Mikhail Khodorkovsky was one of the leading capitalists in early post-Soviet Russia. As the owner of the massive oil company Yukos, Khodorkovsky was the wealthiest man in the country and the 16th wealthiest person in the world, according to Forbes. He was also a critic of the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. A strong advocate of Westernization, Khodorkovsky decried the level of corruption in his country and argued that only by installing the rule of law could Russia become a fully advanced economy. In February 2003, he publicly confronted Putin, accusing government officials of maintaining a widespread system of bribery. Eight months later he was arrested at gunpoint, charged with fraud, and — after a trial that many international observers viewed as politically motivated —sentenced to nine years in prison and designated a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International.
More recently, Jack Ma, the head of Ant Group (and a co-founder, former CEO, and board member of Ant’s affiliate, Alibaba), criticized the Chinese financial system in an October 2020 speech — according to CNN he described it as outdated and risk averse and argued that a modernized system could bring banking to a wider portion of the population. A few days later, Chinese regulators cancelled Ant Group’s planned IPO, which was expected to raise $37 billion. In the following year, the company lost approximately $400 billion in value, a result of a slew of regulations imposed by the government. In January 2022, Chinese state media accused the Ant Group of bribery of public officials. Several other Chinese firms, in a broad range of industries, have also been investigated by the government, in what CNN described as a “crackdown.”
The cases of Khodorkovsky and Ma illustrate what can happen to business leaders who challenge autocratic governments. Retaliations against critics of the regime are routine events in countries such as Russia and China. But this sort of thing could not happen here in the United States, could it? Unfortunately, it is happening, and recent events may be a portent of things to come.
After the Florida Legislature passed a bill in March prohibiting schoolteachers from discussing issues of sexual orientation and gender identity with children in kindergarten through third grade, the CEO of Walt Disney Co., Bob Chapek, spoke out against the bill. Chapek did not do this lightly. He initially declined to take a public stand, wary, as most business leaders are, of alienating significant elements of the public, even while placating others. Only after considerable pressure from activists and his own employees did Chapek finally speak out, albeit to no avail, as the bill was signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis. Yet Chapek, and Disney, paid a price for their words. Barely three weeks later, the state legislature passed a bill, signed by DeSantis on April 22, which stripped Disney of its special status, an arrangement that had given the company autonomy over virtually all government services at Walt Disney World, as well as tax breaks to compensate the firm for taking on these functions.
Disney is one of the largest employers in Florida, and, according to virtually all news accounts, among the most powerful. The company has a huge lobbying operation in Tallahassee and has routinely gained favors from the legislature. One could raise legitimate questions about the presence of such an overwhelming force within a state, and whether good government might demand an effort to tame such outsized power. And yet, the state’s actions toward Disney are troubling. Consider that a company, fully within its First Amendment rights, expressed opposition to a bill that many of its employees found abhorrent. In response to this opposition, the state government engaged in a direct, and rapid, retaliation. Disney did not like a particular law and said so. The state responded by passing a bill with potentially devastating consequences for the company, not to mention the surrounding community. Perhaps DeSantis is not really serious about this law, suspecting that it will be thrown out by the courts, and is imposing it as a political stunt, to placate his base. Even if that’s the case, however, the message to companies seems clear: Cross us, and you could be next. In that sense, his actions seem eerily similar to what the Russian government did to Mikhail Khodorkovsky and what the Chinese government did to Jack Ma.
Businesses, like any interest group, can make campaign contributions and lobby politicians. One can debate the rules around this: whether, for example, there should be limits on the sizes of contributions, or whether organizations should be required to list all of their contributors. But the process itself — groups making their views known to their representatives — falls squarely within the normal bounds of the democratic process. What we are witnessing now is something qualitatively different: a company being directly targeted, and punished, for not adhering to the party line. That kind of retribution is not democratic. It is the kind of thing that happens in autocracies. And it is being practiced by today’s Republican Party.
This is not a matter of partisanship, but of fact. Our democracy is facing an existential crisis, and unfortunately, one of our two major parties is largely responsible. It is entirely reasonable for businesses to want to refrain from wading into the political fray, especially in an environment as polarized as ours. That appears to be what motivated Bob Chapek of Disney to initially stay silent on the so-called “don’t say gay” bill. We are facing an emergency, however, in which the very survival of our democracy is at stake, and desperate situations call for desperate measures. One need not be a Democrat to be profoundly worried about these warnings, and the Democrats have issues of their own. There are elements within the party whose commitment to democratic principles is also questionable. “Woke culture” is not some mythical creation of the right-wing imagination. As a university professor, I can attest that it is very real. Yet the threats to democracy emanating from that end of the spectrum pale in comparison with those emanating from the other. The “woke left” is a minority even within the Democratic Party, and it has a limited, and perhaps even self-defeating, influence on politics. The anti-democratic right, on the other hand, now constitutes the majority of one of our two major political parties, one that controls a majority of state governments and that may soon return to power at the national level as well.
The American business community has a decision to make. Is it willing to experience some minor inconveniences, such as a possible tax increase or a few new regulations? Or is it, on the contrary, willing to surrender to a party of autocrats, who threaten to turn our country into a version of Hungary (whose anti-democratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, many Republicans admire), Russia, or even the Soviet Union (Russia’s predecessor)? Today’s Republican Party has rejected the basic norms of a democratic society, and until it is willing to abide by them, it needs to be stopped. This means that the business community must do whatever it can — whether withholding contributions, applying pressure behind the scenes, publicly condemning the party’s anti-democratic behavior, or if necessary, supporting Democrats — to ensure that the Republicans pay a price for their misdeeds. Our society and our world face a series of crises that require sustained attention. But if we want our country to remain a democracy, then the Republican Party needs to disown its authoritarian elements, and return to the political community to which it once belonged.
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