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Integrate McDonald’s from Within

We need corporate allies in the culture war, and we might as well aim high.

Back in high school, a friend and I drove fairly often to the nearest Chick-fil-A, 60 miles north of us, just outside of Boston. We would go straight there, eat our food—always a Number 1 with a sweet tea—and immediately hit the road for the hour-long drive back home. The chicken was pretty good, as fast food goes, but we certainly didn’t travel all that way just for a meal fried in peanut oil rather than canola. No, going to Chick-fil-A was an act of rebellion—or so we young right-wingers thought.

Besides being closed on Sunday, which might have been good enough to secure our patronage, Chick-fil-A (we were told) had taken a stand against the LGBT militancy that had, even within our fairly short memories, come to dominate the commercial landscape. This was true, somewhat, at some point. Dan Cathy, CEO and son of the company’s devout Baptist founder, made comments critical of same-sex marriage, and the company’s charitable foundation had made a few contributions to groups with standard Christian views on sexual morality.

It didn’t last long. Despite a whopping 12 percent spike in profits after LGBT activist groups manufactured a controversy around the Cathys’ philanthropy—likely spiked by grateful conservatives and Christians like my friend and me—Chick-fil-A, and its money, quickly changed course. As of 2012 tax filings, just one traditional-inflected group received one small grant from the foundation. By 2019, Chick-fil-A had finally purged the last two “anti-gay” organizations still on its corporate dole: the Salvation Army, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. In addition, Cathy and other corporate leaders prostrated themselves repeatedly in contrition, apologizing for ever allowing their principles to influence the way they spent their money, and begging absolution from mammon’s rainbow henchmen. The Chick-fil-A down the street from the TAC office here in Washington, D.C., put up a less-than-subtle Pride display for the entire month of June. In 2020, the company reported a record $4.3 billion in revenue.

Chick-fil-A is a lesson in how not to fight the market power of the left. If you start a fight as a fairly small or midsize corporate player with a niche or regional consumer base that is as limited as it is loyal, you have no path to victory. On the one hand, you can drop out of the economic fight altogether—admit defeat in the broad arena, cater to your pre-existing base, and resign yourself to life as a middling lord of a ghettoized economy with the likes of Mike Lindell. That’s a good enough existence—MyPillow is doing just fine, and other companies targeted toward the right, like Parler, are looking likely to turn a nice profit over the next few years. On the other hand, you can drop out of the moral fight—abandon your principles and pay obeisance to the powerful, morally coercive authorities that dominate the market. This is what Chick-fil-A has done, and it’s paying off just fine. (Though its continuing success doubtless owes a great deal to its early conservative base and controversy-era ralliers, who are either unaware of the betrayal or jaded enough to realize that nobody else is on their side either.)

But what if there’s another way? It is hard to believe that the failure of roughly 70 million Americans to have their views represented in the marketplace is an inevitable result of the march of progress and the forces of history, and not just the wages of bad strategy.

Rather than placing our bets on upstart outsiders who don’t even have slingshots, we might try converting Goliath. A better strategy for conservative consumers and corporate players, that requires neither forfeiture of actual marketplace competitiveness nor corruption of our values in service to the market, might be “to co-opt and transform the decaying regime from within its own core.

It is important to make distinctions between our friends and our enemies—at least, that’s what I hear. Given that we don’t actually have any friends in the corporate world right now, it is incumbent upon conservatives to make them—to claim as our own brands more powerful than Chick-fil-A, to actively court them and then to make their success dependent on their service to a conservative base, rather than dependent on expansion to the liberal mainstream with minority conservative patronage taken for granted. Plant a flag somewhere and say, “This is ours.”

I say we start with McDonald’s.

In 2021, it may be worthwhile to propose a market corollary to O’Sullivan’s First Law (“All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.”): All corporations that are not actually left-wing can over time become right-wing. The logic behind this is simple: Given that all apparent pressure pushes corporations to the left, any institution that has not succumbed must have potent reasons for doing so. Megacorporations like McDonald’s that have generally shied away from political activism and rainbowification are free real estate for conservative consumers. Any ground not claimed by them is free to be claimed by us.

The CEO of McDonald’s has practically told us as much. A Catholic family man whose leanings are every bit as obscure as those of the company he leads, Chris Kempczinski, who took over as chief executive in 2019, was profiled in the New York Times last month. Much of the profile consists of the interviewer pestering Kempczinski about why McDonald’s hasn’t taken a stand against election security, why the entire menu isn’t plant-based yet, etc. Kempczinski’s answer was straightforward: “The way I approach the job today is: whatever the customer wants to buy.” He does business with an admirably democratic ethos: rather than pushing the elite philosophy on consumers, as most modern corporations do, McDonald’s simply follows popular demand.

Now, of course, there are dangers to that—not least in the proliferation of cheap, unhealthy options that taste great once you’re hooked. But there is also a valuable opportunity: If McDonald’s is really going to give us what we want, we might as well tell them what that is. How many of their customers are working- and middle-class GOP voters living outside of urban hubs? I’d be willing to wager that it’s at least as many as Chick-fil-A’s, and more widely distributed to boot. What’s more, McDonald’s is about five times the size of Chick-fil-A by revenue, but it’s only shrinking while Chick-fil-A—buoyed by a new audience of yuppie liberals who like the higher-quality food and have forgiven the historical deviation from liberal orthodoxy—continues to grow. McDonald’s needs us.

Once conservatives start asserting our position with companies like this—fence-sitting giants who just need a nudge, or a shove, to the right—we can begin to exert pressure in favor of our interests. Boycotts and other tools of social-economic influence are not, and cannot be, the sole province of the left. We have literally nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

Encourage McDonald’s—a huge portion of whose customers live in the heartland ravaged by other corporations’ immoral predation—to source its American operations from America. Encourage a return to real beef tallow as a frying medium, instead of canola oil. More broadly, ensure that a transition to healthier food means a focus on real, American-sourced meat and other ingredients, rather than innovation towards estrogen-spiking soy and other fake food substitutes. Demand that American workers—emphasis on American—be paid a just wage, and that their jobs not be automated out of existence in service to the bottom line, and to the great detriment of both human dignity and social flourishing. (On both these last counts Kempczinski is already leaning in the right direction.)

These are just a few battles in the vast culture war waged every day in the American marketplace. That war needs to be fought, and almost all the institutional allies we thought we had have made it pretty clear that they want nothing to do with us, much less with our cause. We need new allies to stand beside us, and a new standard to raise, and I’ll take the golden arches over a rainbow any day.

about the author

Declan Leary is associate editor of The American Conservative. He was previously an editorial intern at National Review and a frequent contributor to such publications as National Review Online and Crisis Magazine.

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