Budweiser? Pfft. Dominion? Eh. Kansas should look beyond corporations to put people first.

May 8, 2023 3:33 am
Close-up of bartender serving beers at bar

Conservatives have roundly criticized Budweiser for partnering with a transgender influencer. The argument shows how much public space we've delegated to corporations, writes Clay Wirestone. (Getty Images)

Between conservatives’ outrage after Budweiser partnered with a transgender influencer, liberals’ indignation after Dominion voting systems settled with Fox News, and Kansas legislators trying desperately to hand out tax breaks to big business, I have to wonder — since when have we given corporations so much power over how we feel and act?

The success of our state and country depends on investments in people. Corporations come and go and act to maximize profits. That goes for “woke” businesses and socially conservative concerns alike.

Building up people and their families, on the other hand, creates legacies of success that persist for generations.

Yes, in technical terms, a corporation acts as a single entity. The designation describes a group of people working together as one. The lived experience of people in Kansas and the United States has been quite different of late, but that’s another column.

I’m also aware that corporations needn’t be business concerns, but for the purpose of this column I’m using the word to refer to the money-guzzling behemoths that have come to dominate U.S. culture and politics over the past century.


Protesters gather in front of Fox News.
Protesters rally against Fox News outside the news media company’s headquarters at the News Corporation building on March 13, 2019, in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Budweiser and Dominion

I don’t have much to add about the brouhaha engendered by Budweiser working with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Conservatives decided to clutch their pearls and threaten boycotts, while Anheuser-Busch twisted in the wind and offered a half-hearted nonapology.

I support trans rights wholeheartedly and believe LGBTQ people deserve all the freedom and liberty this country has to offer. (As a member of the alphabet mafia myself, I could scarcely feel otherwise). But I cannot bring myself to care about Anheuser-Busch’s stance in this matter or any other one. As I wrote online: I would rather drink contaminated tap water than Bud Light.

Better for people to do what scrappy Kansas transgender activists have done twice in recent months: March loudly and proudly at the Kansas Statehouse, putting lawmakers on notice. That makes a difference. Not arguing about beer.

Likewise, when Dominion Voting Systems settled its lawsuit against Fox News for the princely sum of $787.5 million, those who were eager to see the Murdoch-run propaganda outlet exposed bemoaned the outcome. But Dominion doesn’t have an individual conscience. It’s a company that seeks to increase profit and reduce risk. A settlement was always the most likely outcome of the case, regardless of whatever fantasies liberals harbored.

Fox spread destructive lies and paid the price. But beyond that, progressives have to be willing to make a consistent and powerful case for their ideas. They have to go toe to toe with rightwing disinformation. They can’t expect a corporation — any corporation — to have their best interests at heart.

In each of these cases, I see corporations as distractions for those on the left. Democrats and those allied with them should concentrate on reducing corporate power, rather than looking to it for solace.

But corporations can be a distracting problem for those on the right as well.


Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson works on the floor of his chamber April 6, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Tax and economic policy

For a piquant example, look at this last session of the Kansas Legislature.

Senate President Ty Masterson made no secret of his desire to pass a flat tax bundle — a package of changes to state laws that would overwhelmingly benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. Were corporate tax rates included? They sure were!

House Speaker Dan Hawkins’ chamber tried to make the package more generous, but the entire attempt fell victim to Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto.

As a last-ditch measure, Kelly proposed a one-time payment to Kansans of $450. Republicans wouldn’t go for it. After all, money for individuals can’t hope to compete with tax breaks for the phenomenally well off. Corporations and those who run them count. Everyday folks can be comfortably ignored.

Left untouched during the session were bills that would have benefited individual Kansans. Medicaid expansion could have brought lifesaving health care benefits to 150,000 people. Legalizing medicinal cannabis could have relieved suffering and began the end of senseless prohibition. Programs that help Kansans access food, child care and other basic supports could have been expanded.

Statehouse leaders ignored Medicaid expansion altogether. Extensive work done by a committee on medicinal marijuana was tossed aside. Restrictions were added to state benefits, not removed.

That was just this year. Last session, lawmakers of both parties eagerly shoveled money at Panasonic for a much-hyped “megaproject” promising 4,000 jobs. It just took an $829 million state incentive package. Similar agreements have been touted since. When Beneficient, a “pawn shop” for the rich, came calling a couple of years ago, officials scurried to clear the way.

All this stems from the mindset that I mentioned at the very beginning of this column. We have handed over immense power to corporate interests — the very economic future of our state — without pausing to ponder what we lose in the bargain. Our state government shouldn’t work as a business. It should represent us. It should do our will. No corporate chief executive will ever answer to voters the way that elected representatives do.

We need strong and profitable businesses. We need lively debate and vibrant free speech. We need economic policy that encourages prosperity. If businesses make decisions that consumers don’t like, liberals or conservative, they can adjust their buying choices accordingly. That’s how the free market works.

But we also need a government that puts constituents first. The people of Kansas, their health and welfare, should matter more to legislators and advocates than any Fortune 500 company.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His Reflector columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and website across the state and nation. He has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.