Business Politics

image from www.upenn.eduToday, we have a guest post from Kim Phillips-Fein, Associate Professor in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University and co-editor with Richard R. John of the new volume Capital Gains: Business and Politics in Twentieth-Century America. Capital Gains explores the influence of business on American politics in the twentieth century at the federal, state, and municipal levels, revealing an often surprising portrait of the nation's economic elite. Here, Phillips-Fein turns her attention to the pressing, timely question of the business community's role with respect to President Trump and his administration, looking to Capital Gains for clues about the future of this nascent relationship.

In the spring of 1978, the chairman of Dart Industries appeared at a conference at a Boston hotel. His project: to teach executives how to set up their own political action committees and how best to lobby their legislators. “Less than fifty years ago, Calvin Coolidge could say that the business of America is business,” he told the audience. “Today, the business of America seems to be the regulation of business.” To reverse the trend, their goal had to be to build a political movement of executives to make sure that they would be able to exert their influence over the state.  

Today, the businesspeople who attended that 1978 Boston gathering might seem finally to have a president in Donald Trump. Trump’s business career (shady as it is) marks his only claim to public office. He has nominated a cabinet of multi-millionaires who appear eager to take the country’s public sector and turn it over to private wealth. All in all, the literal control of the state by businessmen has rarely been greater. 

Trump’s election raises the question: How does a businessman govern? What happens when an executive gains political power? Why have there been such public divisions between Trump and other politically active businessmen such as Charles and David Koch, whose financial contributions have been so critical for building the conservative movement—and will those endure now that Trump is president? And how will business organizations such as the United States Chamber of Commerce, which assailed Trump for breaking with free-trade orthodoxy during the election campaign, reckon with him in power?

While no one knows what the future will hold, Capital Gains, a new collection of essays co-edited by myself and Richard R. John of Columbia University, offers a historical perspective on the political activism of business. Far from being unified around an orthodox libertarianism, the businesspeople our authors describe have often been receptive to state action, as long as they’re the ones calling the shots. They seek to control the state, not to eliminate it. Nor have they always spoken with unity. The historians whose work we’ve gathered tell stories of intense divisions within the business world, as different factions sought to realize their various—and at times opposing—visions. Throughout American history, business has struggled about how, and when, it can turn its economic might into political power.

The result is a history that is rich with parallels to the present. Just to give a sampling of what Capital Gains contains, some today see “privatization”—the turning of government functions over to private corporations so embraced by Trump—as a relatively recent development. But pieces in the book help us to see the long interdependence of public and private sectors, exploring the ardent support of business leaders for public spending to spur development and their confidence that they could use the state to support their own ends. Brent Cebul tells of Southern executives who composed Christmas wish lists for federal spending: “I hope I haven’t been piggish… but these businessmen really are deserving”. Elizabeth Tandy Shermer addresses the rise of public universities in the postwar years, showing how they were eagerly sought after by local business communities desperate for the development they would provide. Daniel Amsterdam exposes the avid civic boosterism of businessmen in Detroit and Atlanta during the 1920s. Meanwhile, Mark Wilson tells the long history of the privatization of the nation’s military, suggesting that even during World War II executives at defense companies tried to minimize the role of the federal government in war mobilization, instead emphasizing a narrative of private-sector power and dynamism.

The essays also point to fissures within the business world today of the sort that are likely to widen under Trump. One piece by Tami Friedman looks at the United States Chamber of Commerce during the 1950s, when the national organization opposed federal legislation aiding depressed regions because it seemed a harbinger of “economic slavery and totalitarianism”—even though businessmen in the affected parts of the country were eager for federal aid. Jennifer Delton explores the ideological conflicts between hard-line conservatives and more liberal executives within the National Association of Manufacturers during the 1960s. Eric Smith shows what can happen when executives decide to organize themselves as part of a social movement critical of state policy, as happened during the Vietnam War with the formation of a little-known group: “Business Executives Move for Vietnam Peace.”

This is just a smattering of the pieces in Capital Gains, which also includes essays by Laura Phillips Sawyer, Eric Hintz, Jason Scott Smith, Richard R. John and Pamela Laird. The one constant is that business leaders have wanted to make sure that their interests—however defined—are those driving government policies. For that reason, it’s hard to imagine that business will be at the head of whatever resistance emerges to Trump—unless it grows so difficult to contain that they find their continued allegiance to the president a greater danger to their power. 

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