A Silicon Valley Bank branch in San Francisco. Republicans called it...

A Silicon Valley Bank branch in San Francisco. Republicans called it a "woke bank" because of its commitment to environmental, social and corporate governance-driven investing. Credit: AP/Jeff Chiu

As clever rhetorical gimmicks go, national Republicans’ use of the terms “woke banks” and “woke corporations” is neither stupid nor sloppy. It's quite tactical and purposeful, for hammering away at cultural and economic fault lines with the rival Democratic Party.

Political conservatives for generations were expected to reflexively defend banks and corporations in the name of free enterprise and capitalism. That no longer seems to be the GOP’s burden — at least during the other side's incumbency. Democratic campaigns do get lots of corporate money.

Democrats in the 2008 national elections took tactical populist advantage of a massive Wall Street collapse. They ridiculed then-presidential candidate John McCain for saying back then that U.S. economic fundamentals were sound, even as big financial institutions teetered. Could this become a role reversal?

Partisanship aside, complaining broadly about the way big commercial and finance operations are conducted by the private sector departs from the terrain of what we traditionally call conservative.

Of course, the GOP will continue as always to appeal to those who operate smaller businesses across America. Republicans and their backers seem to see a way to turn the old left-of-center and populist resentment against those bigger businesses — nowadays California tech companies — to the GOP's benefit.

They are trying to link bank failures to the modern virtue-signaling of corporate citizens. Unlikely as it sounds, these critics suggest elite businesses are too preoccupied with environmental and social and diversity goals to be competent bottom-liners.

Granted, there’s a certain novelty to the claim, which may make it fun for some to discuss. But how much truth, really? 

Blaming socialists or globalists or "woke-ists" can be awfully tricky when you’re dealing with commerce, assets, bonds, interest rates and markets. Serious regulators and private professionals are so far attributing this series of bank failures — including the well-established Signature Bank based in New York and the renowned Credit Suisse — to other things.

One factor may be regulatory changes made during the last presidential administration. The "woke" stuff helps deflect from that. 

We do know the feds cranked up interest rates to fight inflation. As a result, yields rose on Treasury notes and corporate bonds held by banks, which means prices on that previously issued debt fell, which sent institutions such as Silicon Valley Bank reeling.

SVB for one had a lot of assets invested in fixed-income securities. Facing a liquidity problem, its officials soon went seeking new capital, which frightened customers, who ran to withdraw cash.

Decrying “wokeness” in this context might sound like a joke. But House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.), for one, saw fit this week to call the closed Silicon Valley Bank “one of the most woke banks” because of its commitment to environmental, social and corporate governance-driven investing. Many of his GOP colleagues also mouthed the meme.

"Woke" as an adjective comes from urban Black vernacular, meaning alertness to racism. Whatever the origin, its use this week sounds less like an explanation for bank problems than a way of faulting someone’s idea of political correctness.

"Wokeness" disputes are about linguistics and culture, for which there are always differing views. How it all may interlock with banking practices, legal protections, the Fed and the FDIC will be up to the self-proclaimed "anti-wokesters" down in Washington to explain.

Columnist Dan Janison's opinions are his own.

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