Republicans in Washington and around the country have soured on big business, joining Democrats in expressing concern that corporations wield too much influence. The shift has left corporate America with fewer allies in a tumultuous period for American society and the global economy.
The erosion of support is evident in opinion polls, on cable news and in political campaigning. It is the continued outgrowth of a populist surge among liberal and conservative Americans alike, but it is particularly pronounced on the right and often linked to the grievances of white voters on racial issues.
Republican voters nationwide have grown angry over what they perceive as unwelcome intrusions by corporate leaders into hot-button political debates, including decisions by large social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to remove former President Donald J. Trump from their platforms.
Coca-Cola, Delta, Microsoft and other major corporations in recent weeks have drawn fire from Republicans — and in some cases calls for boycotts — after explicitly or implicitly criticizing voting laws that have been passed or are under consideration in Georgia, Texas and Florida. Companies have faced similar criticism after speaking out in favor of stricter gun laws, transgender rights and other issues, and for cutting off donations to some Republican candidates after the siege of the U.S. Capitol in January.
Though Republican lawmakers remain steadfastly opposed to broad-based tax increases on corporations, polls show a growing willingness among Republican voters to tax large companies.
And even as they fight President Biden’s plans to raise corporate taxes, a group of senators allied with Mr. Trump has threatened government action to punish companies that Republicans say have sided with “woke” liberals.
“There is a massive backlash coming,” Senator Rick Scott of Florida wrote last month in an open letter addressed to “Woke Corporate America.” He warned of a “day of reckoning” for corporations if Republicans retake control of Congress in next year’s midterm elections, and he chastised companies for encouraging Black Lives Matter protests amid a national outcry over the killing of Black men by police officers.
“You give the woke mob concession after concession, hoping to buy time to rake in more cash under your watch,” Mr. Scott wrote. “You feed the rabble leftist mob that is shouting that America is racist, hoping they won’t come for you.”
For decades, business leaders have been able to count on Republicans — often joined by moderate Democrats — to support core policy priorities such as low taxes, reduced regulation and free trade. Businesses rewarded that support with millions in campaign donations.
But in recent years, that compact has begun to fracture. Democrats, pushed by progressive activists, have shifted further to the left on a wide range of economic policy issues. Under Mr. Trump, Republicans became more hostile to free trade and immigration. After the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol, some prominent companies and business groups announced they would cut off donations to Republicans who had joined an effort to challenge in Congress the results of Mr. Trump’s November loss to Mr. Biden, prompting some Republican lawmakers to swear off corporate donations.
Many top executives feel they have little choice. They are being pressured by customers and increasingly by young, progressive employees to speak out publicly on major issues. And in the era of social media, companies can get into just as much trouble by staying silent as by weighing in.
Polling data shows the squeeze. A Gallup poll conducted in January, in the days leading up to and immediately following the Capitol riot, found that just 31 percent of Republicans were satisfied with the “size and influence of major corporations.” That was down from 57 percent a year earlier.
And in a survey conducted last month for The New York Times by the online research platform SurveyMonkey, 81 percent of Republicans who knew enough to form an opinion said it was inappropriate for business leaders to speak out against the Georgia law. And 78 percent of Republicans said large corporations had too much influence over American life in general. (The survey was conducted before two coalitions of business leaders released letters calling for expanded voting rights in Texas.)
Elena Adams, a survey respondent in Northern California, said she began to feel that corporate America was shifting against her a few years ago, when Nike embraced Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who drew widespread attention for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence.
“Basically I think we’re celebrating people who are not for the United States and pushing the agenda that we should be ashamed if we’re not people of color,” she said. “This whole narrative of the race thing, it’s reverse racism, is what’s happening.”
Ms. Adams, 66, said she had stopped flying Delta and buying Coca-Cola products. Since Major League Baseball relocated the All-Star Game from Atlanta over the Georgia voting law, she has quit following the Oakland Athletics. She has abandoned social media, believing that companies such as Facebook and Twitter are unfair to conservatives, and told the purchasing managers at the emergency response business where she is a partner to avoid buying from companies that espouse liberal positions, although she said it was too difficult to avoid companies like Amazon and Google altogether.
