Opinion

Culture war in the Magic Kingdom

Disney's CEO is caught in an unenviable cultural tug-o-war over the 'Don't Say Gay' bill

Pity the CEO. Well, maybe not. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the top executives at the largest 350 firms in the U.S. were paid an average of $24.1 million per year in 2020. That's about 350 times more than the compensation of the typical worker. 

The money goes along with responsibility for tough choices, though. Over the last week, Disney CEO Bob Chapek has faced mounting pressure to intervene in the controversy over Florida's Parental Rights Act, which prohibits classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity for public school students in kindergarten through third grade. Initially reluctant to take a position on the legislation, which opponents have branded the "Don't Say Gay" act, Chapek reversed course at an annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday. Speaking virtually, Chapek claimed that he had always opposed the bill and hoped to prevent its enactment by working behind the scenes.

There's good reason to be skeptical of this account. In an internal memo issued on Monday, Chapek emphasized Disney's "inclusive" corporate culture — not its lobbying efforts. In fact, the spokeswoman for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who supports the bill, denied having heard from Chapek before the bill passed the state senate on Tuesday. Chapek did speak with DeSantis on Wednesday, apparently before his statement at the shareholder meeting, but for opponents that was too little, too late. 

Chapek is in a difficult position, though. Wary of mounting criticism of corporate activism, he's tried to steer the company away from the public gestures of his predecessor Bob Iger, who twice threatened to boycott the state of Georgia and publicly expressed support for other progressive causes. Responding to another contretemps last year (that one involving actress Gina Carano), Chapek insisted that he doesn't "really see Disney as characterizing itself as left-leaning or right-leaning."

The aspiration to neutrality was once typical of mass-market brands. Whatever Chapek or other corporate leaders might wish, though, it's getting harder to avoid choosing sides. 

The pressure isn't coming from consumers who demand that purveyors of animated entertainment, athletic shoes, or other goods take stands on every conceivable issue. It comes largely from employees, who tend to be younger, more urban, and more culturally progressive than the markets they serve. Especially in creative fields, companies depend on reputations for hip environs and cosmetic diversity to attract and retain workers. More than an influence on actual policy, opposition to measures like the Florida bill is a form of ethical branding that supplements (and in some cases, arguably replaces) material compensation for workers who earn far less than their bosses.

As an economic matter, it seems possible to balance the preferences of a demographically and politically skewed workforce with the demands of a broad audience. Helped by the streaming boom, Disney has been enjoying high stock prices and record revenues. The problem arises when another self-selected constituency comes into play: voters in party primaries and local elections. Creative class workers lean left and expect their employers to reflect that. But voters for state legislative seats lean right — which is why Republicans control 32 of the bodies, including in states with Democratic governors. 

Situations like the one in Florida aren't really about majority preferences (according to polling last month, a plurality of Floridians disapprove of the bill). They're clashes between two influential minorities, one that wields disproportionate cultural power, the other disproportionate political power. Companies like Disney that conduct extensive business at the state level (where Disney employs more than 70,000 people) while recruiting nationally and internationally are caught in the middle. That's the CEO's dilemma. 

It's not a dilemma that will be resolved any time soon. On Wednesday, the Human Rights Campaign rejected a $5 million donation offered as penance for Chapek's hesitation to intervene. In a statement, the group's director demanded that Disney and other companies not only "work with LGBTQ+ advocates to ensure that dangerous proposals, like Florida's Don't Say Gay or Trans bill, don't become dangerous laws" but also to pursue their repeal after enactment. 

The statement is a message that progressives want draft corporations as full-time combatants in the culture war, whether they like it or not. The result will almost certainly be additional and more vigorous efforts to limit the influence of "woke capital." Not coincidentally, DeSantis has been a leading advocate of such efforts and is likely to make them a centerpiece of his campaign if he runs for president. If that makes it tricky for corporations to do business in Florida, just wait until a Republican moves back into the White House.

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