April 1, 2021 4:10 PM

Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines, at the 2016 International Air Transport Association Annual General Meeting and World Air Transport Summit in Dublin, Ireland June 2, 2016. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

Corporations have the right to free speech. They do not have the right to obedience to all of their demands. It is high time that state-level Republicans remembered that.

A variety of factors have led to the capture of America’s major corporations by the social-justice-warrior wing of the Democratic Party. Corporate C-suites and legal and human-resources departments are increasingly staffed by products of woke university educations. The “diversity and inclusion” business sector is now itself an $8 billion a year industry. Corporate managers who are not themselves left-wing culture warriors are easily pushed around by a vocal minority of their employees or customers brandishing boycotts, lawsuits, and Twitter mobs. This is especially prevalent in sports, entertainment, and journalism, where prominent employees wield outsized public platforms.

One result is that sports leagues, Hollywood, and big business have gotten into the habit over the past decade of threatening to pull their business from states whose legislatures pass laws that do not meet the approval of the cultural Left. We have seen this pattern over and over with laws in Indiana, Arizona, North Carolina, South Dakota, and other states that addressed hot-button topics ranging from immigration to religious liberty to transgenderism to same-sex marriage. What has followed, in nearly every case, is that state governors have folded like a cheap suitcase rather than stick up for the democratic right of a free people to pass laws through their elected representatives, chosen in free and fair elections.

They are at it again in Georgia. Companies such as Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft are pressuring the state over its recent revisions to its voting and election laws — pressure based in large part on false Democratic talking points about the bill. Democratic politicians now see corporations and sports leagues as their shock troops, to the point that Joe Biden is egging on Major League Baseball to threaten to pull this summer’s All-Star Game from Atlanta. This follows on the heels of the NCAA’s apparently successful campaign to intimidate Kristi Noem into a veto of South Dakota’s entirely sensible law on transgender athletes.

This sort of cultural partisanship is an abuse of the corporate form. A legal abuse — in a free country, we rightly let companies make their own choices — but an abuse nonetheless of the assets entrusted to corporate managers by their shareholders for the purpose of making money. People invest in Delta Air Lines because they want to grow their own assets for retirement, not because they want to enlist in whatever partisan battle Stacey Abrams wants to wage in a given week. It is one thing for companies to make long-term business decisions, and political contributions, based on their desire for a better business climate for their own operations. A company may even make choices about the values it embodies within its own operations, whether those values are those of wokesters, hippies, or Christian conservatives. It is another entirely to subordinate the company’s business interests to a kulturkampf that seeks to force its values on an entire state. Companies that do this ooze contempt for their own customers and employees who are not in the leftmost quarter of opinion in the country.All Our Opinion in Your Inbox

In any event, the best medicine for corporate overreach is for state officials to stand their ground and call the companies’ bluff. Actually relocating operations over a momentary political controversy is costly and painful. A few may carry out their threats, but if they find the tactic meeting regular resistance, they will be less likely to repeat it. Moreover, Republican-run states should show solidarity with one another and not be picked off one at a time. They can start by not poaching businesses that pull out of another state over a culture-war flap. Welcoming a company that arrives on those terms is just asking for your own governance to be held hostage later. Few companies or sports leagues are actually prepared to simultaneously boycott half of the states in the country. States can still compete over a better business climate, and companies will respond to that because it involves the long-term interests of business rather than its response to a single news cycle. Many corporate managers would be quietly relieved if they were no longer expected to jump into every debate that trends on woke Twitter.

In fact, the lesson of standing against corporate extortion is also one that can be applied to more conventional forms of corporate welfare. Major League Baseball, for example, has long used threats of relocation of franchises to mau-mau states and cities into giving it handouts. Learning to say no to cultural shakedowns is good practice for reviving the freedom of state and local governments more generally from rent-seeking corporations.

We would prefer to see more evenhanded governance and fewer favors done for particular businesses. It is a sad state of affairs when state lawmakers retaliate against businesses for their political stances, but we cannot blame the Georgia legislature for concluding that it should do fewer favors for Delta if the company has made itself an opponent of democratic self-government in the state. In America, airlines and baseball teams do not get to decide how elections are run. The sooner Republicans in Georgia, South Dakota, and other states remind them of that, the better.

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