As America’s favorite pundit, Forrest Gump, might put it, the Republican Party and big business go together like peas and carrots. Since its founding in 1854, the Grand Old Party has been pro-business — favoring a market-driven laissez-faire economy, big corporations and investors over social safety nets and laborers and women. The siren song of lower taxes and fewer regulations has always been enough to keep the Republicans and conservatives on board the good ship Capitalist Tool. After all, what’s good for General Motors is good for the country. (Younger people, feel free to substitute Amazon or Facebook for the no longer dominant GM.)
Lately, though, there has been a rising chorus of business leaders who are worried that not all Americans are benefiting from the free market system and are convinced that capitalism needs to be saved from itself.
In April, hedge fund owner Ray Dalio wrote an influential manifesto called Why and How Capitalism Needs to Be Reformed. In it, he wrote:
Over these many years, I have also seen capitalism evolve in a way that it is not working well for the majority of Americans because it’s producing self-reinforcing spirals up for the haves and down for the have-nots. This is creating widening income/wealth/opportunity gaps that pose existential threats to the United States because these gaps are bringing about damaging domestic and international conflicts and weakening America’s condition.
The latest and loudest confirmation of boardroom angst came last week when the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives from 192 of the nation’s largest companies, issued a “Statement of Purpose” that acknowledged that corporations have obligations beyond simply making money for stockholders, but also include providing tangible benefits to customers, employees, suppliers, and communities.
Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase and chairman of the Business Roundtable, said:
“Major employers are investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term. These modernized principles reflect the business community’s unwavering commitment to continue to push for an economy that serves all Americans.”
This is not the first-course correction for capitalism in our history. The excesses of the monopolists of the Gilded Age led directly to the first income tax and the reforms of “trust buster” Teddy Roosevelt, who promised a “Square Deal.” The greed and speculation of the post-World War I 1920s presaged the Wall Street collapse of 1929, followed by a long and lingering Depression, that ultimately led to Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal, and Social Security.
Walter Reuther’s 1950 Treaty of Detroit agreement with GM ushered in a period of labor stability in which even unskilled laborers enjoyed job protections, benefits, and health insurance. Young executives could expect to spend their entire careers with one company if they chose. This was the golden age of the “social contract” and, I suspect, the nostalgic time that some voters were longing for when they say “Make America Great Again.”
But, of course, the country was still largely segregated. Black and whites had “separate but equal” schools and “whites” and “coloreds” bathroom. Black workers had difficulty getting into most labor unions and were redlined out of “white” neighborhoods by sleazy real estate developers like Donald Trump’s father, Fred.
In the early 1970s, the smart Wall Street guys began to notice that many of the giant behemoths of American business were bloated, had enormous debts, and pension obligations they couldn’t possibly pay. They were run by professional managers who had no stake in the company. In many instances, their individual divisions were worth more than the whole.
When the Business Roundtable was founded in 1972, corporations were beginning to embrace the orthodoxy of economist Milton Friedman who believed the only purpose of a company was to make money for its owners/shareholders. Armed with junk bonds and leveraged buyouts, Wall Street sharks began buying out long-established companies, breaking them into parts, reneging on pension obligations, cutting costs by getting rid of employees, and selling them for huge profits.
So, what about Republicans?
Greed is good until it’s not. The modern Republican party has always been controlled at the top by wealthy corporations and an army of lobbyists who lavish money on pliable senators and representatives to make sure they look after the interests of the wealthiest few. Those interests largely involve taxes and regulations and cutting benefits for those Americans who — through no real fault of their own — are dependent upon social programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Unfortunately, for the corporatists, there aren’t enough super-rich voters who can afford a favorite senator so in order to win a national election they have to convince lots of ordinary people that what is good for Walmart and the Koch brothers is also good for them.
Before Trump came along and ripped away the facade, they had managed to do this by diverting the attention of the masses from the damage that GOP policies to protect corporate patrons has done to opportunities for the poor and dispossessed by playing on the resentments of the shrinking white middle class.
They pretended to care a lot about hot-button cultural issues like abortion, religious freedom — hardcore Evangelicals being forced to bake wedding cakes for perverts — and white people with no job skills applicable to good, high-paying jobs in today’s economy losing out to blacks and Hispanics.
They fed the prejudices of their unhappy mostly white base through a series of doggy whistles — Obama hates America, Obama is a Muslim, Hillary is a serial liar, your tax dollars are being used to support the drug habits of people who just don’t want to work, gay people are stealing your religious liberties, Mexican rapists are coming here and taking good $2 an hour lettuce-picking jobs away from Americans. Of course, they were usually careful to say these things in a coded, subtle way that allowed them to deny they were outright racists and bigots.
Trump won by selling the illusion that all it takes is a friendly neo-fascist with their interests in mind to rewrite the past 75 years of history with a new, happier ending for people who feel they have been trampled at the expense of minorities and immigrants. “Real” Americans — which always means white and Christian — are the true victims of what a majority of Americans call progress.
Most Fortune 500 CEOs care little or nothing about these divisive issues so they simply held their noses and stayed publicly out of it for the promise of more favorable business policies. Big corporations sell products and services in many countries, not just the U.S. and consider themselves global citizens. Trump’s appetite for trade wars, coupled with his disdain for multilateral treaties, his anti-globalism, and anti-environmentalism is problematic on the global stage.
His focus on the most extreme elements of his base through policies that are overtly racist and anti-immigrant, his lies and wild mood swings, his support of conspiracy theories, his erratic behavior on Twitter, his tendency to embrace one policy one day and a completely different one the next may please his older, mostly white base but it alienates the well-educated, highly-skilled young people that corporations need to grow in the future. It also scares off important customers.
In only two years, Donald Trump has dragged all of America’s dirty little political secrets out into public view and destroyed the traditional Republican and conservative brands in the process. He is forcing big business to choose between his regressive populist and ultimately doomed agenda to take America back to 1950 and the progressive vision of more people-centered capitalism for the future.
The results are coming in and they are encouraging for social democracy.