The Fissure Between Republicans and Business is Less Surprising than it SeemsRoundup
tags: political history, Chamber of Commerce, lobbying
Jennifer Delton is the Douglas Family Chair in American culture, history and literary and interdisciplinary studies at Skidmore College. She is the author of, most recently, The Industrialists: How the National Association of Manufacturers Shaped American Capitalism (Princeton University press, 2020).
Today’s Trump-oriented Republicans are testing the traditional alliance between the Republican Party and big business. The CEOs of Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and AT&T, as well as lobbying organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have spoken out against Republican-backed policies such as Georgia’s new voting law, immigration restrictions and anti-trans bathroom laws. These polarizing culture-war policies make it hard for business leaders to uphold their commitment to diversity, inclusion and social responsibility, which is key to their good standing with both customers and diverse workforces. Business’s opposition to these policies has created waves in the Republican Party, leading Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to request that Big Business “stay out of politics” if it could not be nonpartisan. Commentators and pundits were quick to mock McConnell’s sanctimonious plea, noting how Republicans have depended on big business engaging in politics for decades.
Despite the long-standing association between the GOP and corporations, big business lobbies have also always been bipartisan. They have to work with whatever party is in power and whatever politicians are in office, so it makes sense that they contribute generously to both parties. Moreover, both parties have shared big business’s vision of the globalization of American-style capitalism. Since the Reagan era, there has been an effort across the aisle to embrace freer trade and more open borders. This history reveals that the popular narrative of a pro-business Republican Party squared off against an anti-business Democratic one was never truly accurate.
An instructive example of business bipartisanship comes from the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) in the 1980s and 1990s. Historically, NAM has been one of the most reliably Republican of business lobbies. In the 1950s, NAM conservatives played a key role in articulating the small-government, tax-cutting principles of the New Right.
Yet, ironically, precisely at the moment when the New Right finally gained power in 1980, with Ronald Reagan winning the presidency and Republicans capturing the Senate for the first time since 1955, NAM gained Democratic leadership. NAM president Alexander Trowbridge, an Allied Chemical Corp. executive, had been Lyndon B. Johnson’s commerce secretary. He brought in Jerry Jasinowski, a policy wonk in the Carter administration and an aide for liberal former vice president and Democratic Sen. Hubert Humphrey, as chief economist. Jasinowski had even helped draft the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment bill (which NAM opposed).
Trowbridge and Jasinowski supported Reagan initiatives, but they also often found themselves at odds with the administration, especially on tax reform. This division highlighted the often forgotten reality that Reaganomics did not help America’s large manufacturing corporations. In the throes of deindustrialization, beset by foreign competition and falling victim to hostile takeovers, the large corporations represented by NAM hoped for manufacturing-specific tax relief.
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