Allow me a further deepening of my Nation article, reposing now on newsstands, on the continuities between conservatives of decades past and today. It concerns the historic entanglement of big-business and conservatism. A recent media narrative suggests signs of a divorce between the these longtime lovers. “Business Groups See Loss of Sway Over House G.O.P.,” reports The New York Times—so they’re thinking about primaries against Tea Party congressmembers. “We’re looking at ways to counter the rise of an ideological brand of conservatism that, for lack of a better word, is more anti-establishment than it has been in the past,” says a lobbyist at the National Retail Federation. “We have come to the conclusion that sitting on the sidelines is not good enough.” ThinkProgress broke out the champagne: “GOP CIVIL WAR ERUPTS!!!!”
Just kidding. No all-caps, and no exclamation points. But still: calm down. The Nation’s magnificent Lee Fang has ably debunked the growls of these paper tigers: the big-money boys said the same thing in 2011 during the first debt-ceiling standoff, and did nothing except spend untold millions electing and reelecting Tea Partiers, and there’s no evidence that anything different will happen in 2016. And yet our media elites, ever scanning the horizon for sensible, moderate “adults in the room,” have alighted this time on the pirates running the United States Chamber of Commerce—yet one more frightening indication of how far to the right America’s ideological center has become.
The fact of the matter is that the relationship between business and the modern right has never been simple—and yet, despite some stutter steps backward, it has always advanced in the exact same basic direction: toward romance.
Let’s go back to the Progressive Era, when industrial capitalism was entering its period of maturation. What were once known as “robber barons” were making their accommodations with an increasingly liberal, activist state, but in a way that historians on the left taught us to distrust. Books like the late historian and publisher James Weinstein’s The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, 1900-1918 (1969) and Martin Sklar’s The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916: The Market, the Law, and Politics (1988) argued that corporate owners and managers and high government officials cooperated more than they clashed. Rather than despising regulation as such, business “captured” the regulators, creating a smoothly functioning integrated economy relatively free of ideological conflict.
Thus, even the baseline condition for a business community out of sync with the laissez-faire right is still pretty conservative. At the same time, these historians missed or exaggerated the extent to which large pockets of business were outright reactionary.
Consider the former president of the US Chamber of Commerce who wrote in The Nation’s Business in 1928 that “a thoroughly first-rate man in public service is corrosive…. He eats holes in our liberties. The better he is and the longer he stays the greater the danger.” Not a big fan of state power, that guy—and his type never went away, even after the Great Depression ushered in the New Deal with major buy-in from the biggest American corporations, first in the National Recovery Act, which appointed businessmen as active partners in a “corporatist” scheme of regulation before it was outlawed by the Supreme Court, then in any number of state initiatives after that. But as the political scientist Thomas Ferguson has argued for decades, generally speaking, it was certain kinds of businesses—big capital intensive multinational corporations and the investment bankers who financed them—who bought into the new liberal center. Another type—smaller, more labor-intensive, less cosmopolitan, often family-owned companies—never did. As I wrote in Before the Storm, imagining the world from the perspective of one of these latter sort of businessmen,