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How woke is too woke? Corporate America's sharp left turn prompts unprecedented backlash

Critics of corporate wokeness say enough, mobilize to combat firms' embrace of far-left causes

Published: April 21, 2022 7:45pm

Updated: April 22, 2022 9:12am

A diverse coalition of ministers, politicians, former corporate executives, and others is saying enough to corporate America's embrace of far-left politics, launching a wave of new initiatives to stop a years-long trend of corporations going woke.

Former McDonald's CEO Ed Rensi on Wednesday said companies have "no business" being in politics and has launched a new advocacy coalition to fight woke corporate politics.

"Corporations have no business being on the right or the left because they represent everybody there and their sole job is to build equity for their investors," Rensi told Fox Business, adding he believes progressive policies are negatively affecting shareholders.

Rensi will serve as executive chairman of the Boardroom Initiative, which comprises three pro-free enterprise advocacy groups: the Job Creators Network, the Free Enterprise Group, and Second Vote.

"These are groups that have been working kind of independently, but we decided to join forces and capitalize on all of our strengths," Elaine Parker, president of the Job Creators Network, told the John Solomon Reports podcast on Thursday. "We're going to fight back against all this woke capitalism in all of its forms. And the reason why is because we've got to protect our shareholders, the employees, customers, and the community from its overall spread."

Parker explained that the Boardroom Initiative will combat woke corporations and boards in a variety of ways, including filing shareholder proposals, advancing viewpoint diversity on corporate boards, and utilizing digital channels to spread the awareness of its mission.

"All of this is kind of happening below the radar, but we're starting to see it bubble up with some of the big headlines," she said.

Disney has certainly made headlines over the past few weeks for publicly criticizing a recently passed bill in Florida that bans instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms for grades K-3. The company announced it would suspend political donations in Florida and support organizations working to oppose the new measure.

In response, the Florida legislature voted Thursday to strip Walt Disney World of its private government status, a step supported by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Disney is just the latest prominent example of corporations supporting left-wing positions on hot-button issues.

Last year, for example, Delta and Coca-Cola lambasted a newly passed election bill in Georgia meant to minimize voter fraud. Critics, including the two companies, said the measure was designed to suppress voter turnout, especially among minorities — a claim denied by those who supported the bill. Major League Baseball even moved its All-Star Game out of Atlanta due to the voting law.

Another corporation accused of going woke is Bank of America, which has encouraged employees to be "woke at work" and told white employees to "decolonize your mind" and "cede power to people of color," according to Manhattan Institute fellow and investigative reporter Christopher Rufo.

Corporate leaders are "speaking out on policies that don't impact their companies," said Parker. "This is social engineering. These are issues that they shouldn't be getting involved in ... They have a responsibility to their shareholders to produce profit and value for the company."

One way in which companies have embraced wokeness is through Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) evaluation, a rating system used by investors to measure a company's advancement of policies designed to address climate change, increase board diversity, and support a progressive "social justice" agenda.

On Thursday, Utah Treasurer Marlo Oaks coordinated an effort by political leaders across the state to send a letter to S&P Global Ratings President and CEO Douglas Peterson and President Martina Cheung demanding that S&P withdraw ESG indicators as part of its credit ratings for states and state subdivisions. 

"ESG is about controlling and forcing behaviors," Oaks said in a statement. "It attempts to do through capital markets what activists and their government allies have been unable to do through democratic processes. S&P should be concerned about whether investors will get paid back, not whether a state policy lines up with their political beliefs, whatever those may be."

Many of these leftward shifts in corporate boardrooms are motivated by stakeholder capitalism, experts say.

Stakeholder capitalism is the idea that companies should serve not only their shareholders but also other interests and society at large, according to Vivek Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur and author of "Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America's Social Justice Scam."

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink has been one of Corporate America's biggest promoters of stakeholder capitalism.

Stakeholder capitalism is not about politics ... It is capitalism," Fink wrote in his annual letter to American CEOs in February. "Putting your company's purpose at the foundation of your relationships with your stakeholders is critical to long-term success."

"Your company's purpose is its north star in this tumultuous environment," he added. Shareholders "do need to know where we stand on the societal issues intrinsic to our companies' long-term success ... It is more important than ever that your company and its management be guided by its purpose."

Last year, BlackRock helped elect three climate-focused candidates to Exxon Mobil's 12-member board, describing its vote as an effort to push Exxon to fight climate change. BlackRock is a major Exxon shareholder.

Beyond climate change, many corporations have also taken up the mantle of the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM).

Indeed, spurred by the social unrest that tore through urban America in 2020, many companies have invoked the BLM slogan and pledged to donate money to the organization.

"Corporate leaders assumed that they were reducing their political and reputational risk by adopting [left-wing policies], especially on topics like climate change and workplace diversity," said Richard Morrison, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "In many cases, this seemed like a smart move at first, but only because prior to the last few years, there was almost no countervailing conservative activism from the other side. That has now changed."

On Wednesday, black leaders called on Papa John's, Coca-Cola, and other "woke corporations" to show support for police officers after they "blindly" supported BLM and its affiliates.

The call came from Concerned Communities for America (CCA), a group of black leaders that lambasted BLM for "hate mongering" and asked corporations to pledge to support law enforcement rather than BLM.

Perhaps the most infamous example of corporate wokeness is Big Tech's censorship of content — censorship that conservatives believe is meant to silence them and promote left-wing views.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the world's richest man, has cited social media platforms' suppression of content as a key reason why he's currently trying to buy Twitter, saying Twitter's higher-ups are infringing on freedom of speech and his goal is to change that.

Twitter founder Jack Dorsey has also spoken out against the company's board of directors in a further indication that corporate leaders' behavior is alienating large swaths of the country.

Activism against corporate wokeness is slowly being turned into policy. Beyond Florida's battle with Disney and Utah's letter to the S&P, the Texas legislature last year passed a law that denied financial institutions who refused to do business with oil and gas companies or gun manufacturers the opportunity to do business with the Texas state government.   

"In terms of a government response, I think the Texas one is legitimate — the state government can set certain standards for the vendors it wants to do business with, whether that's buying food for public schools or hiring a company to provide state agencies with financial services," said Morrison. "But states that try to reach out beyond their own role as a consumer and force 'woke' firms to renounce left-wing policies is over the line."

Morrison cited Florida's recent vote against Disney as one such move that went "over the line," describing it as a "political vendetta."

He added that it's "perfectly legitimate" for Congress to stop federal agencies from pressuring or forcing companies to adopt certain policies and priorities.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, is pushing to adopt a new rule that would force corporations to radically expand their climate change disclosures.

"Congress should limit the jurisdiction of the SEC to its traditional role of facilitating financially material disclosures and not allow it to branch out into environmental and social policy," said Morrison, who noted Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R-Texs) has a bill now, the Stopping Excessive Climate Reporting Act, to do just that.

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