social change, and their substitution for a business-backed one that does little more than provide some—albeit vital—benefits on the margins. As such, the last thing one should do is ask whether these developments are a net positive or negative for something that is amorphously gestured to as the “political left.” That fact is essential for comprehending the promise and peril of business defenses of civil rights.
Today U.S. business leaders are frequently portrayed as civil rights activists. National coalitions, such as Freedom for All Americans, have brought Fortune 500 companies together with hundreds of small businesses to contest conservative legislation within their home markets. Boycotts—such as that opposing North Carolina’s infamous trans bathroom ban in 2016—can inflict billions of dollars’ worth of damage to state economies as everything from new corporate headquarters to sports tournaments are pulled from the region.
But moral rhetoric about diversity and inclusion aside, there are still material incentives that push corporate boards and CEOs to back liberal causes. For one, antidiscrimination policies hold a quantifiable value. On the eve of the Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling, companies complained that restrictions on same-sex marriages were costing them $1.4 billion annually in lost lesbian and gay employee productivity. In a series of legal briefs supporting gay and trans workers in Bostock v. Clayton County (2020), nearly every major company in the United States urged civil rights expansions, arguing that they would increase productivity and reduce administrative burdens associated with discrimination. But what incentive is there to hire queer workers in the first place? According to venues such as the Harvard Business Review and the Deloitte Review, the benefits of recruiting LGBTQ+ employees are far greater than the costs. Inclusive policies and company-supported Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for LGBTQ+ employees help firms to tap new consumer niches and increase retention rates. Since the inception of the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index in 2002, firms have overhauled their benefits programs and office cultures to improve their poor ratings (and, thus, their market advantage).
This is, of course, a largely white-collar phenomenon. The first gay-friendly businesses in the 1970s and ’80s were spurred to action by queer employees who took on their employers and transformed them into the corporate vanguard of gay civil rights. From Silicon Valley to the Sunbelt, employees in white-collar industries compelled their higher-ups at firms such as Apple, Microsoft, and AT&T to institute nondiscrimination policies, provide domestic partner benefits, and advocate for legal reform.
Some businesses endorse diversity for cynical reasons. Corporate queer makeovers can help to “pink wash” embattled businesses, especially those attempting to manage their reputations. While facing a barrage of lawsuits for marketing its JUUL vaping devices to teenagers, the company Altria—itself a Philip Morris rebrand—recently refashioned itself as an ardent advocate of queer rights. The nonprofit Equality Virginia has helped Altria launder its reputation, even celebrating its example that “there is a clear economic and business case for fair treatment of LGBT individuals.” Others, such as Silicon Valley “angel investor” Ron Conway, have relied on social justice tropes to shore up support for Big Tech as it has begun to lose its allure. When North Carolina passed its infamous HB 2 bathroom ban in 2016, Conway called for the NBA, among other groups, to boycott the state until it repealed the law. Conway has since become a major political fundraiser for the neoliberal faction of the Democratic Party that has sought to paint its left-wing challengers as unduly inattentive to minority rights.
Contemporary social movements are not so divorced from market actors either, given the overlap in national queer interest groups, LGBTQ+ chambers of commerce, and corporate boards of directors. As a result, antidiscrimination protections are now adorned with names such as the “Florida Competitive Workforce Act” and are advanced by organizations called “Florida Competes” and “Georgia Prospers,” with slogans such as “Equality Means Business.”
Accompanying these coalitions are entrepreneurial “activist CEOs.” Over the past decade senior executives have increasingly leveraged their positions to take stands on controversial political and social issues ranging from abortion rights to immigration reform. Among the earliest of these activist types was the software mogul Marc Benioff, who gained notoriety for challenging anti-LGBTQ+ state laws. Benioff’s turn to activism began when he noticed that his company, SalesForce, struggled to recruit and retain non-white, non-male employees. When Pence, then governor of Indiana, signed a 2015 bill that would grant a religious liberty defense to those wishing to discriminate against queer people, Benioff sensed an opportunity, leading the charge in canceling programs at SalesForce that required customer or employee travel to the state and threatening to pull long-term investments.
