The Witch Hunt Backlash Is Coming
A backlash is inevitable when populist outrage goes too far and begins to target people powerful enough to push back.
The conventional wisdom is that millennial America has become a latter-day Salem village, with the titans of finance as our new witches. There’s something to this, but the chatter about our economic occult prompts the question: If targeting financial high-fliers qualifies as a witch hunt, then when will it end?
To understand where we are in the witch hunt lifecycle, it’s important to understand how these affairs begin—and who the witches tend to be.
An angry mob doesn’t want Socratic debate, it wants heads on a pike.
In Salem, many of the accused witches were prominent landowners, including men—yes, men—on the town council. A typical “witch” was a woman who had inherited land, someone whose wealth hadn’t evaporated in a sharp economic downturn that benefited the Salem merchant class at the expense of less-prosperous farmers. As with most scapegoating, it tended to be the most defenseless who were ultimately persecuted.
Most witch hunts end when the accusers, having come to enjoy their newfound popularity and seeking to expand their power base, go too far and target people who have the will and resources to fight back. That’s what happened when Salem’s Reverend Samuel Parris, who had ignited the witch hunts, began targeting the most powerful people in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
One of these personages was the colony’s former ambassador to England, Increase Mather, who had the political equity to declare that enough was enough. Reverend Parris, facing the wrath of those who could cut off funding for an addition to his rectory, shut him down hard.
A similar thing occurred when anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy started gunning for America’s military and business leaders. It also happened during the Monica Lewinsky affair, when Republican congressional leaders began facing exposure of their own sexual histories.
The term “witch hunt” implies fabricated allegations when, in fact, there are varying degrees of substance to some contemporary cases. The issue becomes the extent to which the desired punishments square with the perceived public harm.
There are signs that Salem 2.0 is inching toward its nadir. When the same country that demands protections for the rights of Guantanamo terror suspects doesn’t flinch when our government moves to nullify the legal corporate contracts of Americans, however distasteful, were are surely flirting with the bottom.
Businesses under attack cling to the argument that what hurts a corporation also hurts the average citizen. But it is either the height of arrogance or naïveté to believe that in times of peril the public wants to hear such macroeconomic postulations. An angry mob doesn’t want Socratic debate, it wants heads on a pike. It shall get them, and those heads will belong to questionable targets such as midlevel AIG executives who received retention bonuses as well as to genuine warlocks like Bernie Madoff.
If past witch hunts are any indication, the current outrage will move through the culture in the form of criminal prosecutions, civil litigation, government intervention, and, eventually, a backlash.
But there won’t be as many criminal prosecutions as some are currently forecasting because, like the Republicans in Congress during the Lewinsky affair, the Democrats aren’t pristine in all of this. Senator Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut), for example, is finding that oversight isn’t easy when everything you do is being watched with savage eyes. Dodd initially denied being responsible for allowing the AIG retention bonuses to go through, but has reversed himself.
Civil suits will play out for years. Many targets will settle because their attorneys will advise them that their juries will likely be stocked with Jacobins.
Perhaps the sign that Salem 2.0 is winding down will come in the form of a latter-day Increase Mather, an “establishment” figure who proverbially says, “Are we ready to get back to work, or do we need to roll some more heads?” Quarter-century-old visions of Lee Iacocca come to mind because he had both the common touch to be trusted and the corporate authority to be credible when he saved Chrysler.
AIG’s Edward Liddy probably won’t play the Increase Mather role, but I liked his posture before Congress. While Liddy, who came out of cushy retirement to walk into this lion’s den (for a buck a year, no less), was rightly mortified by the actions of his predecessors, he reminded his inquisitors that we’ll need executives with attached heads to engineer our redemption.
Eric Dezenhall co-founded the communications firm Dezenhall Resources Ltd. and serves as its CEO. His first book, Nail 'em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business, pioneered techniques for understanding and defusing crises.