David Ryder/Bloomberg

From the Center

In an election season when Republican elephants and Democratic donkeys are poised for a fierce battle for control in Washington, it’s beginning to look like next year’s elections could be decided by a mouse.

Mickey, that is. 

The avatar for the Walt Disney Company is unlikely to appear in campaign ads during the 2024 election cycle, but the corporate entertainment behemoth has found itself in the middle of a partisan crossfire that reflects a growing concern for this country’s business community as it attempts to navigate a political landscape in which neither party can still be considered as a reliable ally for American job-creators.

For most of the twentieth century, the most accurate demographic indicator of partisan voting behavior was income. The more money you made, the more likely you were to vote Republican. The lower your income, the more likely you were to support Democrats. But when GOP leaders like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan began to reach out to working class conservative voters on topics such as crime and welfare, and Democratic candidates such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama targeting wealthier voters who leaned leftward on these same social and cultural issues, those political/economic lines began to blur. The emergence of abortion and same-sex marriage as hot-button topics encouraged even more of this type of party shifting. By the early 2000s, income had been replaced as the leading demographic indicator by religiosity, or the frequency with which an individual attended religious services. 

Donald Trump’s campaigns accelerated this realignment even further, to a point where Republican candidates now enjoy their greatest levels of support from working class voters, while college-educated voters represent one of the most stalwart blocs of the Democratic coalition. While this reversal was driven primarily by cultural matters, an increasing number of Republican candidates are now talking on much more populist terms on economic issues as well to broaden their appeal to these voters. The result has been somewhat of an identity crisis among the nation’s business leaders, who no longer see the GOP as nearly as consistent a supporter of their policy goals. 

The challenge for employers is even more vexing given the changes taking place within the Democratic coalition. At the same time that cultural populism has animated conservative Republicans, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has become increasingly strident in its economic populism. Or to put it another way, the average CEO is not particularly comfortable with either Bernie Sanders or Marjorie Taylor-Greene.

These cross-party tensions have reached a breaking point in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis has declared all-out war on the House of Mouse. DeSantis has been laying the groundwork for his almost-official presidential campaign for quite some time now, and while the Florida governor proudly and frequently brandishes his tax-cutting credentials, the driving force behind his emergence as a national political player has been his leading role in the nation’s culture wars.

No issue has attracted more attention – and controversy – than the legislation DeSantis championed, which prohibits “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade “or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” (Last week, DeSantis signed another bill that expands the prohibition on sexual orientation or gender identity instruction to prekindergarten through eighth grade.) Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek originally tried to stay out of the fight, but under both internal and external pressure, the state’s largest employer ultimately came out against the bill.

DeSantis responded with a series of legislative maneuvers designed to penalize Disney for its position, and when the legendary Bob Iger came out of retirement to take back his CEO position, he responded in kind. Iger first escalated the verbal warfare, then sued DeSantis and other government officials last month, accusing them of retaliating against the company for engaging in exercising its constitutional rights last year when it criticized the law. Last week, Disney raised the stakes even higher, canceling construction on a nearly $1 billion office complex in Orlando that would have brought with it more than 2,000 jobs.

Disney originally settled on Florida for this lucrative project because the state’s tax and regulatory climate was so much more welcoming than California. But now these cultural disagreements have caused the company to reverse course. Disney’s dilemma is a high-profile example of the challenge faced by business interests throughout the country, who no longer have a political party that they can call home.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).