Individual firms and CEOs taking such stands often have significant allies. A “safety in numbers” effect pulls in a vast array of for-profit enterprises, professional sports conferences, and other economic stakeholders that can collectively make or break a local economy. Along with press coverage, pressure sometimes pays off. Among the companies that canceled massive expansion plans in North Carolina over its bathroom law (including PayPal, Deutsche Bank, CoStar, and VoxPro), some were able to negotiate better incentive packages with rival states—reaping a better collection of tax breaks, infrastructural investments, and workforce training programs from states with better “business climates.”
This notion of better-and-worse ecologies for turning a profit makes clear the class character of social justice corporate politics. As sociologist Caroline Hanley has written, the “business climate” metaphor is a product of mid-twentieth-century fights between New Deal-inspired labor advocates who sought to enforce robust employment protections and companies like General Electric (GE) that played local economies off on one another in pursuit of diminished labor protections and straightforward routes to profit and exploitation. In particular, GE framed unions and wage protections as threats to economic fecundity. U.S. corporations today want all those same things—notably, the section of North Carolina HB 2 that preempted local minimum wage laws survived the repeal of its trans bathroom provisions—in addition to protections for their queer employees.
This economic logic of antidiscrimination functioned as a powerful disincentive against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation for some time. As Jeff Bezos courted cities for Amazon’s second headquarters, GOP state leaders tempered their once acerbic opposition to queer rights. Republican lawmakers in Georgia warned against bills that would create “headwinds” for economic investment, cautioning that negative “headlines go as quick and far as the C.E.O.’s desk.” Even when the 2021 slew of anti-trans bills were introduced in state capitals, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson refused to be the first to invite economic retaliation. The governor had previously acquiesced to business demands in 2015, when he successfully directed the Republican legislative caucus to blunt the discriminatory impact of its religious liberty law. From this vantage, business affinity for trans rights appeared as an eternal defense against whatever right-wing reaction might come its way.
The scales began to tip in the opposite political direction in 2021. After several years of scarce state action against trans rights, 2021 saw a blitz of discriminatory legislation in mostly Republican-controlled states—147 bills were proposed in 34 states, 13 of which were signed into law. This sharp increase from 2018’s low point of 41 proposed bills has made it possible for conservatives to promote these bills boldly and without fear of retribution. As Arkansas passed two new anti-trans sports bills and a ban on transition healthcare for trans youth, the state chamber of commerce CEO lamented that, “this is happening everywhere so [we have] no real leverage.” In a similar statement, a spokesperson for Walmart (itself a Christian values-toting business turned LGBTQ+ advocate) expressed a sigh of impotence.
This waning efficacy cannot be blamed entirely on inaction. To combat these bills the Human Rights Campaign has circulated a statement endorsed by 253 U.S. businesses—among the signatories are Amazon, Apple, Dow, Google, IBM, Lyft, Microsoft, Nike, and PayPal. On the other hand, while such letter campaign activism has become a staple of business associations in recent years, it has also proven to be one of the most ineffective forms of dissent (though studies suggest that it is often good for consumer support and other bottom-line factors).
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of regional and national corporations released a public letter imploring elected officials in Idaho to vote against what was then one of just a few proposed bans on transgender girls’ participation in athletics. Despite their efforts, Governor Brad Little pushed forward with the legislation, presumably aware that there was little threat of a boycott. A year later Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was met with an analogous opposition to his directive warning that medical practitioners who treated trans youth may face child abuse charges. Over sixty companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Apple, Meta, Ikea, and Google, printed a one-page advertisement in Dallas Morning News that read simply, “Discrimination is bad for business.” More effective than pressure from the business sector, however, has been the threat of a primary challenge. Paxton released his directive shortly after a challenge from his right flank aired a campaign advertisement denouncing Paxton and Governor Abbott for failing to protect children.
