Ralph Nader made the chief executive officers of America’s largest corporations a proposition in 1996. Considering they had built their fortunes on generous tax benefits and subsidies—valued at an estimated $65 billion a year back then and footed by everyday Americans—would they consider opening their annual stockholder meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance? America had “bred them, built them, subsidized them, and defended them,” as Nader wrote, and as Obama would later more directly say: “You didn’t build that.”
Federated Department Stores, now Macy’s, was the only corporation that responded positively. Half of them never replied to Nader, while others reacted so indignantly that the late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington registered their responses as evidence of corporate America’s post-national identity.
“As a multinational . . . Ford in its largest sense is an Australian country [sic] in Australia, a British company in the United Kingdom, a German company in Germany.” Aetna’s CEO denounced the idea of pledging allegiance to America as “contrary to the principles on which our democracy was founded.” Motorola condemned the proposal’s “political and nationalistic overtones.” Costco’s CEO responded: “What do you propose next—personal loyalty oaths?” Kimberly-Clark’s executive fumed that it was “a grim reminder of the loyalty oaths of the 1950s.”
Today, the same CEOs who long ago disabused themselves of dirty things like patriotism now insist that they know what’s best for the country they left behind.
“Top CEOs plan to get dramatically tougher on state legislators over proposed new restrictions on voting,” Axios reported on Monday. After a weekend Zoom summit, these CEOs are “threatening to withhold campaign contributions—and to punish states by yanking investments in factories, stadiums and other lucrative projects.” The call featured a constellation of leading industry managers, including James Murdoch, Ken Chenault, Ken Frazier, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, and executives of Delta, United, and American Airlines.
The debate over whether the laws in question are racist or excessively restrictive is ultimately a waste of time because this has less to do with policy than it does with power. Even with ideological considerations accounted for—that is, some or most of these CEOs really do believe certain voting laws are bad—the outcome is the same: a stronger Democratic Party is good for them.
Of course, the Republican Party is similarly beholden to the same economic elites and organized interest groups—which makes them especially pathetic because, by an odd turn of fate, corporations have aligned themselves more closely with the Democratic Party. Recall Joe Biden received more billionaire support than former President Donald Trump during the 2020 election, and there was, by Time’s proud admission, “a conspiracy . . . behind the scenes” spearheaded by CEOs to ensure Biden’s victory. Intimately involved in that “shadow effort” were equally shadowy groups and persons like Norman Eisen, a former Obama Administration official and author of the foreign policy apparatus’ regime change playbook.
Conservatives, Republicans, and others who, in response to these woke corporatists, attempt to disprove that a specific law is racist miss the point. There is no good faith argument to be had, no common ground to seek. For too long the right has deluded itself with the belief that the better argument will prevail on the merits. But these people don’t care about rational debate, and as long as that is the situation, neither should you. In the current reality, only power checks power and what the Right lacks is not a better argument, but a willingness to exercise power where and how it can.
Further, attempts to categorize the fusion of bureaucratic labor organizations like the AFL-CIO, CEOs, and the federal government as either socialist or fascist are misguided. If the problem is socialism or fascism, as conservatives continue to insist alternately, then the answer is always more capitalism—which means deregulating, defending, and strengthening the same groups and people who decided to leave America behind before declaring themselves captains of its destiny. This arrangement is more accurately described as managerialism.
In the same way that the modern managerial corporation separates ownership (shareholders) and control (another specially trained group), managerialism separates institutions from people, the economy from the country, and the government from the nation. The model of American governance today is the managed separation of ownership and control, applied to public as well as private life.
The challenge CEOs are issuing to Americans is that they are too big to take on and too big to fail. The only appropriate response would be to raise their taxes, close tax loopholes, deploy anti-trust action, fine, and see as many of them go bankrupt as possible. If we can’t do that, then they’re right about who rules America, and we’re left waiting for Caesar.