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Tina Casey headshot

It’s Official: Anti-ESG Office Holders Join Forces with Religious Extremism

Though business leaders have the data on their side, the forces fomenting backlash against ESG won't back down; they can be categorized into three groups.
By Tina Casey

The anti-ESG movement and the “woke capitalism” canard has many U.S. political observers scratching their heads. Instead of the traditional Republican Party support for big business, a growing number of Republican office holders are leveraging their legislative power against corporate efforts to align with ESG (environmental, social and governance) principles. Nevertheless, the pieces of the puzzle are beginning to come together.

The usual suspects: Fossil energy lobbyists

The anti-ESG movement focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on stemming the flow of investor dollars to the renewable firms that that are involved in clean energy and related fields. It’s no surprise, then, to find the Heartland Institute front and center in the anti-ESG movement, which it also calls “anti-woke.” The organization is well known for developing media and legislative playbooks in support of the fossil energy and tobacco industries. The organization is apparently applying the same methodology to stem the flow of investment dollars to renewable energy.

Last June, Heartland catalogued its anti-ESG playbook in a long-form article under the title, “Woke Investing Gets Well-Deserved Pushback.”

“The Heartland Institute has written extensively and testified about the dangers of government agencies mandating banks, companies, and portfolio funds adopt and report on Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) standards,” noted the article’s author, H. Sterling Burnett.

“Heartland has also provided detailed critiques of efforts by a cabal of large, multinational banks and gigantic financial companies to force every business to adopt ESG goals,” Burnett continued.

The use of the word “cabal” is not a one-off. Burnett continues to deploy coded words that evoke the anti-Jewish canard of an all-powerful financial cult that pulls the strings of the global economy.

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“The woke, billionaire corporate elites who run these corporations do this by threatening to withdraw banking or financial services or by applying pressure through their control over large amounts of a company’s stock,” he added.

Burnett also emphasized that Heartland can take partial credit for the growing number of states that have proposed or enacted anti-ESG legislation. “In a joint effort with likeminded nonprofit organizations, The Heartland Institute’s government relations professionals have pushed back against this by working with legislators in various states to shape and adopt model legislation blocking use of ESG scoring in deciding whether to offer banking and investment services. These efforts have borne fruit,” he wrote.

The other usual suspects: Trump supporters

It’s also no surprise to find investor, former Facebook board member and political kingmaker Peter Thiel involved in the anti-ESG movement. He was instrumental in former U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for office. He also publicly backed two candidates for U.S. Senate this year, both of whom deployed anti-ESG rhetoric during their campaigns. 

In addition, Thiel has launched a new financial venture that is apparently aimed at providing an outlet for anti-ESG investors.

Reporters Liz Hoffman and Charley Grant picked up that thread for the Wall Street Journal last May in an article titled, “Woke, Inc.’ Author’s Startup to Take On BlackRock” and subtitled, “Backed by Peter Thiel and Bill Ackman, Vivek Ramaswamy’s Strive will tell CEOs to stay out of politics.” 

“An upstart financial firm backed by Peter Thiel and Bill Ackman has a message for American corporations: Focus on making money, not taking stands,” they observed. “Mr. Thiel invested both personally and through his Founders Fund, joined by Palantir Technologies Inc.”

“Vivek Ramaswamy, who made his fortune in pharmaceutical startups before writing a book last year called ‘Woke, Inc.,’ says he has raised $20 million to start a fund manager that would urge companies not to wade into hot-button social or environmental issues,” they added. 

The idea seems to be catching on. Last August, reporters Katherine Greifeld and Elaine Chaim of Bloomberg noted that the firm filed for four more equity ETFs. “The filings land just two weeks after the Strive US Energy ETF (ticker DRLL) launched, which has already accumulated nearly $250 million in assets,” they wrote.

The anti-ESG movement embraces Elon Musk and the religious right

Another leading element in the anti-ESG movement that has recently come to light is the nonprofit organization State Financial Officers Foundation. The group reportedly claims that it is not involved in advocating for elected officials. However, its financial “team” is staffed exclusively with Republicans, many of whom hold elected office, according to research by David Armiak of the Center for Media and Democracy. At least four members of the group are elected officials in Texas, West Virginia, Arizona and Kentucky who are known for promoting anti-ESG policies.

Nonpartisan or not, the Foundation has advocated on behalf of the fossil energy industry, as expressed in a public letter to President Joe Biden last April. It has also publicly aligned itself with high-profile personalities and organizations in the anti-ESG movement. 

On Tuesday, for example, the organization’s home page featured a tweet from newly minted Twitter owner Elon Musk that read, “ESG is the devil.” The brief message is of a piece with Musk’s earlier anti-ESG pronouncements, as reported by the New York Times.

The day before that, the Foundation's home page highlighted a tweet from the Washington Stand, a publication of the Family Research Council, an evangelical activist group. The tweet linked to an unattributed commentary that described a Foundation conference in November, in which “conservative leaders made it clear that, moving forward, they plan to be woke capital’s worst nightmare,” the Family Research Council wrote.

As with other anti-ESG manifests, the piece leveraged anti-Jewish sentiment by repeatedly focusing attention on the financial firm BlackRock and its Jewish CEO.

Advertisers are already bailing from Twitter on account of Musk’s tolerance for hate speech on his platform. Issues related to his other business ventures may also come into play. Now that the anti-ESG movement has embraced his rhetoric, the likelihood of additional advertisers fleeing from Twitter has grown.

As for the State Financial Officers Foundation, its embrace of Musk’s “free speech” policy should be a red flag to any remaining corporate sponsors and donors that continue to support the organization, and a clear signal that business leaders can no longer count on the safe haven of Republican policy-making to support their interests. 

Image credit: Chenyu Guan via Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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