Amidst the flurry of new right-wing legislation, some once-outspoken companies have become relatively passive. In April last year, Oracle Software—Benioff’s former corporate home—made plans to join the Big Tech pilgrimage from Austin, Texas to Nashville, Tennessee. Shortly after publicly announcing its deal with Oracle, Tennessee lawmakers made clear their intention to enact numerous anti-trans bills. At first Oracle joined in the chorus of business dissent, making its own statements against the proposals as well as signing onto a national letter campaign. Within a month the governor had signed five separate bills into law, including sports bans, a puberty blocker ban, a bathroom ban, and an anti-LGBTQ+ curriculum law. Shockingly, the business sector went mostly silent—there was to be no repeat of the massive boycotts over North Carolina’s HB 2. Upon finalizing its plans last September, Oracle executives justified their move by explaining that they would bring with them a workplace that valued and protected diversity.
Though one might chastise Oracle for abandoning the braver route of boycott, its move was nothing out of the ordinary. Aggressive corporate campaigns for social justice have never been all that commonplace. In a 2020 study drawing from 149 firms across 39 distinct industries, such actions were found to provoke an adverse reaction among investors who saw company stances as risky and ultimately orthogonal to profit-oriented projects. A weak-tea letter campaign might be fine and well, but abandoning a package of tax breaks to relocate to the up and coming (and one of the cheaper) metropolitan destinations for Silicon Valley expats would have been deemed unconscionable.
By 2022 a revanchist effort to stir up anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment had metastasized—as of March, 238 bills have been filed in state legislatures. When Noem signed the first sports ban of the year into law, she was met with a whimper of the opposition that had staved off such action in previous years. Perhaps sensing that their power to persuade the governor had diminished now that her peers had removed the spotlight from South Dakota, the same business lobbies that had once vocally opposed the bill went silent.
Admittedly, a few GOP governors have vetoed discriminatory legislation. Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb struck down a sports bill targeting trans girls, citing the economic costs of what would surely morph into a lengthy litigation fight. Notably, Holcomb was appointed to lieutenant governor in 2016 just months after Sue Ellspermann abdicated the position following a rift with then-governor Mike Pence over the 2015 boycott debacle. The veto has placed Holcomb out of step with the state legislative caucus, which has vowed to quickly override the veto. Utah’s Governor Spencer Cox has also placed himself outside of a party-wide trend with his own sports ban veto in March 2022. Cox is a unique case too in that, while serving as lieutenant governor, he worked closely with a big-tent group including GOP legislators and the LDS Church to ban conversion therapy for gay and trans minors. Despite Cox’s warning that litigation over the sports ban could easily bankrupt the state’s high school athletics program, the Utah legislature overruled his veto a few days later.
Most others in the Republican Party have been eager to pass anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. In their chest-thumping about the need to protect vulnerable young people, GOP leaders have adopted a strongman rhetoric pitting themselves against a sinister cabal of liberal social engineers and their big business enablers. Emboldened by Fox News television star Tucker Carlson’s nightly rants against corporate America’s disdain for working people and traditionalist values alike, conservative state policymakers have taken the offense. They have spread panic about an emergent epidemic of “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” a fringe clinical theory that blames an amorphous social contagion of “gender ideology” as having corrupted the brains—and then the bodies—of countless susceptible, often mentally ill teenagers.
To ward off these threats to child welfare and the sanctity of the family, GOP leaders have positioned themselves as a populist line of defense against big business’s assault on democracy. As Alabama GOP state chairman John Wahl expounded, “The idea that government should bow its knee to the whims of others—whether it’s sports organizations, Big Tech, or other operations—is offensive to the ideals of a free society and representative government. American was founded by ‘we the people,’ not ‘we the big corporations.” At the national level, Senator Marco Rubio has introduced the “Mind Your Own Business Act,” which would empower shareholders to rein in activist CEOs and their abandonment of “corporate patriotism.”
Deep-pocketed industrialists have funded this brand of blue-collar social conservatism since the late 1970s. Groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the Council for National Policy (CNP), and Concerned Women for America were funded by libertarian industrialists that sought to disguise their class program with the image of the downtrodden traditionalist. In fact, this faux working-class movement was the first to introduce queer-baiting parents’ rights bills during the Reagan administration, which were from their inception a covert attack on public schools.
