Big Business Still Has Enormous Control of American Politics at Every Level

Thomas Ferguson

Big business has long held an outsize role in US politics. In a plague year, and as politicians prematurely push to reopen the economy, political scientist Thomas Ferguson argues that its place at the center of American life is more grotesque than ever.

The famous bull near Wall Street in New York City. htmvalerio / Flickr

Interview by
Paul Heideman

Thomas Ferguson has been analyzing the role of money in American politics for more than four decades. Along with collaborators, he has mapped the evolution of shifting blocks of investors who stand behind the Democratic and Republican Parties.

In the last few months, American politics has appeared more unsettled than ever, from the Democratic primary to the coronavirus pandemic to the uprising against police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Yet as Ferguson argues, these events have often been driven by some very familiar forces. The power of big business has shaped everything from the reckless push to get the country back to business to the responses to the uprisings. He discussed all of this recently with Jacobin’s Paul Heideman.

Paul Heideman

The world staggers under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic; the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has triggered a vast wave of protests that “Black Lives Matter”; and the United States is in the middle of a very tense presidential election. Each of these events is momentous in its own right; taken together, they are almost overwhelming. How do you think we should go about analyzing how they all play out together?

Thomas Ferguson

Spelling out the protest wave’s full context clarifies a lot. It took off as the American economy plunged to depression levels in a matter of weeks, not months or years. Unemployment has rocketed upward. It is obvious that most of the benefits of the bailout and the Federal Reserve’s gigantic interventions in financial markets have gone to the very rich. Entry-level jobs for young people and new graduates have dried up completely. Many of the unemployed can’t access their promised relief, states pursue radically differing policies toward providing benefits, and some very important short-run public supports will lapse this summer. Many people are relying on food banks for at least part of their sustenance.

But that’s not even half the story. Two political facts about the timing of the protests are of towering importance.

The first is that governments at all levels defaulted in their handling of the pandemic. After the First Gulf War, planning for pandemics was briefly treated in the United States as a matter of national security. But the profit-driven American health care system — now turbocharged from acquisitions by private equity firms — viewed accumulations of reserve hospital beds, stockpiles, and such as so many threats to profits.

As the pandemic came on, public authorities from the president on down underplayed its seriousness. Virtually no one in any position of authority did any serious planning or tried to lay in supplies or coordinate responses. At times, the level of bad faith and grotesque partisan calculation was extraordinary. As the much discussed case of North Carolina senator Richard Burr illustrates, political leaders were in some cases telling donors one thing and ordinary voters another.

Experts who should have known better also failed. Early on, we were told masks would not protect us; eventually, it became obvious that they do and that we were only hearing this to conceal how badly things were being botched. As patients flooded into hospitals, medical professionals who complained about inadequate safeguards for hospital workers were fired or threatened with dismissal if they talked to the press; nurses who brought their own masks to work were told to take them off or else.

No one seems to have monitored nursing homes, even when hospitals used them as overflow parking areas for deathly ill patients. Black and Latino communities, with generally inferior access to health care, jobs, and often at risk from major environmental hazards, were hit especially hard, as were poorer Americans generally.

The other critical political fact shaping the protests was the outcome of the Democratic primaries. As the pandemic hit, the struggle between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, and secondarily, Elizabeth Warren and the rest, was essentially over. But the coming of the plague pointed up like nothing else the importance of Sanders’s principle issues: Medicare for All and living wages with benefits like sick pay, so that workers who were infected could afford to stay home and not spread the disease. I doubt that the irony of how fast the Fed and the Treasury pulled together a single-payer health care system for finance and big business was lost on many people, either.

Put all of these facts together, and it is easy to understand why, to many Americans, especially young people, all alternatives within the established political system looked exhausted. They really were exhausted — no candidate or political groups had much of anything to offer ordinary citizens. So it was time to take to the streets, just as the Yellow Vests in France had done, or protesters in the United Kingdom, whose government’s policies strongly resembled that of the United States.

Paul Heideman

So now what?

Thomas Ferguson

First, take a look at the very equivocal position of the Democratic leadership. One little noted detail is important. An amendment inserted in the lame-duck legislation that enshrined the “Swaps Pushout” weakening of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill in January 2015, made it easier for big donors to funnel much larger sums of money to the national party committees. This has, I think, made it even easier for blocs of big donors to control those committees, even as small contributions sometimes surge. Not only in 2018, but in the 2020 primaries, I think this mattered.

