The increase in corporate political contributions and the related demise of labor unions is pushing us toward a political system in which financial interests always prevail.
The alignment of corporate and public interests in America is not perfect, though.
While Republicans and Democrats disagree on almost everything, they generally agree on certain areas in which the public good requires limitations on corporate action.
The profit motive is a positive, we can agree, while acknowledging that we have a moral and economic obligation to impose restrictions that prevent the release of 4.9 million barrels of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico. By uniformly condemning dangerous defects in some toys from China, we implicitly agree that some U.S. regulation of consumer goods is appropriate.
Those who remember the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979 have little complaint about stringent oversight of commercial reactors by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Most of us support child-labor laws. We agree that employers should provide a reasonably safe work environment. Most of us are thankful for the 40-hour work week.
All of these are issues in which corporate interests and the interests of the people potentially conflict. The public desire for a clean environment, avoidance of disaster and tolerable work conditions all tend to erode at corporate profit. In a business environment where corporate shareholders evaluate management almost exclusively on the return on investment, even the most kind-hearted CEOs are compelled to elevate the profit motive over humanitarian concerns.
Sophisticated management can often sell its shareholders on the overlap between the public interest and the profit motive. Locally, Nucor Corp. got through the recession without laying off any employees. Management was able to convince shareholders that this generous move, while reducing profit in the short term, had the long-term effect of retaining productive employees and blocking unions.
BP invested more heavily in cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon mess than it had to, recognizing the looming public-relations disaster.
But those are exceptions. Our economic system rewards profit, not generosity.
The increasing investment of corporate money into the political system — aided by U.S. Supreme Court decisions — has been seen as a coup for the Republican Party. The successful use of that money to undermine labor unions is widely viewed as an attack on the Democratic Party, which in recent history has relied on union contributions.
The partisan focus is too narrow. The differences between the political parties are arbitrary. Both parties depend for their existence on supporting candidates who are capable of being elected. After years of protecting slavery and more years of fighting reconstruction, the Democratic Party realized it was winning more elections when its candidates advocated civil rights. The same Grand Old Party that preferred a civil war to states' rights became the party of states' rights.
The Citizens United decision is just two years old and the loss of unions as a major source of financial contributions is also recent, but early indications are alarming. The overwhelming dominance of corporate money in the funding of elections makes a difference.
If corporate contributions have become essential to campaign success, we can expect a dramatic reaction from our ever-fluctuating political parties.
Democrats currently claim the populist — and thus occasionally anti-corporate — label. Studying their reaction to corporate dominance of campaign financing, therefore, is instructive.
After loudly protesting the Citizens United decision, President Barack Obama meekly agreed to accept money from the Super PACs the decision enabled. While it was part of a deal that benefited the middle class, the fact is that Obama signed legislation that extended tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Obama delayed implementation of ozone regulations that were the subject of a fierce corporate lobby and preserved insurance-company profits in health-care reform.
If the parties must distinguish between themselves without alienating corporate interests, we can expect partisan battles over issues that do not much matter to shareholders. Gay marriage is not a corporate issue. Abortion rights? Who cares, from a profit standpoint.
We also can expect a merging of the parties on areas such as military preparedness, where corporate interests favor increased military expenditures. No one profits from peace.
The old menu for voters included items that conflicted with corporate profits. The new menu, prepared by corporations, will leave those items out.
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