OP-ED: If Mitch McConnell is a hypocrite on corporations and politics, he's not alone

Michael McGough
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader, arrives at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on March 16, 2021. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA/TNS)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is catching flak for suggesting that businesses should stay out of politics — except, of course, when it comes to bankrolling campaigns?

McConnell was reacting to criticism of Georgia's new election law by Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola (although their criticism came after the bill was enacted). Major League Baseball also has acted, pulling the All Star game out of Atlanta.

"Republicans drink Coca-Cola too, and we fly and we like baseball," McConnell said on Tuesday, adding: "It's irritating one hell of a lot of Republican fans." He said that "if I were running a major corporation, I'd stay out of politics." But he also said that "I'm not talking about political contributions" made by corporate political action committees.

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What happened to McConnell's support of the free speech rights of corporations enshrined in the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision? Isn't this hypocrisy?

Maybe so, but the hypocrisy can work both ways. I suspect that a lot of people who mocked Mitt Romney's observation that "corporations are people, my friend" were happy to see profit-making corporations enter the debate over Georgia's election law.

Should corporations take sides in political and social debates? The LA Times' editorial board pondered this question in one of the editorials we published in 2014 as part of a series called "The 21st century citizen."

Our editorial noted that then-President Barack Obama, in criticizing firms that moved their headquarters to lower-tax countries, said that business executives are paid not only to maximize profits but also to be "good corporate citizens."

That is arguably what Coca-Cola, Delta and Major League Baseball are doing in criticizing Georgia's law that makes it harder in several ways for people to vote.

But our editorial also wrestled with this question: "[I]f businesses are expected to look beyond the bottom line to the welfare of the society in which they operate, should they also have a say in the political process?" (The editorial answered with a qualified "Yes.")

Long before anyone sneered at "woke capitalism," business leaders engaged with social and political movements, including in Georgia. For example, past and present officials of Coca-Cola associated themselves with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

So should corporations get involved in political and social issues? As with so much political conversation in polarized America, your answer is likely to depend on whether you agree with the cause the corporations are embracing.

— Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.