The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Want to push back against Republican authoritarians? Expose their donors.

Supporters of Donald Trump attend a "Stop the Steal" rally in November 2020 in Atlanta. (Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post)
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Politicians tend to fear losing two things most of all: power and money. In America, the two are often linked because getting elected usually requires powerful donors and an overflowing campaign war chest. To get cynical American politicians to behave better, your best bet is either to show them bad poll numbers or to hit them where it hurts: their campaign bank accounts.

Those principles offer a useful guide to combating Republican authoritarianism. Democrats, of course, are already working hard to beat anti-democracy Republicans in the 2022 midterms. But they’re not doing enough to empty the wallets of authoritarians in Congress. To save democracy, we need to impose a substantial financial cost on politicians who continue to embrace authoritarianism.

In my previous column, I explained why Donald Trump-style Republican authoritarianism is, sadly, here to stay. There are significant electoral rewards within the party for those who embrace Trump’s election lies and his attempts to subvert democracy. Those who challenge the GOP’s authoritarian dogma are punished by Republican primary voters and banished from the prime-time airwaves on Fox News. That’s why we’re likely stuck with one authoritarian political party for the foreseeable future.

But all is not lost: Even if the GOP maintains its current stance for some time, American democracy doesn’t have to wither and die. That’s because the kingmakers in our political system tend to be the people toward the middle of the political spectrum, or at least those who will consider voting with the other side (just ask West Virginia Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III). To protect and preserve democracy through several election cycles, Democrats don’t need all Republicans to join them. They just need a handful of congressional Republicans who are willing to break with the Donald Trumps and Marjorie Taylor Greenes and Lauren Boeberts of the party to form a pro-democracy coalition with Democrats.

At the moment, that’s a tall order. There are a few elected Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, for example, but even they refused to back crucial voting rights legislation. For now, a bipartisan pro-democracy coalition in Congress remains a pipe dream.

So, how can we make it reality? The answer is simple: make embracing authoritarianism costly enough that some elected Republicans reconsider. To do that, corporate America needs to stop funding politicians who attack the foundations of our democratic system.

Let’s not be naive: Corporations view political donations as a way to hedge their risks, not to make the world a better place. Most companies donate to Republicans and Democrats alike, hoping that will protect them from an unexpected election swing. Fortune 500 companies aren’t aiming to save democracy — they’re maneuvering to save themselves from unwanted taxes and regulation.

There was a glimmer of hope that corporate America had nonetheless reached its breaking point after Jan. 6, when major corporations announced that they would suspend political funding. But those commitments have been long forgotten, and the Republican Party has recently been raking in cash from corporate donors.

That leaves those of us who care about democracy seemingly powerless to punish authoritarian Republicans. We can vote against them, but many reside in gerrymandered “safe seats” that guarantee them ample margins of victory. And we can hope and pray that corporate kingpins will put democracy above profits, but would you bet the survival of our system on corporate goodwill?

There’s a better way. We need to stop supporting businesses that support authoritarian politicians. By boycotting businesses that donate to politicians who tried to decertify Joe Biden’s election victory, for example, corporations will start to learn that their profits are tied to backing democracy, not to hedging their bets.

Many Americans would happily switch phone providers or shop elsewhere if they knew that their purchases were propping up those who facilitated the insurrection on Jan. 6. But nobody knows which corporations donate to which politicians. Part of the blame goes to opaque campaign finance laws. But anti-authoritarians can fight back by naming and shaming the worst offenders. And they shouldn’t just name and shame them in speeches. They should create an easy-to-use website that shows which companies are paying for America’s descent into authoritarianism.

Republicans, of course, will cry foul. Perhaps they will suggest this is part of cancel culture, or wrongly claim that naming and shaming companies is, itself, authoritarian. But those claims are absurd. In fact, such an approach puts into practice precisely what Republicans claim to desire: using market forces to solve a social problem rather than government.

Inevitably, Republicans would also retaliate — publishing lists of businesses that donate to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), for example. Let them do it. Corporate America would be forced to make an open choice between democracy and authoritarianism. That’s a good thing. And because the pro-democracy areas of the country are more lucrative markets than the authoritarian ones, corporate America would ultimately make the most profitable choice — which, in this case, is also the right one.

Most Republicans in Congress don’t fear voter wrath at the ballot box because they’re in safe seats. But they do fear the loss of money to pay for their political campaigns. It’s time to hit them where it hurts. Defund the authoritarians.

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