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,
the New Deal threw money at everyone and everything—everyone and everything, that is except you and your plants. You thought it was a godsend to industrialists who managed thousands of workers, instead of hundreds, and their friends on Wall Street. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration authorized executives in every industry to regulate their own. The men he picked were inevitably from the biggest companies, no one you knew. You had no say when they set floors so high that they destroyed the only edge you had over in accessing the market—you could no longer undercut their prices. You had no say when your taxes ballooned to pay for Roosevelt’s deficits, which you knew would only bring inflation.
Bigger companies licked at your heels all through the Depression. Government regulations—whose application was the same for large and small firms, but which invariably fell heavier on the small—began to feel more burdensome to you…. You felt like a victim.
By no means were these whiners the wretched of the earth. Many had towns named after them—like Kohler, Wisconsin, where the famous bathroom fixtures manufacturer fought a 1950s organizing drive so viciously the Senate Labor Committee sent a team of investigators. It wasn’t about money but, as it were, dignity. Men of great possessions who feel dispossessed, powerful men feeling suddenly less powerful, can generate some pretty wing-nutty resentments—Tea Party–level resentment. Like this imperishable quote in a fundraising pitch from their political mastermind, radio broadcaster and former Notre Dame law dean Clarence Manion: “Many gigantic fortunes, built by virtue of private enterprise under the Constitution, have fallen under the direction of Internationalists, One-Worlders, Socialists and Communists. Much of this vast horde of money is being used to ‘socialize’ the United States.” Remember that, because it will be important when we get to the 2008–09 bank-bailout part of the story.
Folks like these got even more resentful as the culture, and the masters of the political economy, came to see them as less and less relevant to the main direction of American economic development—as big business began to accept negotiating with big unions as a matter of course, as a good way to keep their workforces disciplined and efficient. They more and more bought into the Keynesian consensus that government social spending goosed the consumer economy in ways that redounded to their own bottom line. But the other guys, the conservative industrialists (I call them “Manionites” in my book), only got madder—and formed the core of the coalition that nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964. Even as big business formed a crucial part of the coalition that crushed Barry Goldwater in the general election. (If you’re interested in hearing just how copacetic the relationship was, listen to Lyndon Johnson’s conversations that year with Robert B. Anderson, the former Eisenhower Treasury secretary from Texas who was the president’s political liaison to big business.) They loved Johnson, even with his War on Poverty and Great Society, and feared Goldwater; at a LBJ speech to the US Chamber of Commerce, he was interrupted by applause sixty times. Can you imagine that happening to Barack Obama?
But plenty of big businessmen never got aboard the Great Society-Keynesian bandwagon and never would. The finance chairman of Goldwater’s campaign, for example, Ralph Cordiner, was the recently retired CEO of General Motors.
Soon enough, though, by the 1970s, the liberal center in corporate America no longer held, and most multinational executives started feeling and acting like Manionites. It followed a period of extraordinary liberal hegemony in the federal government, even, famously, under President Nixon. A bill he signed in 1969 increased the tax burden on businesses, and not just by a little bit; The New Republic called it “far and away the most ‘anti-rich’ tax reform proposal ever proposed by a Republican president in the fifty-six years of the existence of the income tax.” One of the things the new government revenue was being spent on was new regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety Commission, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (created by the most stringent federal mining legislation in US history) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Aggressive Naderite advocates—whose “brilliant young staff members who mistrust or totally disbelieve the attributes of the enterprise system,” Barry Goldwater said in 1974—shuttled up and down Capitol Hill, testifying before congressional committees, as often as not tying up their business adversaries in knots. They were winning.
Tomorrow I’ll write about what happened next with business’s relationship with the right: flaming hot romance, accompanied by public displays of affection unlike any Americans had ever seen.
Rick Perlstein notes the parallels between today's Tea Partiers and conservatives of decades past.