In their adoption of “progressive” agendas, both unions and corporations have ignored entirely the preferences and interests of workers. (Whether an agenda that abandons workers can rightly be called progressive is a question for another day.) Not What They Bargained For, the American Compass survey of worker attitudes, highlights the ways that the labor movement’s focus on progressive politics has undermined its own popularity and alienated the lower and working classes. Workers similarly disdain “woke” employers.

We asked workers: “In recent months American companies have taken public stances and made business decisions that they say advance social justice, on issues such as election reform, racial equity, and LGBTQ+ rights. Thinking about your own employer, which of the following best represents your own view.” For those without a traditional employer, we asked about businesses in general. Large majorities want businesses to “focus on business and stay out of social justice issues.”

Unsurprisingly, given the partisan valence of the social justice causes that corporations have embraced, enthusiasm for wokeness varies significantly by political party. Democrats tend to approve of employer engagement on social justice while Independents and Republicans are opposed.

But a similarly strong polarization also emerges by education level. There is a direct correlation between how much exposure one has to the higher education system and how enthusiastic one is for wokeness at work.

Even within the Democratic party, support for employer activism is concentrated amongst the most-educated workers, and particularly among those who are white.

All told, white, college-educated Democrats are pleased to see their employers go woke by a three-to-one margin, whereas the rest of America is opposed by a two-to-one margin. Whatever it is that progressives are pushing corporations toward, it is not a genuine commitment to policies and practices that workers want. Indeed, one could fairly suspect that workers oppose the strategy precisely because they know it distracts from the sort of Corporate Actual Responsibility that might benefit them, their families, and their communities.

These findings cast Senator Marco Rubio’s introduction of the Mind Your Own Business Act in an interesting light. The Act would expose corporations to shareholder lawsuits when they pursue political causes unrelated to their pecuniary interests. Typically, such shareholder empowerment would advance a model of “shareholder primacy” in which firms are accountable only to shareholders and only for maximizing shareholder value. But that’s not the case here. As corporations and unions have found common cause advancing social justice—or perhaps, more accurately, as both have fallen under the control of the same set of managerial-class graduates of the same set of universities plying a common social justice dogma—it is both shareholders’ and workers’ interests that get snubbed, and both who would benefit from businesses getting back to business.

A well-functioning capitalist system requires that managers consider many obligations beyond those to shareholders, which a business can fulfill in its operation as a business: treating workers well and offering employment that allows them to support their families; investing in the long-term sustainability of the firm itself and the surrounding community; promoting the nation’s prosperity. Getting co-opted by political activists is not on the list. Asking shareholders to help in policing such behavior may somewhat incidentally accrue to their own benefit, but the benefits to society will be much larger. It is precisely the role of policymakers in a market economy to craft rules that encourage capitalists to advance their own interests in ways that advance the common good as well.

That workers may have nowhere to turn but shareholders in pushing back against progressives is surely one of the great ironies of 21st-century American politics. It also underscores two themes that we emphasize frequently at American Compass frequently: the opportunity for a multi-ethnic, working-class conservatism; and the need for a labor movement that offers workers a better bargain.

Oren Cass
Oren Cass is the executive director at American Compass.
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