The controversy over tech giant Google’s firing of James Damore after he internally circulated a memo criticizing the company’s diversity-driven hiring practices has put America’s suffocating corporate culture in the limelight. Yet it also speaks to a broader question: Do modern conservatives blindly defend corporate rights to the detriment of all other values?
If so, Google is the perfect example of why they shouldn’t.
To be fair, many on the Right used the incident as another example of America’s deteriorating culture of free expression. Yet many within Google’s c-suite and its shareholders were likely comforted by the reality that those criticizing Damore’s firing were never going to do a damn thing about it.
Google, with its headquarters in liberal California, isn’t interested in protecting free expression if that means risking bad publicity. Nor does the company seem remotely interested in leading a counter-charge against those who prize diversity as the ultimate good if it means appearing un-politically correct. So no, there were no “market incentives” for Google to do anything but fire Damore. But that doesn’t make it right.
Only 13 percent of today’s labor force are business owners. Within this small percentage, the vast majority aren’t owners or executives of what we would call “big business.” Thus, particularly in an age where the corporate paternalism of the 1950s has died and when CEO pay has skyrocketed in comparison to the average employee, it’s rather peculiar how conservatives of all stripes jump in lock-step to the defense of the corporate establishment, including large, faceless conglomerates that have spent the last 30 years putting mom-and-pop stores out of business for good.
To be clear, the Left’s habit of paranoid demonization of any big business is pathology in itself. That doesn’t mean, however, that conservatives should position themselves diametrically opposed to the Left by playing apologist and protector. And yet, that’s precisely where so much of the mainstream is today—whether it’s in the rhetoric of Republican politicians, the various memes found on social media spread by free-market accounts on Facebook and Twitter accounts, or the numerous GOP Political Action Committees (PACs) and advocacy groups gleaning big bucks from corporate donors. When the private sector behaves unjustly, or wants something from the government (tax breaks, bail outs), there’s usually a race on the Right to act as its pro-bono spokesman.
“Don’t you realize,” conservative think tankers often ask when a Democratic politician or activist rails against some supposed act of greed or malevolence by a hedge fund or pharmaceutical company, “that the alternative is authoritarian socialism? Defending these companies means defending liberty itself!” While the threat of a radical Left has certainly become more real than ever, such apocalyptic language in the service of a few large, extremely wealthy companies and banks seems silly. The Road to Serfdom doesn’t begin by shaming millionaires who are often not self-aware enough to even attempt to hide their love of profits at the expense of employee wages or social cohesion.
Nor do such attitudes seem consistent with conservatism. Any large centralized system or authority has the habit of crushing individualism. Whether it’s a public school or white-collar workplace, conformity is king, while true creativity and thinking differently are under-valued, even grounds for suspicion. Very few seem to “make it” while “failing up” seems to be the norm for those who know how to game the system. Nothing new here, yet it feels as if such complaints are met with eye rolls from elites on the Right—many of whom have grown extremely alienated from the working conditions of the average Americans.
There’s certainly something to be said about principles here—that despite growing incidents of illiberal censorship and ideological management and control, conservatives should still seek to defend all corporations as the pillars of free society. But if our politicians have only a finite time to speak about various issues, perhaps less attention should be given to quarterly returns and marginal tax rates for wealthy CEOs until companies realize they are important actors in the contemporary culture wars, too.
None of this is to say that conservatives should join forces with Sen. Elizabeth Warren and spend their days yelling into the abyss about every potential unfairness in the free market. But it would do America’s corporate powerhouses—and the country—some good if they knew that more than just half of the country was willing to hold them accountable when they act irresponsibly.
Joe Simonson is a Manhattan-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @SaysSimonson