Ms. Adams said big businesses were hypocritical for speaking out on social issues in the United States while continuing to do business in China and other countries with poor human rights records.
“I don’t think companies should kowtow to their younger employees,” she said. “They should not be making political statements at all.”
Democrats, by contrast, overwhelmingly said companies’ comments about the Georgia law were appropriate. But they were nearly as likely as Republicans to say that large corporations have too much influence over all.
“Corporations have too much power,” said Melissa Montgomery, a survey respondent in San Antonio. “We gave them too much power. We saw them as benign entities. We didn’t see them for the monsters they were going to become.”
Ms. Montgomery, 55, said she was pleased to see companies taking a stand against the Georgia law. But she said she suspected that they could be working behind the scenes to support the law, or to push for other policies that run counter to their public positions. And even if they are not, she said, she doubts the change of heart was motivated by anything but profit — the calculation that more customers will be angry if they support the law than if they oppose it.
“Republicans and corporations have always been in bed together, and now they’re flipping that switch because they realize they’re going to lose money,” she said. “This is a watershed moment, I think, for corporations, because they’ve got to decide which side they’re on.”
Mike Hillsgrove, a survey respondent outside El Paso, agrees with Ms. Montgomery about corporations’ having too much power. He agrees with her about the pernicious role of money in politics, and even uses similar language to describe it.
But Mr. Hillsgrove, 67, sees companies’ decisions to speak out on political issues very differently than Ms. Montgomery.
“I think that all of these companies with all of their woke politics can all go to hell,” said Mr. Hillsgrove, who said he didn’t vote regularly but liked Mr. Trump. “It’s just not their business to tell me how to think, and that’s what they’re trying to do. And I resent it.”
Republican voters have historically been more positive toward big business than Democrats, but that support has never been overwhelming. Polls conducted over the past 20 years, by different organizations using different language, have generally found Republicans split roughly evenly on whether corporations have too much power. (The same polls have found that large majorities of Democrats believe corporations have too much power. Small businesses, by contrast, are consistently popular among voters across the political spectrum.)
But there are signs of a sudden and steep erosion in Republican support, which predates the recent controversies over voting restrictions.
“Everything seems to be converging in this culture war frenzy,” said Lydia Saad, director of U.S. social research for Gallup. “There is something that’s struck a nerve, that’s crossed a line of some values or norms or deeply held beliefs on the part of Republicans that has gone more viral.”
The practical consequences remain unclear. When Delta spoke out against the Georgia voting law, Republicans in the state flirted with eliminating a tax break for the company, but the effort failed.
Business groups in Washington are treading carefully amid the warnings from Mr. Scott and other leading Republicans, but they say they remain confident that voters support a vast majority of companies — particularly small businesses — and that corporate groups can play a constructive role in bringing Democrats and Republicans together on issues like infrastructure or immigration.
“I think Americans appreciate it when leaders speak up about the big issues, the broad issues of the day, and when they talk about the things that really have significant impact on their communities, their work forces, their states and of course their nation,” Jay Timmons, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said in an interview.
As skepticism of big business has risen among Republicans, there has been no shift in the other direction among Democrats. The Gallup survey in January found that 24 percent of Democrats were satisfied with the influence of major corporations, essentially unchanged from a year earlier.
Linda Morse-Robertson, who took part in the SurveyMonkey poll, said she was happy to see companies speaking out against the Georgia law or withholding donations from Republicans who supported the Capitol riot. But Ms. Morse-Robertson, a 70-year-old in Northern California, is skeptical that they will change their behavior over the longer term.
“It’s really hard to trust them,” she said. “If you’re against it, you’re against it, not just for three months until things have sort of settled down.”
About the survey: The data in this article came from an online survey of 2,640 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from April 5 to 11. The company selected respondents at random from the nearly three million people who take surveys on its platform each day. Responses were weighted to match the demographic profile of the population of the United States. The survey has a modeled error estimate (similar to a margin of error in a standard telephone poll) of plus or minus three percentage points, so differences of less than that amount are statistically insignificant.