I read Gerald Seib’s thoughtful July 23 WSJ essay on how big business has become a political orphan, unable to find a safe harbor in either major party. For over a century, the Republican Party has been their haven. But, said Seib, the party’s shift to right wing populism has eroded the stable of Republican legislators who could be relied on to earn high marks from corporate trade associations, while, I might add, raking in millions in campaign contributions from satisfied corporate interests. Seib noted that amenable moderate Democrats have been displaced by party leaders shifting left with anti corporate agendas. So what are big corporations and their trade associations going to do? That’s the big question to which he had no answer. It was a sad tale, but truthful as far as it went.
A few observations
Corporate America is not monolithic in spite of incestuous relationships that network boards and CEOs. The ebb and flow of leaders with strong egos, from different backgrounds, having different core values, and different expectations for what conditions are best for their companies, means corporate America has a hard time coordinating political strategy. That’s what their major trade associations are for. Trade associations pretend to cooperate, albeit reluctantly because they too have separate agendas. Think of them as an old twenty mule team each pulling in slightly different directions.
With that in mind, corporate America has always favored as much laissez faire as it could get away with, on the grounds that any governmental regulation for the greater good unfairly restrained corporations from doing business as they want. Free enterprise. Isn’t that what American capitalism is about? To corporate America, government regulation, no matter the public good, is never good for free enterprise. Experience over many decades has shown that corporate America cannot be trusted to be entirely on its own. Its ability to behave irresponsibly in ways that cause serious harm knows no limits. To keep regulation as minimal as possible it exercised considerable political skill enabling it to treat employees as disposable, customers as gullible, and environmental health as an inconvenience.
What corporate America found in the Republican Party was a passively reliable ally to help keep government off its back as much as possible. But that wasn’t enough for some corporate leaders. The whole idea of a democracy too easily led by unqualified commoners needed to be replaced with an oligarchy of the right sort of people who knew the right sort of ways to run a country. That would free business to do what it does best without interference. Goldwater was a dud, but he opened the way to an emerging movement. Reagan gave laissez fair popular respectability. He talked the small government line, but big was just fine with him as long as it was an agency of big business. The necessary elements had been put in place.
The next step was to find a way to ignite a grassroots movement committed to undermining the foundations of American democracy in the name of defending it, which patriotic oligarchs would save. The Koch Network and friends, in plain sight for all to see, helped engineer the rise of the tea party movement that did exactly that. To be sure, the conditions had to be right, and they were. Wage rates had stalled, blue collar jobs were disappearing, and those who identified with the white working class felt abandoned. The 2008 Great Recession hammered everyone, and to make it worse, a young, untried, too smart for his own good, black president was in charge of fixing things. I imagine the Koch Network types thought they could both ignite the movement and control what it did. They did not foresee how easily tea partiers could morph into what we now call trumpism. I doubt they anticipated an unstable, uncontrollable Trump taking the lead, or the amount of damage he was capable of inflicting on the nation.
The gullible turned out to be sophisticated corporate leaders easily bought off with rising stock prices and mega salaries. Corporate America as a whole, and Koch Network types in particular, are elitist to the core. So was their dependably cooperative conservative Republican Party. What they have now is a Republican Party led by brawling anti-elitists who favor autocracy over democracy. They’re backed by millions of angry right wing Americans increasingly disconnected from reality, suspicious of experts and verifiable data, who are willing to surrender their freedom to authoritarian rule in the expectation of better treatment. But let us be reminded that the millions who would willingly back an autocratic government are outnumbered by many millions more of patriotic Americans who do not. The danger lies in the proclivity of the greater number to be politically complacent.
Could corporate America find a home in the Democratic Party? Seib’s essay says the Democratic Party’s shift to the left is exactly what makes corporate America nervous. It stands for every one of its regulatory nightmares. I think a closer look would reveal a Democratic Party simply adhering to an updated version of the “liberal consensus” that created the economic foundation enabling corporate America to thrive for so long. Its so called socialist agenda is to invest heavily in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, restoring its standards for educational quality, stewarding the environment for the benefit of future generations, and giving greater reality to the ideals of American justice and opportunity. Regulation of corporations for the public good is a part of it for good reason. The Democratic agenda is capitalist to the core, but not laissez faire. It’s not so much a shift left as a restoration of the traditional middle.
Corporate America will never find a home in the Democratic Party if what it wants is the old safe harbor of a conservatively compliant Republican Party. Maybe corporate America should never have a home or safe haven in any political party. But if the Democratic agenda is successful, it will find a renewed nation built on a more solid foundation enabling corporate America to prosper for many decades to come. That is, if the Democratic Party can manage to enlist a majority of Americans to support it.
Which brings up a final observation. Could we get along with a governing Democratic Party opposed only by a small group of right wing anti democratic radicals? No! We need something like the old Republican Party. We need a conservative party, cautious about new ways of doing things, to restrain unrealistic enthusiasm from wasting tax payer money for programs of no real benefit to the nation. The current GOP isn’t it, and not likely to become it. Where the new conservative party comes from and how it gets here is beyond me, but we need it.