With Republicans increasingly attacking “woke” corporations for defending voting rights, one can theoretically envision a semi-understandable motive at play. It would be that conservative voters feel disempowered by social liberalism’s dominance of large swaths of American life — like big business — and Republicans are just speaking to their angst.

But it’s hard to take this notion seriously, given the lead role Sen. Josh Hawley is playing in this farce. As a rising GOP intellectual star and proponent of an idea-driven conservative populism, the Missouri Republican’s handling of this merits attention, and should ideally challenge us.

Instead, it reveals how easily that populism slides into utter fraudulence — and just how ugly a game Republicans are truly playing here.

Hawley’s role will gain media scrutiny next week, when he introduces a plan to break up “giant woke corporations,” pegged to Major League Baseball’s withdrawal of the All-Star Game from Atlanta to protest Georgia’s new voting restrictions.

In explaining this, Hawley uncorked a vile rant on Fox News on Thursday night:

What’s happening in Georgia is what they tried to do to those of us who stood up for election integrity back in January. Anyone who has said that our elections need to be free, they need to be fair, we need to consider election reform, they try to cancel you.
And now the woke corporations are trying to do the same thing to Georgia. And they’re going to try to do it to anybody, any state, any person who stands up for election integrity.
When it comes to these corporations, they’ve gotten big, and powerful, because government has helped them, because government has subsidized them, because government has looked the other way. And it’s time to bust them up.

These corporations, Hawley added, want to “tell you what to think.”

The smarmy, unctuous, phony piety animating this claim to stand for “election integrity” is really something. Hawley is referencing his lead role in the campaign to subvert President Biden’s electors in Congress.

Hawley has insisted he was merely “representing” constituents concerned about the 2020 election. In fact, he actually misled them with extraordinary cynicism, by sustaining the deception that the outcome was questionable and might be reversed.

After those lies inspired the violent assault on the Capitol, Hawley took scalding criticism, which he has now tossed into the Right-Wing Media Victimization Machine, magically converting it into an effort to “cancel” him.

But this really shows how repugnant this current crusade truly is.

The ‘election integrity’ lie

Republicans are justifying their voter suppression efforts everywhere with this Orwellian “election integrity” phrase. But far from seeking “free” and “fair” elections, as Hawley says, they’re designed to place hurdles in the way of voting, based on the ubiquitous claim that GOP voters need “confidence” restored, which is disingenuous nonsense.

Georgia’s effort just would make voting harder in numerous ways (as Ari Berman details) and some just are targeted at modes of voting African Americans disproportionately used in 2020. Donald Trump himself brazenly stated that “election integrity” really means rolling back voting options that Democrats rely on.

Corporations have condemned these efforts as hostile to democracy. Hawley casts this as the devious machinations of corporate overlords, but in reality corporations have been pushed to this point by the culture, by a combination of employee agitation and the shifting demographic realities of their host communities and customer bases.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on April 6 criticized companies for taking a stance against the new strict voting law passed in Georgia. (Reuters)

This shouldn’t surprise us. In recent years, big cultural conflicts — over kneeling football players, Black Lives Matter protests and the effort to overturn the election — pushed corporate America to publicly navigate fundamental questions involving structural racism and democracy.

In the battle over Georgia’s limits targeting Black participation, those cultural streams are converging, intensifying pressure to take sides. This isn’t new: During the civil rights movement, some private businesses felt similar pressure to get on the right side of history.

An old story

Hawley wants conservative voters to fear an elite cabal (corporations, Democrats, the media) plotting to disempower them. In this he draws on a long tradition of conservative populists recasting elite conspiracies in various iterations.

As historian Michael Kazin’s great book recounts, these have included communists subverting the government from within, bureaucrats engineering desegregation, secular elites plotting to undermine Christianity, Jewish elites selling out U.S. interests abroad, and so on. All were cast as a threat to the agency of denizens of virtuous Middle America (what Hawley calls “the great American middle”).

Indeed, Damon Linker makes the interesting argument that the “woke corporations” talk is pitched at conservative voters who reasonably fear being “culturally disadvantaged” by social liberal dominance of “the media, the universities, the nonprofit sector, and big business.”

That’s true, but it makes Hawley’s game worse. He and other Republicans are cynically using the rhetoric of disempowerment to stoke a sense of victimization in conservative voters to justify actual efforts to disempower countless others through voter suppression.

What makes all this stranger is that, even as Hawley rails about a “woke” corporate-Democratic cabal, Democrats are rolling out proposals to crack down on multinational corporations that use elite rigging of the global tax system to shelter gobs of revenue offshore.

That includes big tech companies, a major villain in Hawley’s narrative. What do these scourges of woke globalist corporations have to say about the fact that Democrats are pushing this?

Let’s be clear: Conservative populism has its value. Hawley’s insight that corporate wealth and flourishing are partly created by government is crucial, and does represent a break from GOP orthodoxy. It’s a vision progressives share, just as many progressive economists also advocate for forms of antitrust policy due to shared concerns about concentrated corporate power.

But it’s indefensible to target such proposals as retaliation against corporations for condemning efforts to limit the participation of Democratic voters. And it’s reprehensible for Hawley to cast this as an act of empowerment.

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