The Agenda

Business Elites and Political Warriors

While reading Tim Carney’s recent reflections on the tension between Republican elected officials and big business, prompted by a recent New York Times article by Jackie Calmes, I was reminded of a 2004 essay on “the slow decomposition of America’s ruling class“ by the left-wing political theorist Corey Robin.

Carney emphasizes why corporate incumbents might favor spending and regulatory measures that entrench their power:

If Aetna finds itself at odds with the GOP, it might be because the insurer successfully lobbied for a law requiring people to buy health insurance. Also because Aetna has invested in ObamaCare by buying up Coventry Health Care, “an insurer to boost government business under President Barack Obama’s health overhaul,” as Bloomberg News described the company at the time of the acquisition.

Calmes, in contrast, emphasizes the essentially conservative, which is to say risk-averse, disposition of the leadership of the largest public companies in the U.S.:

Big business is so fearful of economic peril if Congress does not allow the government to keep borrowing — to pay creditors, contractors, program beneficiaries and many others — that it is nearly united in skepticism of, or outright opposition to, House Republicans’ demand that Mr. Obama first agree to equal spending cuts in benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Carney and Calmes neglect another dimension of the split between conservative policymaking elites and corporate leaders, which is cultural. That is the dimension Robin glancingly addresses in his essay. Shorn of its polemical tone, the following passage gets at something important:

Ever since the end of the Cold War—some might even say since Vietnam—there has been a growing disconnect between the culture and ideology of American business elites and that of political warriors like Wolfowitz and other neocons. Whereas the Cold War saw the creation of a semi-coherent class of Wise Men who brought together, however jaggedly, the worlds of business and politics—men like Dean Acheson, the Dulles brothers, and Averell Harriman—the Reagan years and beyond have witnessed something altogether different. On the one hand, we have a younger generation of corporate magnates who, though ruthless in their efforts to secure benefits from the state, have none of the respect or passion for government that their older counterparts had. These new CEOs respond to their counterparts in Tokyo, London, and other global cities. So long as the state provides them with what they need and does not interfere unduly with their operations, they leave it to the apparatchiks. As one Silicon Valley executive said to Thomas Friedman, when asked how often he talks about Iraq, Russia, or foreign wars, “Not more than once a year. We don’t even care about Washington. Money is extracted by Silicon Valley and then wasted by Washington. I want to talk about people who create wealth and jobs. I don’t want to talk about unhealthy and unproductive people. If I don’t care about the wealth destroyers in my own country, why should I care about the wealth destroyers in another country?”

On the other hand, we have a new class of political elites who have little contact with the business community, whose primary experiences outside of government have been in either academia, journalism, think tanks, or some other part of the culture industry. As corporate elites set their sights upon an increasingly global economy, the neocons have been given, it seems, the run of the farm. They traffic in ideas and see the world as a vast landscape of intellectual projection. Unconstrained by even the most interested of interests, they are free to advance their cause, in the Middle East and elsewhere. Indeed, according to press reports, most corporate elites in the United States and elsewhere, even in the oil industry, have been either uninterested in or firmly opposed to the Bush administration’s expedition in Iraq. Like their corporate counterparts, the neocons view the world as their stage, but unlike their corporate counterparts, they are designing that stage for an altogether more theatrical, other-worldly drama. Their endgame, if they have one, is an apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil, civilization and barbarism—categories of pagan conflict diametrically opposed to the world-without-borders vision of America’s free-trading, globalizing elite. [Emphasis added]

Though Robin is talking primarily about “neocons” and the failure of business elites to restrain military adventurism, his broader point about the distance between business elites and political warriors is astute. A more generous characterization of this younger corporate leaders, or rather a characterization more in keeping with their self-perception, might be that they are very public-spirited, and that they favor cooperation, which is to say collusion, between private sector and public sector elites in service not only to the national interest, but also to a broader global interest. This is the principled basis for calls for favorable tax treatment, direct subsidies, guest worker programs, incumbent-shielding regulations, and much else. That the self-interest of corporate executives is closely aligned with these calls for enlightened corporatism shouldn’t lead us to discount the sincerity of their calls for a more constructive and technocratic politics, but sincerity is not really the issue.  

That the political warriors Robin identifies as “neocons” are different from the political warriors identified with the Tea Party movement goes without saying. But the cultural distance between Tea Party conservatives and the corporate leadership class is arguably much larger than that between the corporate leadership class and academics in the vein of Paul Wolfowitz, who is very much a centrist and a cosmopolitan, his foreign policy views notwithstanding.

This creates an opportunity for the kind of market populism Tim Carney champions (and with which I’m in great sympathy), and that he sees as implicit in the Tea Party movement. The problem, however, is that this cultural distance contributes to a larger set of problems. To tangle with the politics of enlightened corporatism, which very much informs the elite center-left politics of the Obama administration between elections, you have to really understand how it works and thus how to craft a viable alternative agenda. My sense is that this understanding is in really short supply among the most fervent political warriors of the House GOP, but I imagine Tim would disagree.


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