Conservatives are discovering that Big Business might have too much power in American life.
The conservative rebuke of corporate power has been ongoing throughout the Trump administration, of course, but the latest flashpoint is the announcement by Walmart that it will no longer sell certain types of ammunition — and that the retail giant will furthermore discourage customers from openly carrying firearms into its stores.
Walmart's decision was understandable after 22 people were killed at its El Paso, Texas, store in August. But some notable conservatives — and the NRA, naturally — were enraged.
"Do you think the left would applaud if Walmart made it harder for people to vote?" Tucker Carlson grumbled this week. "Or to be tried by a jury?"
Carlson's examples are ridiculous, but his sentiment isn't entirely wrong.
Yes, it is good that Walmart is no longer selling some military-style ammunition. But it's true that big corporations often have an outsized influence on how Americans live and exercise their individual liberties. The choices made within the walls of corporate headquarters can limit and shape the choices an individual makes in his or her own home. Those limitations are sometimes pernicious.
Lefty activists have known all of this for decades, which is why they have fought against media consolidation, for example, and bemoaned the decline of unions as a counterweight to corporate power. Conservatives, on the other hand, have usually been known for their love of Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand.
Despite its reputation for laissez-faire free market excess, there has always been a streak in the conservative movement that found unconstrained capitalism at odds with efforts, well, to conserve. The conservative writer Rod Dreher attracted attention more than a decade ago with his book, Crunchy Cons, which stood for preserving traditional values against "the depredations of Big Business." Mitt Romney may have run for president in 2012 proclaiming that "corporations are people, my friend," but Donald Trump's campaign four years later made the case that corporate decisions — like outsourcing manufacturing to China, say — aren't sacrosanct.
That notion has been most manifest with regard to tech corporations and social media. Conservatives for years have opposed the old "Fairness Doctrine" that once required privately owned broadcast stations to present contrasting viewpoints on public issues. During the Trump Era, though, there has been a pressure campaign to force companies like Google and Twitter to ensure conservative viewpoints aren't sidelined on their platforms.
"It is unthinkable that we would allow a telephone or electricity company to prevent those on one side of the political aisle from using its services," Richard Hanania wrote for Quillette in February. "Why would we allow social media companies to do the same?
The underlying idea behind all this is that corporations shouldn't just respect individual liberties, but must actively work to enable the public's ability to exercise those rights. Conservatives apply the logic inconsistently, though — just in recent years they've backed corporations that wanted to deny contraceptive coverage to their employees and businesses that don't want to make wedding cakes for gay couples, all the while supporting a campaign finance regime that gives business interests an inordinate amount of influence over governance.
Conservatives, it turns out, mostly favor limiting corporate power when it works against their desired ends. Then again, given the joy that greeted this week's Walmart decision, folks on the left can do the same thing.
There is probably no way to come up with a hard-and-fast rule limiting corporate power that makes everybody happy all the time. But it is good that there is wider public recognition that the interests of giant corporations can sometimes, even often, be at odds with the communities and customers they serve.
And there are steps that can be taken. Government can limit the power of corporations like Walmart by exercising its antitrust powers a bit more enthusiastically. And it is always a good time to restrain the spending of businesses in our election campaigns. Corporations are not people — their political rights can and should be greatly constrained.
It is admittedly satisfying to watch Walmart defy the NRA and its Fox News allies. It is hardly a given that Walmart will take the liberal side of our political arguments, though. The problem of corporate power is still a problem, even if that power is occasionally used for good.