As a result, the Democratic National Committee has not been subordinated to the Biden campaign, at least not yet. The surge in the southern Democratic primaries that destroyed the Sanders boom involved many big Democratic donors along with many black congressmen and women, together with the political and financial networks of former president Barack Obama and the Clintons. It was a coming together of the entire Democratic establishment to stop Sanders. Congressional black leaders were thus heavily identified with the “Stop Sanders” movement, too.

But with the combined economic collapse and the pandemic revealing the bankruptcy of the traditional establishment, the whole top of the party has had to scramble. How they have responded is very interesting. Thanks to the dissemination of so many videos, the realization about the racism that black Americans face — and not just by so many police — is very widespread. The revulsion is deep and real.

In response, the Democratic establishment is taking a leaf from the past — not the late ’60s, when groups highly critical of the Democrats became prominent, but the early ’60s. Joel Rogers and I described the process in our book Right Turn. When the civil rights movement emerged, major foundations, prominent business leaders of major multinationals, and foundations allied to them heavily supported that groundswell. John F. Kennedy famously called Martin Luther King in jail, while prominent Wall Street lawyers flew down south or otherwise helped represent civil rights campaigners who were under legal attack. That’s what’s happening right now, with groups closely allied with the Democratic Party helping to raise money. There will be tensions now, as there were then, between the party and the movement, but that’s the basic direction things are taking.

Paul Heideman

So how does this play into the election?

Thomas Ferguson

I think the basic script each party is following is evident. Democrats are hoping for a repeat of 2008. In that election, policy was hopelessly bungled by the Republican leadership. After Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, nobody in opposition had to say very much. Democrats could just sit and watch John McCain flail helplessly.

Donald Trump, by contrast, is clearly copying the Nixon playbook, though because he’s in power, 1972 is closer to the mark than 1968. His administration’s heavy-handed appeals to “law and order” are obvious, and so are the ways he tries to bait protesters. The “law and order” mantra is looking a bit thin, though, partly because the videos and protests so clearly touch a chord with many members of the public. But it is also apparent that the US military wants no part in quelling domestic protests, so that the best Trump is likely to be able to do is to try to irritate protesters and hope for strong public reactions. Attorney general William Barr is also pitching in, in spectacular fashion.

The other thing the White House is bent on doing is finding a way to levitate the economy. In 1972, Richard Nixon famously relied on Arthur Burns at the Fed to engineer a legendary political business cycle. Today’s Fed certainly reacts to pressures from Trump, but the drastically different world situation severely limits its room for maneuver. It can hardly do more than it has even if it wanted to.

This is why the president and the vice president are trying so desperately to downplay the pandemic. They want to drive people back to work and push up the GDP. Vice president Mike Pence is plainly encouraging state leaders to talk up their successes and downplay bad news, including spiking COVID-19 cases in the South and West. The White House thinks they have to get the economy moving again or Trump will be toast in November.

Paul Heideman

How different is this from what the administration was doing earlier?

Thomas Ferguson

It represents a doubling down on policies that Trump and his camp wanted to promote earlier and did for a while. As the pandemic hit, all over the developed world, prominent business figures and conservative economists warned about the dangers of a long lockdown. Some, including an occasional central banker, even talked sotto voce about how such policies would reduce state pension obligations. In the United States, the UK, and other European countries, advocates talked up the idea of “herd immunity.” Trump’s “kitchen cabinet” of business figures, including prominent private equity managers, were repeatedly cited as pushing the president to take a “go slow” attitude on lockdowns.

After the publication of the Imperial College estimates of the death rates such policies would entail, though, enthusiasm waned. The UK changed policy. The switch definitely affected the Trump administration’s attitudes. It helped, along with the ghastly reality of what was happening on the ground, especially on the East and West coasts of the United States, to force the administration to accept lockdowns and sheltering in place. Both in the United States and in the UK, though, pressures from business groups for rapid reopening remained very strong. Conservative groups have even urged reopening without establishing a viable testing regime, which is exactly what the administration has now done.

Clear camps are forming within business, and those look to be seeping into politics. Many small companies whose business models rest on low wages, along with financiers — meaning private equity first and foremost — whose strategies depend on buying and breaking up firms, continue to plump for rapid reopening.

