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Wary of Trump, Business Leaders Are Flocking to Clinton-Style Neoliberalism

Hillary Clinton has earned the support of business leaders eager for stability with the prospect of a disruptive Trump presidency looming overhead. (Photo: Getty)

Elections are, in the words of Noam Chomsky, "occasions on which segments of private sector power coalesce to invest to control the state."

Since the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, this description of corporate decision-making has become increasingly profound, with floods of dark money filling the coffers of political campaigns at the federal, state, and local levels.

But even prior to Citizens United, the so-called "investment theory of party competition" — alluded to by Chomsky above and originally expounded by political scientist Thomas Ferguson — worked as a remarkably accurate lens through which one could analyze the American political scene.

"Blocs of major investors," wrote Ferguson in 1995, "define the core of political parties and are responsible for most of the signals the party sends to the electorate."

"While Republicans have long been shameless about their subservience to the corporate sector, Democrats have attempted to shroud their party's neoliberal bent with "party of the people" rhetoric, ensuring voters that the needs of the most vulnerable will always occupy the center of the Democratic agenda."

Ferguson's theory has been largely validated by recent research in political science, which has analyzed the impact of elite opinion on public policy.

In a major 2014 study, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page found that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence."

Contradicting the self-congratulatory stump speeches of the political class, the United States appears to be a very bizarre form of "democracy," a form that allows business leaders to exert disproportionate influence on the policy direction of the nation while leaving the electorate almost entirely without a voice.

And contrary to the claims of self-righteous party loyalists, the corporate capture of American politics has been encouraged by both of the country's two dominant political parties.

Since the 1970s, sensing a need to expand its coalition and to become more open to investors, the Democratic Party has veered sharply rightward, following the increasingly hysterical Republican Party and abandoning the working class that, throughout the 20th century, formed its essential core.

While Republicans have long been shameless about their subservience to the corporate sector, Democrats have attempted to shroud their party's neoliberal bent with "party of the people" rhetoric, ensuring voters that the needs of the most vulnerable will always occupy the center of the Democratic agenda.

Since the 1990s, and particularly this year, the facade has gradually been laid bare.

It was Democrats, not Republicans, who ultimately dealt the death blow to "welfare as we know it," doubling deep poverty and harming the very people they claim to represent. It was Democrats who deregulated Wall Street, laying waste to Glass-Steagall and other protections against corporate plunder. It was a Democrat who signed NAFTA into law, just as it is a Democrat who is pushing for the corporate-friendly Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The candidacy of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has done much to call attention to this shifting ground of American liberalism and to shine light on the contrasts between progressives of the New Deal tradition and the self-styled liberal center.

Democrats once fervently opposed to the new order brought into existence by Citizens United have changed their tune as they attempt to rationalize their support for a candidate who has, ironically, benefited greatly from the Supreme Court's decision.

But while he has done much to modify the rhetoric of the Democratic establishment, the substance appears to have remained largely unaltered — and this fact is recognized by investors.

 Killing the Messenger

Contributing yet another wrinkle to the 2016 primary process has been the phony populism and racist demagoguery of Donald Trump, who has gleefully shredded the suits of the Republican leadership while using genuine economic grievances to inflame anti-immigrant anxiety.

And as a billionaire, Trump has been able to flout the norms of respectable political discourse, castigating his opponents as bought and sold.

Trump's economic nationalism and erratic policy proposals have startled the business class, making it difficult for the real estate mogul to raise funds for the coming general election.

Luckily for business leaders, they have a safe alternative, one who has effectively tempered the ambitions of the progressive wing of her party, promising not to alter the economic status quo that has allowed the rich to thrive.


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That alternative is, of course, Hillary Clinton.

As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014, "Mrs. Clinton, as secretary of state, redefined the job in ways that promoted the interests of U.S. business. She said she wanted her portfolio to include helping U.S. businesses flourish overseas so as to promote the economic recovery back home."

Though her rhetoric has changed slightly in response to intense and sustained pressure from her left, Clinton has used this "portfolio" as a selling point to raise substantial funds from Wall Street and to attract Republican donors alienated by Trump.

The plan has worked: As Brody Mullins and Rebecca Ballhaus reported in May, "some Wall Street donors have shifted their financial support from Republican candidates who dropped out of the race, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, to Mrs. Clinton in recent months."

Clinton has also earned the support of business leaders eager for stability with the prospect of a disruptive Trump presidency looming overhead.

In May, the Financial Times conducted a survey of groups that represent and lobby for "nearly 100,000 US companies," and the findings were striking: These groups said they "would prefer Hillary Clinton in the White House over Donald Trump by a ratio of two to one."

(Unsurprisingly, given his consistency and principled support for social democracy, Bernie Sanders is viewed more negatively by business leaders than both Trump and Clinton.)

Other surveys have produced similar results.

Earlier this month, Fortune sent a survey to every Fortune 500 CEO, asking "which candidate they would favor most as next President of the United States," giving them a choice between Trump and Clinton.

Those who responded to the survey chose Clinton, by a substantial margin: 58 percent to 42 percent.

Clinton's anti-Wall Street rhetoric, her claim that she will be most effective in reigning in the excesses of corporate America, is "just politics," one Wall Street donor told Politico.

"Nobody takes it like she is going after them personally," said a Clinton-supporting hedge fund manager.

They get it: As a Democrat, Clinton must pay fealty to progressive causes. She must reject the trade agreement she enthusiastically supported during her tenure at the State Department. She must condemn the greedy bankers and selfish executives who dish out starvation wages while earning increasingly lavish salaries.

But, "Down on Wall Street," writes William Cohan, "they don’t believe it for a minute...the big bankers love Clinton, and by and large they badly want her to be president."

This love leaps from the pages of SEC filings, which show Clinton raising a startling sum of cash from the financial sector.

While Trump represents an angry and largely incoherent rebuke of the establishment and Sanders embodies an inspiring alternative to stale corporate liberalism — which has, as Doug Henwood has written, shown itself to be the enemy of "even mild social democracy" — Clinton represents more politics and economics as usual.

And she is being rewarded for her commitment to the status quo.

Ultimately, though, as long as Sanders is defeated, business will, for the most part, be satisfied.

"Whichever party wins office," concludes Corey Robin, "donors can expect that their material interests will be fulfilled. Not because of bribery, simple quid-pro-quos, or access, or influence, but simply because both parties are so ideologically amenable to meeting the needs and interests of wealthy donors."

Jake Johnson, staff writer

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams. Follow him on Twitter: @johnsonjakep

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