Economy & Business

Why Corporate Leaders Became Progressive Activists

(Illustration: Roman Genn)
U.S. corporate activism tilts overwhelmingly to the left.

The Organization Man, whom we first met in 1956, is still very much with us. And his eccentric career since that time partly answers a question that mystifies many contemporary conservatives: Given that progressives profess to hate corporations, why are our corporate leaders so progressive? It is easy to understand their taking a self-interested stand against the Trump administration over things such as the H-1B program and visa waivers, which interfere with their access to workers and customers, respectively. But 130 corporate leaders — including the CEOs of American Airlines and Bank of America — getting together to come down on North Carolina over public-bathroom rules that annoy transgender activists? Together with business leaders who have no presence in North Carolina and nothing to do with the state or its politics?

Is it only cravenness — or something more?

In the progressive lexicon, the word “corporation” is practically a synonym for “evil.” Corporations, in the progressive view, are so stoned on greed and ripped on ruthlessness that they present an existential threat to democracy as we know it. When the Left flies into a mad rage about . . . whatever, the black-bloc terrorists don’t burn down the tax office or the police station: They smash the windows of a Starbucks, never mind CEO Howard Schultz’s impeccably lefty credentials.

Weird thing, though: With the exception of a few big shiny targets such as Koch Industries (the nation’s second-largest privately held concern, behind Cargill) and Walmart (the nation’s largest private employer), the Left’s corporate enemies list is dominated by relatively modest concerns: Chick-fil-A, which, in spite of its recent growth spurt, is only a fraction of the size of McDonald’s or YUM Brands; Hobby Lobby, which is not even numbered among the hundred largest private U.S. companies; Waffle House, a regional purveyor of mediocre grits and a benefactor of Georgia Republicans. Carl’s Jr. was founded by a daily communicant and Knight of Malta, a man who had some not-very-progressive opinions about gay rights. But even in its new role as part of a larger corporate enterprise (the former CEO of which, Andrew Puzder, had been nominated for secretary of labor), the poor man’s answer to In-N-Out is not exactly in a position to inflict ultramontane Catholicism on the world at large, though the idea of a California Classic Double Inquisition with Cheese is not without charm.

Far from being agents of reaction, our corporate giants have for decades been giving progressives a great deal to celebrate. Disney, despite its popular reputation for hidebound wholesomeness, has long been a leader on gay rights, much to the dismay of a certain stripe of conservative. Walmart, one of the Left’s great corporate villains, has barred Confederate-flag merchandise from its stores in a sop to progressive critics, and its much-publicized sustainability agenda is more than sentiment: Among other things, it has invested $100 million in economic-mobility programs and doubled the fuel efficiency of its vehicle fleet over ten years. Individual members of the Walton clan engage in philanthropy of a distinctly progressive bent.

In fact, just going down the list of largest U.S. companies (by market capitalization) and considering each firm’s public political activism does a great deal to demolish the myth of the conservative corporate agenda. Top ten: 1) Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, is an up-and-down-the-line progressive who has been a vociferous critic of religious-liberty laws in Indiana and elsewhere that many like-minded people consider a back door to anti-gay discrimination. 2) When protesters descended on SFO to protest President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, one of the well-heeled gentlemen leading them was Google founder Sergey Brin, and Google employees were the second-largest corporate donor bloc to President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. 3) Microsoft founder Bill Gates is a generous funder of programs dedicated to what is euphemistically known as “family planning.” 4) Berkshire Hathaway’s principal, Warren Buffett, is a close associate of Barack Obama’s and an energetic advocate of redistributive tax increases on high-income taxpayers. 5) Amazon’s Jeff Bezos put up $2.5 million of his own money for a Washington State gay-marriage initiative. 6) Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has pushed for liberal immigration-reform measures, while Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz pledged $20 million to support Hillary Rodham Clinton and other Democrats in 2016. 7) Exxon, as an oil company, may be something of a hate totem among progressives, but it has spent big — billions big — on renewables and global social programs. 8) Johnson & Johnson’s health-care policy shop is run by Liz Fowler, one of the architects of Obamacare and a former special assistant to President Obama. 9) The two largest recipients of JPMorgan cash in 2016 were Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, and the bank’s billionaire chairman, Jamie Dimon, is a high-profile supporter of Democratic politicians including Barack Obama and reportedly rejected an offer from President Trump to serve as Treasury secretary. 10) Wells Fargo employees followed JPMorgan’s example and donated $7.36 to Mrs. Clinton for every $1 they gave to Trump, and the recently troubled bank has sponsored events for the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, and other gay-rights groups, as well as donated to local Planned Parenthood franchises.

Even the hated Koch brothers are pro-choice, pro-gay, and pro-amnesty.

You may see the occasional Tom Monaghan or Phil Anschutz, but, on balance, U.S. corporate activism is overwhelmingly progressive. Why?

For one thing, conservatives are cheap dates. You do not have to convince the readers of National Review or Republicans in Valparaiso that American business is in general a force for good in the world. But if you are, e.g., Exxon, you might feel the need to convince certain people, young and idealistic and maybe a little stupid in spite of their expensive educations, that you are not so bad after all, and that you are spending mucho shmundo “turning algae into biofuel,” in the words of one Exxon advertisement, and combating malaria and doing other nice things. All of that is true, and Exxon makes sure people know it. The professional activists may sneer and scoff, but they are not the audience.

