Wayne O’Leary

Family Feud

Toward the end of his landmark study The Age of Jackson, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. defined the essence of American democracy as a struggle among competing groups for control of the state. “The business community has been ordinarily the most powerful of these groups,” wrote Schlesinger, “and liberalism in America has been ordinarily the movement on the part of the other sections of society to restrain the power of the business community.”

The forces of liberalism have had moments of undiluted triumph in this ongoing and often unequal contest: the antebellum eras of Jefferson and Jackson, the Progressive period of the early 20th century, the Roosevelt New Deal of the 1930s, and, most recently, the Kennedy-Johnson years. Since the 1960s, however, business, particularly big business, has been in the saddle and riding high. Corporate values, with profit as their lodestar, have been the dominant, if largely unacknowledged, American values through Democratic and Republican administrations alike, reinforcing President Calvin Coolidge’s unreserved assertion that “the business of America is business.”

For four decades, conservatives have used a variety of social issues (crime, abortion, race, immigration) and external threats (Communism, terrorism) to successfully obscure the real, fundamental nature of the domestic political alignment, which in the normal course of events tends to favor the Left. That may be changing. As a result of the financial crash and subsequent Great Recession, the enduring scab of American politics has been torn off, revealing the true nature of what lies beneath. There were hints of this in 2008, especially when Wall Street went into convulsions just before the election, but the politics of personality carried the day. It was only the Obama administration’s subsequent response to the economic crisis, and the Right’s counter-response, that threw the underlying struggle for power into bold relief heading into the 2010 mid-terms.

That this time-honored confrontation, “the feud between capitalist and laborer, the house of Have and the house of Want” in the words of America’s first historian, George Bancroft, should break out again under Barack Obama is highly ironic. The current occupant of the White House is the least ideological of presidents, the least prone to partisanship, and the least steeped in the storied political divide between organized business and its antagonists. He may not welcome the hatred of the monied interests of his time in the manner of FDR, but he’s got it nonetheless. His initiatives — the banking and healthcare reforms, the economic stimulus — may not be as far reaching nor as interventionist as those of his great predecessor, but he’s inherited the same enemies, and many of the same suspicions and antipathies.

The first shots in the renewed conflict were actually fired by the public at large, outraged by Wall Street’s role in creating the financial collapse and bringing on the recession — and by the government bailouts its irresponsible actions necessitated. In due course, the administration chimed in with low-key condemnations of excessive CEO pay and unjustified bonuses taken in the face of broad economic hardship by those who caused it. However, as befitted a White House that contained former Wall Street figures and had accepted large campaign contributions from the financial elite ($37 million from the banking, real estate, and insurance sectors in 2008), the president never went after the “money changers” and “economic royalists” in Rooseveltian style. Only in late 2009, with the foot-dragging opposition to health reform of the drug and insurance industries, did Obama’s ire begin to show, and then only in the form of occasional jibes and moralistic scolding aimed at the executive suites.

Considering what Big Capital did to the country, it should have been thankful not to get worse rhetorical treatment and a tougher regulatory crackdown. A few symbolic perp walks and even a lamppost hanging or two wouldn’t have been far out of line. But members of the business elite, marinated in self-pity, don’t see it that way; in their eyes, they’re being disrespected and persecuted. And so, starting with the 2010 election season, they’ve opened fire from their high-rise ramparts.

The US Chamber of Commerce charges that the Obama administration has “vilified industries” and imposed “job-destroying regulations.” The Business Roundtable brandishes a long list of Democratic policies that supposedly inhibit economic growth. The head of Verizon accuses the President of creating an unfriendly environment for investment and jobs. The head of GE complains the administration is not “in sync” (horror of horrors) with entrepreneurs. A prominent hedge-fund manager suggests Obama is undermining free-market capitalism. And most absurd of all, publishing and real-estate magnate Mort Zuckerman declares Obama’s to be “the most hostile administration to business” in living memory.

Unsurprisingly, given such gross overstatements wafting down from Wall Street’s upper reaches to market worshippers below, a September survey by Bloomberg News found that three-quarters of investors believe the president is anti-business. It’s as good an explanation for the moribund state of the economy as they can conjure up, and it fits the preconceptions and biases of the business class to a tee. Couldn’t be anything corporate America has done or failed to do, of course, such as not hiring despite huge profits and refusing to invest despite massive cash reserves (a reported $1.8 trillion in the case of the Fortune 500 firms). Better for business to sulk, defend its tarnished image, and attack the Democrats who imposed some modest and long-overdue regulations on its financial-bubble machine.

This posture of manufactured grievance has carried over into the world of “small” business, which routinely follows Wall Street’s lead. No fewer than 70 small-business Republicans were persuaded to run for Congress this year, according to the National Republican Congressional Committee. That’s in addition to the numerous high-profile corporate candidates the GOP fielded for US Senate seats and governorships, typified by former California CEOs Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard and Meg Whitman of eBay.

By most measures — profits, stock prices, bankable assets, tax write-offs, executive compensation — business, especially at the top, is doing superlatively well. Workers, in terms of jobs, wages, and benefits, not so much. The business-Republican political alliance intends to keep things that way by exploiting its spending advantage under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and punishing recalcitrant Democrats reluctant to coddle corporate America. Lines have been drawn.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2010


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