Family Capitalism and the Small Business InsurrectionRoundup
tags: conservatism, political history, Donald Trump, Capital
Melinda Cooper is Professor in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University. She is the author of Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (Zone Books, 2017) and is currently completing a manuscript called On Capital Gains: The Counterrevolution in Public Finance.
For much of the 2016 presidential campaign, progressive commentators struggled to comprehend the foundations of Trump’s popular support. Many assumed that the strident right-wing populism he unleashed was a long overdue reaction to the decades of wage stagnation endured by the industrial working class. True enough, Trump assiduously targeted this demographic during his campaign. Guided by Steve Bannon, he selectively presented himself as an advocate for a blue-collar welfarism of the kind briefly entertained by Richard Nixon—erstwhile friend of the hard-hat worker—and later embodied by Nixon adviser Pat Buchanan. It was this incarnation (one of several personae Trump adopted in 2016) that explains much of the early confusion regarding his political intentions. But while Trump’s pandering to Rust Belt Democrats won him critical margins in Ohio and Pennsylvania, the few hundred thousand industrial workers who voted for him were hardly sufficient to constitute a long-term advantage. Nor were they representative of Trump’s crusaders as a whole, the most passionate of whom were first politicized by the Tea Party movement.
Arising in the aftermath of the housing crash of 2007, the Tea Party targeted a perplexing range of enemies, from subprime mortgage holders, unemployed workers, and public-sector unions to investment banks and corporate giants. In the eyes of Tea Partiers, who saw themselves as quintessential producers and taxpayers, these heterogeneous enemies were united in their dependence on government welfare, be it in the form of public assistance, state-funded wages, or corporate bailouts. As with Trumpian populism, the eclecticism of Tea Party animosity confounded progressive critique. If Tea Partiers were so enraged by the bailouts of AIG and General Motors, could they not be reeducated as leftists?
The specificity of Tea Party grievances makes more sense if we understand it as a movement of small business owners, many of whom saw the values of their housing and business assets depreciate overnight as a result of the subprime crisis. The Trump diehards who cut their teeth in the Tea Party were not wage workers, nor even misclassified independent contractors, but small businesspeople concentrated in the blue-collar residential construction sector and its white-collar satellite professions of homeware retail, real-estate services, mortgage brokerage, and accounting. It was the meteoric rise and fall of the small business sector—not the long saga of deindustrialization—that gave birth to the current cycle of far-right populism.
When the first wave of Tea Party Republicans swept into Congress in the 2010 midterm elections, some of the most prescient observers pointed to the growing rift between the small and big business wings of the Republican Party and pondered its implications for the future of American capitalism. Writing for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the journalists Lisa Lerer and John McCormick observed that established trade associations such as the Business Roundtable were distancing themselves from Tea Party candidates, fearing that their willingness to sabotage the basic workings of government risked destabilizing the entire American economy. A group of leading corporations including General Electric, DuPont, Alcoa, and Duke Energy expressed their support for an emissions reduction bill in 2009, only to be faced with a barrage of invective from congressional Republicans accusing them of colluding with big government. Tea Party candidates saw big government and big business as acting in unison to suppress the freedoms of the small business owner. In the words of Dick Armey, chair of the Koch-funded organization FreedomWorks, “Big Business is sitting there on fat, pushy duffs looking for government to keep them in business.” Only “incompetent companies need bailouts. People who run corporations are basically taking care of themselves. They’re not very reliable people and they’re very comfortable with Big Government that greases the skids for them.”
This same cleavage between small and big business can be seen in Republicans’ current war against “woke capitalism”—the stakeholder-driven expression of political preferences on the part of large corporations—which Senator Ted Cruz recently described as a devil’s bargain between the “left and its big business allies.” In the same op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Cruz urged Republicans to abandon these “fair-weather” friends. True defenders of market freedom would be better off without corporate PAC money constraining their every move. “When the time comes that you need help with a tax break or a regulatory change, I hope the Democrats take your calls,” Cruz wrote, “because we may not.”
This style of business (or libertarian) conservatism has a long history on the American right, one that has been documented in detail by Kim Phillips-Fein. When the largest publicly listed corporations and their trade associations—chief among them the Business Roundtable—made their peace with the New Deal state in the wake of the Second World War, small business conservatives remained aloof, convinced that big business was just as responsible as big government was for the growth of tax and regulatory burdens. The Business Roundtable continued to collaborate with both major parties even as it rebelled against the Fordist consensus in the 1970s. By contrast, small business conservatives have always rubbed shoulders with the nativist, theocratic, and white supremacist currents of the American far right. Their relationship to the Republican Party, mediated by such figures as Barry Goldwater and Newt Gingrich, takes the form of antiestablishment insurrection.
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