Politics & Policy

The Real Solution to Progressive Corporate Culture

Apple CEO Tim Cook at a company store in 2013 (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

Social justice is all the rage in corporate boardrooms, and some on the left would like you to think it’s because of market pressure. Americans are firmly on the “right side of history” when it comes to gay rights, gender identity, and religious bigotry, and companies are responding. It’s in their best corporate interests to boycott North Carolina, threaten Georgia, and bully Mississippi. The culture wars are over. Taking a stand is now the path of least resistance.

Don’t be fooled. The business world’s turn toward progressivism is the result of peer pressure, not market forces. It reflects the personal values and interests of the corporate world’s liberal elite, not the values and interests of the country as a whole. Apple, Disney, and PayPal fish from the same cultural and academic pond as the elite media and elite universities. When I was at Harvard Law School, my classmates were recruited not just by top law firms but also by top consulting firms and multinational corporations. Very few of them were conservative. Barely any of them were social conservatives.

Back when I still did commercial litigation, my larger corporate clients were almost uniformly left of center, and the few Republicans on staff were stereotypical “Wall Street” conservatives. They may have been fiscal hawks, but they positively loathed the religious Right. My small-business clients were far more mixed. Conservative communities tend to spawn conservative entrepreneurs.

Decades of stocking top corporations with talent from the “best” schools has now yielded a predictable result. Employees tend to retain not only the political values of their youth, but the activist mindset and philosophy of the modern progressive. That means an inconsistent (to put it charitably) view of free speech. It means public naming and shaming to enforce ideological conformity. It means living in a leftist cultural cocoon where Christian conservatives are largely viewed as malicious bigots.

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So, here we are. Progressives mock the notion that corporations can have “values” when those values are religious or conservative, but then they endlessly obsess over the progressive culture and values of their favorite companies. Progressive entrepreneurs talk about “making the world a better place” so much that it’s a cliché. Buzzwords such as “sustainable,” “diverse,” and “inclusive” dominate progressive corporate discourse — just as they do on the campuses where political correctness is most oppressive.

The answer to bad speech is better speech. If you think progressive corporate activism can be repelled by an onslaught of boycotts, you’re wrong. Trying to create change through economic threats and reprisals is inconsistent with establishing and preserving a culture of free expression. Plus, it doesn’t work. Politics is a sub-sub-culture, so boycott movements rarely gain large-scale traction. Even the most ambitious attempts at conservative boycotts  have mainly served to make progressives feel courageous for “standing up to the wingnuts.”

#share#Moreover, progressive corporate culture is so pervasive that the consistent conservative boycotter would have to retreat from modernity. What are the appropriate “conservative” computers, operating systems, smartphones, and social-media platforms? For that matter, what is the “conservative” car company? Unless I want to watch God’s Not Dead and Duck Dynasty on endless loop in front of a television I made myself, my entertainment consumption will prop up some social-justice warrior, somewhere.

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We’re living with the results of the Left’s “long march” through America’s most significant religious, cultural, and economic institutions. Though there is no easy fix, we shouldn’t surrender by any means. At every turn we should offer a vigorous defense of our values, publicly attack the inconsistency and hypocrisy of the progressive corporate Left, and rally behind the Right’s embattled entrepreneurs. But even the most effective activism will only mitigate the problem. It won’t reform the system itself.

If you think progressive corporate activism can be repelled by an onslaught of boycotts, you’re wrong.

Conservatives must do the hard work of institution-building and institution-joining — of reshaping the notion that the “best” conservatives are those who become activists or politicians. Board members and CEOs can have far more cultural impact than governors or legislators. A single, high-level conservative academic program can place top talent in every major industry.

The Left roundly mocked Mitt Romney when he declared that “corporations are people,” but progressives understand this truth better than conservatives. Personnel is policy. Corporate America is populated by people who wake up in the morning asking, “What can I do for social justice today?” They won’t be shamed into inaction, but their effectiveness can be blunted if we can put a conservative beside them, or — better yet — in their seat. That takes time and it takes effort. Are we patient and persistent enough to make a long march of our own?

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.

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