This populist theater is most present in DeSantis’s unyielding defense of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Like other GOP governors with presidential aspirations, DeSantis has championed bills that purport to address the twin plagues of queer propaganda and critical race theory in public schools today. Upon signing a trans sports ban into law last June, the governor appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show to boast that “you can’t be cowed by these organizations, and particularly woke corporations.” Undeterred by the opposition of hundreds of small businesses and dozens of Fortune 500 companies, DeSantis signed the controversial Parents Rights in Education—better known as “Don’t Say Gay”—prohibition on teaching “age inappropriate” discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity into law on March 28, 2022. Much attention has been paid to the fact that Disney—one of Central Florida’s largest employers as well as an early provider of domestic partner healthcare benefits—was absent from the corporate uproar. Indeed, Disney CEO Bob Chapek had to be dragged into the fight. After much prodding from both the public and an employee walkout, Disney came out in opposition to “Don’t Say Gay” mere hours before the bill was signed into law.
The conservative reaction to Disney’s dissent exemplifies the theatrics and the ultimate sham of culture-war denunciations of liberal industry leaders. DeSantis immediately chastised “Woke Disney” for its anti-democratic opposition while his right-wing media counterparts accused the company of endorsing child grooming and sexual abuse. The governor even signed a repeal of Disney World’s special tax status, which one Republican legislator had described as “the largest tax evasion scam in Florida history, if not U.S. history.” The history of past culture war showdowns in the South demonstrate that Republicans are occasionally willing to rescind such special treatment. In response to Delta Airlines’ decision to end its discount program for National Rifle Association (NRA) members, Georgia stripped the company of a $50 million sales tax exemption on jet fuel. It would be easy, however, to overstate the extent that Florida might seek to reel in Disney through populist economic measures. As one Florida Democratic lawmaker pointed out, Disney World receives a wide variety of tax breaks on wholesale merchandise sales as well as a $6 million property tax exemption. The company has also lobbied effectively to keep mandatory sick leave legislation off the tables.
The continuation of this counterassault on queer rights will demonstrate how aberrant corporate America’s zeal for LGBTQ+ rights has been all along. After all, one positive statement on trans rights does not make a longstanding corporate commitment to those rights. Take Walmart as another example: the retail giant has continued to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of the very same discriminatory Arkansas legislators whom their spokespersons condemn. Charges of hypocrisy punctuate the investigative reports detailing these flows of cash. How gauche, how grotesque, these journalists declaim, that Walmart would prominently display its Pride merchandise while propping up such agents of misery.
Indeed, behind these forms of corporate speech lie material bottom lines. Offering rainbow-adorned attire helps to expand Walmart’s customer base, while acceding to at least some demands of white-collar queer employee associations quells employee dissent. Even more powerful, however, is the imperative to retain workable and iterative relationships with the legislators and governors who determine tax rates and award subsidies. This reality should alarm those who look to business for salvation.
There are, thankfully, alternative strategies for social transformation besides heavy reliance on corporate benevolence. Gay rights caucuses within the labor movement won some of the first antidiscrimination contract guarantees as well as domestic partner benefits. Queer trade unionists have also organized defenses against hostile legislation. In the late 1970s, labor unions, including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the U.S. Postal Service union, banded together to kill a California bill that would have criminalized gay and lesbian public schoolteachers. Each union that joined the Workers Conference to Defeat the Briggs Initiative (named for State Senator John Briggs, a virulently homophobic and anti-union legislator) recognized the bill as an attack on public sector unions in total.
Today labor unions, such as AFT and the Florida Education Association, have denounced Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law as a politically-motivated attack not just on students but also teachers and public schools. In fact, the mastermind behind the strategy, Manhattan Institute fellow Christopher Rufo, admitted that the plan is to provoke “universal public school distrust.” By enabling parents to punish individual teachers who flout the law (and an accompanying ban on instruction and books that purport to teach “critical race theory”), DeSantis has merely contributed to a new front in his party’s ongoing war with public education. Charter schoolteachers, for instance, are exempt from “Don’t Say Gay.” Florida Republicans have also pursued a school voucher program that would make private education an option for every student in the state. This is not just happening in Florida either. Teachers unions thus have a vested interest in thwarting laws that defund public schools while making the work of teaching in those schools a more onerous task than ever.