Even if it were only or mainly a matter of publicity (and it isn’t — Shell, among other oil majors, is putting real money into renewables and alternative energy), big companies such as Exxon and Apple would still have a very strong incentive to engage in progressive activism rather than conservative activism.

For one thing, there is a kind of moral asymmetry at work: Conservatives may roll their eyes a little bit at promises to build windmills so efficient that we’ll cease needing coal and oil, but progressives (at least a fair portion of them) believe that using fossil fuels may very well end human civilization. The nation’s F-150 drivers are not going to organize a march on Chevron’s headquarters if it puts a billion bucks into biofuels, but the nation’s Subaru drivers might very well do so if it doesn’t.

The same asymmetry characterizes the so-called social issues. The Left will see to it that Brendan Eich is driven out of his position at Mozilla for donating to an organization opposed to gay marriage, but the Right will not see to it that Tim Cook is driven out of his position for supporting gay marriage. For the Right, the question of gay marriage is an important moral and political disagreement, but for the Left the exclusion of homosexual couples from the legal institution of marriage was something akin to Jim Crow, and support for it isn’t erroneous, it is wicked. Even those on the right who proclaim that they regard the question of homosexual relationships as a national moral emergency do not behave as though they really believe it: Remember that boycott of Disney theme parks launched with great fanfare by the American Family Association, Focus on the Family, and the Southern Baptist Convention back in 1996? Nothing happened, because conservative parents are not telling their toddlers that they cannot go to Disney World because the people who run the park are too nice to that funny blonde lady who has the talk show and dances in the aisles with her audience.

The issues that conservatives tend to see as life-and-death issues are actual life-and-death issues, abortion prominent among them. But even among right-leaning corporate types, pro-life social conservatism is a distinctly minority inclination.

And that is significant, because a great deal of corporate activism is CEO-driven rather than shareholder-driven or directly rooted in the business interests of the firm. Like Wall Street bankers, who may not like their tax bills or Dodd-Frank but who tend in the main to be socially liberal Democrats, the CEOs of major U.S. corporations are, among other things, members of a discrete class. The graduates of ten colleges accounted for nearly half of the Fortune 500 CEOs in 2012; one in seven of them went to one school: Harvard. A handful of metros in California, Texas, and New York account for a third of Fortune 1000 headquarters — and there are 17 Fortune 1000 companies in one zip code in Houston. Unsurprisingly, people with similar backgrounds, similar experiences, and similar occupations tend to see the world in a similar way. “A new breed of chief executive is emerging — the CEO activist,” wrote Leslie Gaines-Ross, of Weber Shandwick, a global PR giant that advises Microsoft and had the unenviable task of working with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on the ACA rollout. “A handful of CEOs are standing up and standing out on some of the most polarizing issues of the day, from climate change and gun control, to race relations and same-sex marriage.” Hence chief executives’ joining en masse the great choir of hysteria on the question of toilet law in the Tar Heel State.

Whereas the ancient corporate practice was to decline to take a public position on anything not related to their businesses, contemporary CEOs feel obliged to act as public intellectuals as well as business managers. Many of them are genuine intellectuals: Gates, PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein. And, like Hollywood celebrities, almost all of them are effectively above money.

Some of them are rock-star entrepreneurs. But most of them are variations on the Organization Man, veterans of MBA programs, management consultancies, financial firms,

The supplanting of spontaneous order with political discipline is the essence of progressivism, then and now.

and 10,000 corporate-strategy meetings. If you have not read it, spare a moment for William H. Whyte’s Cold War classic. In the 1950s, Whyte, a writer for Fortune, interviewed dozens of important CEOs and found that they mostly rejected the ethos of rugged individualism in favor of a more collectivist view of the world. The capitalists were not much interested in defending the culture of capitalism. What he found was that the psychological and operational mechanics of large corporations were much like those of other large organizations, including government agencies, and that American CEOs believed, as they had believed since at least the time of Frederick Winslow Taylor and his 19th-century cult of “scientific management,” that expertise deployed through bureaucracy could impose rationality on such unruly social entities as free markets, culture, family, and sexuality. The supplanting of spontaneous order with political discipline is the essence of progressivism, then and now.

It is hardly a new idea. The old robber barons were far from being free-enterprise men: J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, like many businessmen of their generation, believed strongly in state-directed collusion among firms (they’d have said “coordination”) to avoid “destructive competition.” You can draw a straight intellectual line from their thinking to Barack Obama’s views about state-directed “investments” in alternative energy or medical research.

It is not difficult to see the temptations of that approach from the point of view of a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett: The decisions they have made for themselves have turned out well, so why not empower them, or men like them, to make decisions for other people, too? They may even be naïve or arrogant enough to believe that their elevated stations in life have liberated them from self-interest.

Populists of the Trump variety and the Sanders variety (who are not in fact as different as they seem) are not wrong to see these corporate cosmopolitans as members of a separate, distinct, and thriving class with economic and social interests of its own. Those interests overlap only incidentally and occasionally with those of movement conservatives — and overlap even less as the new nationalist-populist strain in the Republican party comes to dominate the debate on questions such as trade and immigration. Under attack from both the right and the left, free enterprise and free trade increasingly are ideas without a party. As William H. Whyte discovered back in 1956, the capitalists are not prepared to offer an intellectual defense of capitalism or of classical liberalism. They believe in something else: the managers’ dream of command and control.


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