A few years ago, liberal Bill Scher (my Bloggingheads sparring partner) penned a New York Times op-ed titled “How Liberals Win.” His conclusion? They win when they co-opt big business. “The necessity of corporate support for, or at least acquiescence to, liberal policies,” he wrote, “is not a new development in the history of American liberalism. Indeed it has been one of its hallmarks.”
That certainly rings true in a week where big businesses like Apple and Wal-Mart helped sink laws meant to defend religious liberty. (In both cases the laws have been amended—but many conservatives believe the “fix” is worse than having no law on the books.) This is ironic, since conservatives are assumed to be in bed with big business—and since at least one of the companies involved has been culturally associated with so-called red state values.
As Catherine Rampell noted at The Washington Post: “Even Wal-Mart, not exactly known for its liberal values, came out against comparable legislation in its home state, saying it ‘sends the wrong message about Arkansas.’” Apple CEO Tim Cook’s public condemnation of the religious liberty laws was far less surprising. But even here, we see troubling hints about Senator Rand Paul’s quixotic promise of bringing techies and Millennials—blocs of voters that are supposedly libertarian-leaning—into the fold. Good luck with that. When push comes to shove, these voters will disproportionally pull the lever for Hillary—both to make history, and because they will be told that the Republican nominee—yes, even if it’s Rand!—is a bigot. The promise that the GOP can merely tweak its image and find new allies is a long shot, at best—and surely not one worth betraying its old allies—social conservatives.
Back to big business. For a while now, conservatives like Tim Carney have inveighed against “crony capitalism,” pointing out that big business doesn’t really like free markets. Big business is fine with killing off the competition by means of onerous governmental regulations only they can comply with. That’s because they have the resources to hire the lawyers needed to navigate regulations, and the lobbyists who can help change the rules if necessary.
We’ve seen other examples, however, of big business putting profit margins ahead of principle. Don’t forget how big business sided on Obamacare. How could forcing millions of uninsured Americans to buy coverage from private companies not be good business for both the insurance and the pharmaceutical industries? Meanwhile, conservatives who oppose immigration reform often cite the support of big business for “Amnesty.”
I think it’s time that social conservatives also realize that big business isn’t their friend, either. My theory is that there are essentially two groups of people you have to be wary of: big government and big business. Conservatives have typically obsessed over the former, while attempting to co-opt the latter. And who can blame them? Most of the other powerful coalition groups are natural allies on the left. As we have demonstrated, having big business on your political side is often the difference between winning and losing public policy battles.
But while conservatives might sometimes have to form a temporary alliance with business, they should remember that this isn’t necessarily a natural alliance. If you’re a conservative, you do have to worry about government (and be cognizant of the fact that bureaucrats don’t care about you). But you must also distrust the people trying to sell you things.
If you’re a social conservative trying to raise kids in the modern world, consider this: Who’s trying to sell them destructive “products” ... violence, promiscuous sex, unhealthy lifestyles, bad food, etc.? It’s probably not the government. It’s much more likely to be big business trying to turn a profit. Do you think these fat cats actually care about you or your family? Hell, no. They’re trying to make a buck.
So what does this mean in practice? Conservatives should ally with big business when it suits their interest. But remember, these folks aren’t their friends. And when the left launches it’s next liberal war on Wal-Mart, conservatives should perhaps consider that it’s not worth wasting much political capital to defend the big box behemoth. What I’m saying is that future arrangements can be seen as casual, not permanent. It’s a hookup, not a marriage. Big business shouldn’t be surprised by this. As the saying goes: “You knew what this was.”