What differentiates contemporary union efforts against “Don’t Say Gay” from their counterparts in the Briggs Initiative fight is the enervated condition of the trade union movement and the Democratic Party’s rightward shift away from its labor base. Organized labor continues to hit historic lows, as public sector unions continue to bleed members following the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision rendering all public unions “right-to-work.” In 2021 labor unions represented only 6 percent of the private sector workforce—a new one-hundred-year low.
Some believe that there are actually a few social justice-inclined members of the capitalist class who have the structural incentives to think and act with any eye to the long-term, like their libertarian counterparts who have united anti-queer bigotry with an anti-union and anti-public goods agenda. Unlike individual firms like Walmart and Disney that are more narrowly focused on short-term returns, the “Big Three” asset managers—BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street—favor social and fiscal policies that stabilize a U.S. political economy that has become dangerously destabilized. Asset management firms are unique in that they are heavily invested (around 22 percent) in the average S&P 500 company to the tune of over $15 trillion collectively. Along with being immensely large, they are incredibly diversified; the Big Three pool together the assets of so many major industries—and of so many competitors within each industry—that they possess a vested interest in stemming the wave of social instability and crisis on which those like the Kochs have rode in.
BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s recent remarks on “environmental, social, and governance” investing (or “ESG”) have led some commentators to believe that asset management firms—again, those institutions which together own a plurality of the U.S. economy—may chart a new path toward social reform. Social policies that promote wage growth and savings could thwart the political disorder that inequality has wrought in the form of populist-branded right-wing authoritarian governments across the globe (at a more basic level, such fiscal interventions could prop up the retirement assets that the management firms oversee). Modest climate change reforms—both self-imposed as well as externally mandated by Fink’s allies in the Biden administration—are seen as necessary to protect the general economy from the economic shocks of severe weather events. As an openly gay managing director at BlackRock put it recently, ESG policies could build on “the clout of corporate America that took us from “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to “Bring your whole self to work.”
Alas, asset management firms behave about the same as any other corporation that conforms to the social justice zeitgeist. According to some assessments of how asset managers use their voting power in corporate governance, they tend to prefer policies that diversify boards of directors, establish new protocols for diversity and inclusion in hiring and retention, and require the disclosure of demographic data that the federal government mandates companies collect. These reforms mostly impact an upper-class stratum of workers and managers from marginalized backgrounds. More generally, ESG’s popularity tracks with a broader loss of faith in government to remedy society-wide problems. In this sense ESG reforms—along with its predecessor buzzword, “corporate social responsibility”—extend from a fundamentally libertarian ideology, perhaps closer to the Milton Friedman style of corporate plunder politics from which they rhetorically distance themselves.
Still, the mere specter of reform has fomented a reaction from fossil fuel industries which fear being regulated out of existence. Together, the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, and a new trade group called the Main Street Investors Coalition have sought to curtail “non-wealth-maximizing activism” by boxing out asset management from representation in corporate governance. Last fall, the dark money industry group Consumers’ Research launched a television campaign that targeted “woke” companies for their alleged hypocrisies. The advertisement accused BlackRock of maintaining ties with the Chinese Communist Party while decrying Coca-Cola (tarred as “Woka-Cola”) for opposing Georgia’s attack on voting rights as a cover for its complicity in the childhood obesity epidemic.
In all, the crusade against “woke capitalism” might be best understood as a proxy fight that—while appearing somewhat cultural in nature—is in effect a deeper structural conflict. Just as diversity-friendly corporations are engaged in a sleight of hand for a bottom-line benefit, so too are “gender ideology” agitators playing a trick. One sees their scapegoating as a means to razing regulations and public institutions, while the other mostly wants to make a buck. For now, LGBTQ+ rights and other social and economic reforms, however paltry they may be, remain entangled in these fights over the future of the global economy.