By contrast, many firms in the rest of finance, and especially in high-tech and capital-intensive industries whose strategies do not rest on low wages, are less heedless of the dangers of quick opening. Many tech firms enthusiastically promote their products as solutions to the problems the pandemic creates — as is obvious with many internet and software companies. Robert Rubin called for joint panels of medical professionals and economists to decide when reopening was feasible and for contact tracing; even robotic assistance has been touted.

Where the rubber meets the road, though, is the critical question of worker safety. Trump gutted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Not only is the number of inspectors way down, but key appointees are plainly uninterested in regulating on the issue at all.

It seems to me that this is a potentially fateful intersection between the movement growing out of Minneapolis and the Democrats. Calls to reopen quickly are basically demands by affluent white-collar managers who can work at home. They want to send blue-collar workers back to work under conditions the senior executives would not accept for themselves. Many of the blue-collar workers are, it is important to add, black or Latino. Though you would never know from reading any major newspaper, wildcat and other strikes have soared since Minneapolis. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of them, as Mike Elk’s Payday Report website is documenting. It seems clear that the protests have inspired many black and Latino workers to demand safe working conditions.

I don’t have much to say for the classic financial bailouts the United States has pursued — they protect the wealth of those that have it, while the government does something, but not much, to protect the livelihood of average citizens. But it would make a great deal of sense to move onto the national balance sheet the costs of redesigning work to make it safe. That would be a really good use of public resources.

Paul Heideman

So how does this play out in the election?

Thomas Ferguson

Right now, COVID-19 cases are soaring in many Southern and Western states, whose Republican governors had followed the White House lead and pretended the pandemic was over or would somehow never reach them. As a result, you can feel a seismic tremor in Trump’s support: the fabled 40 percent or so base level for him that people thought could never be breached is being broken.

But I remember 1988 very well, when Michael Dukakis was almost 20 points ahead of George H. W. Bush in late summer. A lot can happen to change what looks like an all but insurmountable advantage. One needs to remember that Biden looks good mostly next to Trump; the Democratic candidate doesn’t generate much enthusiasm from voters on his own. How the Biden campaign can tap the energy that fueled Sanders, and, to some extent, Warren, is not clear yet. The terms of trade between the camps are still being worked out, and the effort could fail. If Democratic elites are dumb enough to believe the claims so many have made that 2016 had nothing to do with economics, they could repeat that disaster.

I have a hard time believing that people who are out of work and watching how the government is allowing insurers to slip out of covering the costs of COVID tests will be inspired to vote for Biden without something far stronger than a “public option” for health care instead of Medicare for All, for example.

Plenty else can go wrong, too. Let’s just bracket the possibility of some foreign crisis, especially in the South China Sea, since it’s also clear Trump right now is still hoping that a big trade deal with China might come through. Otherwise, there are the old reliables for the GOP: efforts to hold down voter turnout and giant flows of big money.

This year, though, there’s a wrinkle to the first one. Trump’s campaign against the Post Office may have started out as a fight with Amazon, but right now, it’s clearly turned into something else. Empirical evidence from the Wisconsin primary is clear that voting in person led to several waves of new COVID infections.

As a result, interest in mail balloting is way up. Of course, Republicans are mostly opposed to that, though empirical evidence up to now does not suggest that mail ballots have strong partisan advantages one way or the other. But, of course, a broke Post Office won’t be delivering much of anything. My guess is that you’ll see Trump dig in ever more obdurately on this issue as election day approaches.

Which brings us to the money question. Here, I don’t have much to add to what my colleagues Paul Jorgensen, Jie Chen, and I wrote earlier in the year. In 2016, we found that Trump floated to victory on a big wave of late money from large private equity firms, among others. We also conjectured that the perfect correlation for the first time in American history between Republican success in Senate elections and the outcome of the presidential vote in states was not an accident. That turned out to be true. Trump did a bit better in states with Senate races. We’ve now shown how late money turned around those Senate races, when prospects just weeks before the election looked hopeless. That example is instructive. Democratic candidates who lost elections in those final days have told me how they watched the inflow of money turn around what had seemed a favorable situation. Problems with even counting ballots are, I think, likely to make 2020 very tense, no matter what polls say now or even the day before. Whether we live in a pre- or a post-apocalyptic era might be tested.

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Thomas Ferguson is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston; the views he expresses here are his own and not those of any institution with which he is connected.

Paul Heideman holds a PhD in American studies from Rutgers University–Newark.

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