I recently spoke with Graham Vyse of The Signal about the state of Joe Biden's presidency in the spring of its second year. We covered Biden's depressed approval ratings, the political implications of the continued COVID-related economic disruptions, what makes Biden different from Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and why his presidency so far has disappointed some of the people who voted for him in 2020. You can read a summary of our conversation here.
Wednesday, April 27, 2022
Thursday, April 14, 2022
In late March, Florida governor Ron DeSantis and his fellow Republicans who control the state legislature enacted a law that prohibits “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity" in "kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students." The bill, dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" law by liberal opponents, has attracted substantial national attention over the past few weeks. Given both DeSantis's potential national political ambitions and the prospect of parallel legislation passing in other Republican-governed states, it's likely that this issue won't fade quickly.
Activists on the left have achieved increasing success in persuading major corporations headquartered in red states to publicly oppose conservative legislation in the areas of race, gender, and culture—such as the decision by Delta Air Lines and the Coca-Cola Company to criticize a Republican-enacted law changing voting practices in Georgia after Donald Trump's narrow defeat there in 2020 (the passage of which also resulted in the relocation of the 2021 Major League Baseball All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver). Since the Walt Disney Company is surely the major American corporation best identified with the state of Florida, Disney was destined to become a similar target of pressure once the anti-"Don't Say Gay" effort became a national liberal cause. As a result, the company has found itself in a partisan entanglement that it had very much wished to avoid.
Regardless of where one might personally stand on this issue or any other, it seems natural to expect major corporations to avoid taking sides on controversial political topics—especially those that don't directly affect the financial bottom line. Isn't it just smart business to avoid alienating even one potential customer? And yet the trend of companies weighing in on culture-war issues—and, crucially, on the left side of these issues—is on the rise, even though they have faced threats of reprisal from conservatives for doing so. Disney offers an illuminating case study that demonstrates why this is happening.
Since the locus of conflict here is a law passed in the state of Florida, we might be forgiven for thinking of Disney in this particular case mostly as a theme-park company—albeit a theme-park company that operates the largest single-site employer in the United States. But Disney is really an entertainment conglomerate that, in addition to its famous company-branded tradition of animated features, encompasses ABC and ESPN television, several major film studios (including Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel Studios), and the streaming services Disney+ and Hulu. It makes most of its money not by selling tickets to the Magic Kingdom but by producing and distributing "content," to use the unpoetic term of the age.
The generators of this necessary content reside in an artistic and creative community that is both overwhelmingly liberal on cultural issues and increasingly attuned to day-to-day political developments via social media platforms and other channels of information. Disney needs to care about its reputation among these people, or it risks losing talent—both direct company employees and the outside writers, actors, producers, and directors with which it does business—to its industry competitors. And so any market pressure to avoid publicly opposing measures like DeSantis's law, lest it alienate conservative consumers, inevitably bumps against a different kind of market pressure: to avoid being perceived as unsupportive of the culturally liberal ethos that enjoys general consensus in Hollywood and, increasingly, among well-educated professionals elsewhere.
It's not surprising that Disney has handled this issue with palpable uncertainty and lack of ease. The company initially stayed quiet as the bill advanced through the Florida legislature, declining to join an open letter of opposition signed by 150 other corporations. But when some of its own employees began to protest against Disney's official silence, its CEO responded with an apologetic company-wide email message that called the legislation a "challenge to basic human rights." After DeSantis signed the bill into law, an official Disney statement announced that "our goal as a company is for this bill to be repealed by the legislature or struck down by the courts."
Yet the furious ensuing response from some conservatives confirmed Disney's instinct that the issue presented political risk in both ideological directions. DeSantis mocked the company as "woke Disney" while suggesting that various state-level exemptions and tax breaks that favor its financial interests might be repealed in retaliation—a threat echoed by some of his legislative allies. Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute accused Disney of a "campaign to embed left-wing sexual politics into its children's programming" and even suggested that it was a haven for sex criminals. Disney is now a frequent target of criticism from conservative media outlets, which seem to be taking particular delight in ridiculing the company's well-guarded "family-friendly" brand reputation.
The Disney case is not unique. As the culture war continues to rage, corporations, like other major institutions led by well-educated professionals with progressive social sensibilities, will increasingly align with the values of the Democratic left. This development, in turn, is bound to introduce new tensions into the relationship between big business and its traditional political allies in the Republican Party—especially as Republican politicians continue to take a more populist tack in the era of Trump. While it may be good business sense to proclaim that "the customer is always right," corporate leaders are finding out that in politics, "you can't please everybody" is a much more fitting axiom.