Mitch McConnell To Corporate America: Shut Up And Donate

Congress' biggest defender of corporate political speech rights changes his tune.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned corporate CEOs Tuesday that they should stop speaking out on political issues that he doesn’t support, but they should keep making campaign contributions to politicians like him.

“My warning to corporate America is to stay out of politics,” McConnell said at a press conference, adding, “I’m not talking about political contributions.”

Tuesday’s comments followed another threat McConnell issued to corporations on Monday following their denunciations of a restrictive election law passed by Georgia Republicans. The chief executives of Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola condemned the new measure, and Major League Baseball decided to relocate the 2021 All-Star Game from the Atlanta suburbs to Denver.

“From election law to environmentalism to radical social agendas to the Second Amendment, parts of the private sector keep dabbling in behaving like a woke parallel government,” McConnell said on Monday. “Corporations will invite serious consequences if they become a vehicle for far-left mobs to hijack our country from outside the constitutional order.”

McConnell’s call for corporations to put up and shut up lest they face political retribution runs counter to his careerlong defense of corporate political speech rights.

"My warning to corporate America is to stay out of politics," Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on April 6. "I’m not talking about political contributions."
"My warning to corporate America is to stay out of politics," Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on April 6. "I’m not talking about political contributions."
Tom Williams via Getty Images

Over the past 30 years, there has been no bigger defender of corporate political speech rights than McConnell. He has filed lawsuits and amicus briefs defending corporate speech rights at the Supreme Court and he has given impassioned speeches defending corporate speech rights from the Senate floor.

In particular, McConnell has vigorously defended corporations and wealthy political donors from the threat of political retaliation for their political positions ― exactly what he engaged in on Monday.

This has been most clear in McConnell’s decadelong campaign against efforts to require nonprofit groups to disclose contributions made for independent electoral political campaigns like the DISCLOSE Act. This so-called “dark money” that the DISCLOSE Act would reveal radically increased after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision freed corporations to spend unlimited sums on independent political efforts.

To McConnell, this effort to require transparency of contributions spent on election campaigns was simply a way for his opponents ― Democrats ― to bully corporations and wealthy donors for exercising their free speech rights.

“After spending the past year and a half enacting policies Americans don’t like, Democrats want to prevent their opponents from being able to criticize what they’ve done,” McConnell said while filibustering the DISCLOSE Act in 2010. “They want to prevent their critics from speaking out.”

The bill failed to clear the Republican-led filibuster by one vote in 2010. When Democrats tried to pass it again in 2012, McConnell returned with an even more impassioned defense of political speech rights rooted in a defense of the uniquely American principle of freedom of speech from political retaliation.

McConnell opened that speech by quoting Alexis de Tocqueville on the unique American freedom of association: “In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America.”

He then launched into an extended defense of the “proposition than the fact that Americans are free, above all else, to speak their minds openly and freely, without fear of punishment or reprisal from government authorities.”

McConnell warned of “a grave external threat ... from a political movement that’s uncomfortable with the idea of groups it doesn’t like speaking freely, and from an administration that has shown an alarming willingness itself to use the powers of government to silence these groups.”

“This dangerous alliance threatens the character of America,” he added. “And that’s why it is critically important for all conservatives ― and indeed all Americans ― to stand up and unite in defense of the freedom to organize around the causes we believe in, and against any effort that would constrain our ability to do so.”

McConnell pointed to criticisms made of billionaire political donors including Charles and David Koch for “their forceful and unapologetic promotion and defense of capitalism.” Here was an acceptable political position for a corporate CEO.

“[I]t’s a mistake to view the attacks we’ve seen on ‘millionaires and billionaires’ as outside our concern,” McConnell said. “Because it always starts somewhere; and the moment we stop caring about who’s being targeted is the moment we’re all at risk.”

But now that those he previously defended in such principled terms have taken positions opposing Republicans’ cynical effort to game elections in Georgia, he is happy to threaten them. That is unless they just shut up and donate.

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