The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The left learns the limits of corporate power

Disney employees protest against Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill in Glendale, Calif., on March 22. (Ringo Chiu/Reuters)
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It seems only yesterday that the left reliably opposed the idea of corporations getting involved in politics. To say that something was backed by big business was as much as to say it was bad for the republic. The phrase “Citizens United,” the Supreme Court decision that enshrined a corporate right to political speech, was essentially invective.

But, over time, progressives established a power base among the young professionals staffing major corporations, and now they eagerly push companies to stake out positions on issues of the day, from climate change to LGBTQ rights to guns. Many of their campaigns have been successful, which is why more and more product categories — do you eat at Chick-fil-A or Popeyes? — are getting divided along partisan lines.

And now, they are trying to sunder Disney from its cozy relationship with the state government of Florida — an effort that won’t work, except possibly to entrench the conservative politicians whose votes they are trying to change. In the process, the left may finally learn what conservatives used to know: The corporate power they once so feared is much less fearsome than they imagine.

Of course, corporations can and do influence government about things that matter a lot to them, but most often, and most successfully, with issues that are too small or complicated to broadly interest the public — think targeted tax breaks or fiddling regulatory changes. On major issues, where the public cares a lot, a million votes matters far more than a million corporate dollars. It is not Exxon that has stymied aggressive action on climate change but the millions of Americans who drive cars.

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Disney chief executive Bob Chapek understands this perfectly well, which is why he initially demurred when employees pressed him to weigh in against a Florida bill to limit what public school teachers could say about LGBT issues. In a memo to staff, he wrote that “corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds” and “can be counterproductive and undermine more effective ways to achieve change.”

But progressives — including many Disney workers — seemed to believe that Disney’s power over the state is almost unlimited, and so Chapek eventually gave in, calling Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to register his opposition to the bill and making a public statement on a shareholder call. This has had no apparent effect on Florida Republicans, except to give them a target to rail against. After all, why should they care what Disney thinks? What is Chapek going to do, move Disney World?

Something like that seems to be in the back of progressive minds. But Disney World is roughly the size of San Francisco, and it’s no more plausible to move it than it would be to move the city. Not today, anyway.

In the 1960s, Disney could find a bunch of land near a convenient highway intersection, spend a couple of years nailing down the rights and another few building the park. And, over time, the city of Orlando grew up around it.

Replicating that from scratch would be a staggering logistical problem. First and foremost, where would Disney find a San Francisco-size parcel of developable land that is (A) next to a major airport in a city that is (B) warm year-round and (C) not overseen by a conservative-leaning legislature?

Even if such a place did exist, developing it would be much more complicated today. Starting in the 1970s, activists invented all sorts of ways to slow or halt development: community review, lawsuits under various environmental laws and so forth. Such opposition ultimately helped doom a proposed America-themed park Disney tried to open in Virginia in the 1990s. In the best-case scenario, a project on the scale of Disney World might well take decades.

And any CEO who proposed abandoning a perfectly good theme park, in the hopes of perhaps one day being able to build another one, would not be CEO very long because Chapek is answerable to voters, too — the shareholders and board members he works for. He’s also responsible to customers, who might not care to see Disney taking a side on a hot-button issue.

Such campaigns can work, it’s true. In 2015 Indiana enacted extensive religious exemptions from anti-discrimination law, only to back down in the face of unified corporate pressure. Yet most of the firms exerting that pressure did relatively little business in the state; it’s not as though Apple shareholders were going to panic if the company closed its Indianapolis store. You will notice that Apple has not similarly protested Chinese human rights abuses, which might imperil critical assembly facilities.

Progressives are not wrong to suspect that large concentrations of capital imply a lot of latent political power. But actually using that power is risky; it means picking a fight with the only entities even bigger than big business. Which is why corporations have historically kept their politicking to matters that directly pertained to the bottom line and left the rest to individuals — who have more at stake in the outcome, and much less to lose.