Opinion | The long-standing alliance between the GOP and big business is no more

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Depending on how one views it, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) successful effort to eliminate special tax exemptions for Walt Disney Co. is either an unjustified reprisal against a corporation’s free speech or a legitimate exercise in power politics. More broadly, however, it heralds an unavoidable political development: the sundering of the over-150-year alliance between big business and the Republican Party.

The GOP has historically been the political vehicle for large business interests. The party’s 19th-century embrace of protective tariffs and subsidies for internal improvements such as railroads helped stoke America’s Industrial Revolution. The rise of the Democratic Party’s allegiance to higher taxes, large spending, regulation and labor unions solidified the GOP as business’s natural ally throughout most of the 20th century. Even the Democrats’ move to the center following Ronald Reagan’s presidency only dented this bedrock fact.

Our political realignment along cultural lines — due in large part to the class-based shift in party coalitions — is now digging up this cornerstone of American politics. Today, many businesses find themselves without a natural political home. On the cultural issues that Republicans are prioritizing, they are more aligned with Democrats. But their economic stances are still closer to those of Republicans.

Recent poll data from the Pew Research Center places these trends in stark relief. In 2019, 54 percent of Republicans said big business had a positive effect on the way things were going in the United States. That number fell to 30 percent by 2021, statistically indistinguishable from the view held by Democrats and independents. Republican views toward banks and tech companies also became sharply negative over that period.

This creates a huge problem for business because Democratic voters are almost uniformly hostile to its economic interests, as Pew’s 2021 Political Typology shows. Between 83 and 97 percent of Democratic voter groups think the U.S. economic system unfairly favors powerful interests. Between 74 and 97 percent of Democratic voter groups think business makes too much profit, and more than three-quarters of each group think taxes should be raised on people making more than $400,000 a year. Supermajorities of each Democratic group also think that regulation of business does more good than harm.

This quandary is complicated by the fact that significant portions of the Republican coalition also hold negative views of business and its traditional priorities. The group that Pew labels the “Populist Right,” which makes up nearly a quarter of Republicans, hold views about the fairness of the economic system and business profits that are nearly identical to those held by Democrats. The nation’s key swing voting group, “Stressed Sideliners,” also are closer to Democrats than Republicans in how they view business, taxation and regulation. This means that nearly 40 percent of Republican voters have hostile views toward the party’s traditional base. When business also angers core Republican voters — “Flag and Country Conservatives” — by openly opposing their religious and cultural values, it creates a supermajority of Republicans who oppose them.

DeSantis’s move thus makes perfect political sense; his crusade against Disney caters to the cultural and economic views of a large majority of his voters. The fact that his ire targets a special, Disney-only tax break also engages the more libertarian element among Republicans who historically view themselves more as pro-free markets rather than pro-big business. He thus has delivered a political masterstroke, regardless of what one might think about the propriety of his effort.

This should serve as a wake-up call to big business. If it prioritizes cultural stances, it should expect to methodically be driven out of the GOP coalition. But joining the Democrats means it will be locked in constant warfare with that party’s growing progressive wing. Trying to play the two sides against one another will likely antagonize both parties’ vocal activists and leave business with no friends to defend it when the chips are down. Thus, big business must increasingly decide what it cares more about: its culture or its profits.

The GOP’s days as the megaphone for the country club set are over, forcing business leaders to choose between sets of unpalatable political alliances. What they decide will help determine the course of American politics for years to come.