Message to woke corporate America: Butt out of politics

Woke corporate America is finally getting some push-back. It’s about time.

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) has punished the Walt Disney Company for interfering in his state’s politics, signing a bill that strips the Mouse House of special tax status in Florida. The issue? Disney defaming DeSantis’s much maligned “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which, ironically, says nothing of the kind.

The consequences are severe: Disney will no longer have jurisdiction over the development and management of an area encompassing tens of thousands of acres that has been under their total control since 1968. The carve out of, especially, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, meant that Disney could build and expand without jumping environmental speedbumps and could enact their own tax policies.

It was a sweet deal for Disney, which they have now relinquished, all because some woke employees convinced management to speak out against the Parental Rights in Education Bill that was widely popular in Florida, even among Democrats, before it was slammed by the liberal press. 

An early poll that asked about the bill’s restrictions on sex and gender teaching to little kids found support from 61 percent of respondents and 67 percent of parents; even 55 percent of Democrats agreed with the legislation.

Of course they did. What parent wants a kindergarten teacher telling their five-year-old that gender is a matter of choice? (If you want a horrifying introduction to what goes on in some of today’s classrooms, tune into Libs of Tik Tok, which has ripped the lid off, showing teachers telling kids that God is queer, nonbinary and autistic, identifying themselves as “nonbinary witches” and other lunacy.)

Demanding that Disney denounce the bill were employees such as Ben Siemon, who describes himself as an LGBT animation writer and who in a video credits a middle school teacher for making him feel ok about being gay. He says that if DeSantis’s law had been in place, he “would’ve been left alone and scared.”

Actually, since the bill only impacts classroom discussions through third grade, Siemon would have been just fine. I wonder if he actually read the law.

Siemon and others led a loud, liberal mob demanding that an American company take sides in the culture wars. Disney’s management had been reluctant to do so but did a U-turn as the activist heat rose. CEO Bob Chapek addressed his annual stockholders’ meeting, saying the company is “reassessing our approach to advocacy — including political giving in Florida and beyond.” 

In effect, Chapek threatened to withhold campaign donations from state legislators who voted for the bill. That is not the high road.

Meanwhile, as management appeases the Left, Disney’s stock hit a 52- week low the day DeSantis signed the bill, down 37 percent from the high reached last September, and off 24 percent so far this year. That compares with a 5 percent decline in the S&P 500 Index from the same date last fall and a 10 percent drop year-to-date in the S&P 500 Index. Maybe Disney’s management should focus on their business.

Maybe this will remind corporate America that their responsibility is to shareholders, not to social activists. And that throwing your corporate heft into divisive issues can be costly.  

Disney is not alone. 

For over two decades, Gallup has asked Americans their feelings about Big Business. In 2002, 50 percent of the nation said they were “satisfied” with the “size and influence of major corporations”; last year, only 26 percent were satisfied with Big  Business’ role in our country.  

Worse, for the first time since at least 2010, a majority of Americans have a negative view of Big Business, even as 84 percent hold a positive view of free enterprise and 97 percent applaud small business. In other words, it is not capitalism or business per se that people are objecting to; it is corporate America’s behavior.

Sure, Sens. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) constant inveighing against the greed of corporations who don’t “pay their fair share” has taken a toll. But Americans are also fed up with Big Business sticking its nose in our culture battles.

At the end of last year, a survey showed 63 percent of executives think they should speak out on social issues; only 36 percent of the public agrees.

Are the C-suites tuning in? 

Just recently Exxon announced that it would no longer allow flags demonstrating support for political causes, like the gay rainbow or Black Lives Matter banners, to fly from company flagpoles. The new edict permits only government or company flags to fly from high, though the firm will allow interest groups to display their banners on lawns or virtually.  

Needless to say, this modest effort to control how Exxon signals the world was met with outrage. The Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBT rights, tweeted, “There’s no such thing as ‘neutrality’ when it comes to our rights. Our flag isn’t just a visual representation of our identities. It is also a staple of allyship.”

The blow-back will undoubtedly get worse. But the left has a problem bullying Exxon; no matter how woke the oil giant becomes, it will never win plaudits from a population who largely hates what they do. Climate activists have pushed the world’s second-largest oil and gas firm to abandon their core business; management is already under the gun. 

Exxon management may realize that their best choice is indeed neutrality, that the “silence is violence” theme is nonsense and that they are better off exploring for oil.

Former McDonald’s CEO Ed Rensi, fed up with woke corporate activism, has launched The Boardroom Initiative. He encourages companies to butt out of politics, saying, “Corporations have no business being on the right or the left because…their sole job is to build equity for the investors.”

Amen to that. Let’s hope corporate America is listening.

Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim & Company. Follow her on Twitter @lizpeek. 

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