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September 04, 2013 10:34 AM Is Corporate America Actually Losing Influence in the GOP?

By Ed Kilgore

As part of the puzzlement of the chattering classes over the likely demise (for this Congress, at least) of comprehensive immigration reform legislation strongly favored by business interests, various observers are wondering what happened to the corporate domination of American politics in the wake of the Citizens United decision enabling direct corporate donation to political campaigns. If Big Business can’t even dictate policies to its own party, are fears it can dictate policies to the country as a whole overblown?

That seems to be the conclusion for which the New York Times’ Eduardo Porter seeks supporting evidence in a major piece today. Porter mainly dwells on the domination of post-Citizens-United political spending by individuals rather than corporations, which are still somewhat reticent about political giving and still inclined to hedge bets between the two parties:

To put it mildly, if companies could purchase the Congress of their choice, it’s unlikely they would buy the gridlocked Congress we have. The seemingly inexorable rise of political partisans — mainly on the right, but on the left, too — suggests that corporate money may be playing a much smaller role in the political process than expected.

Porter also notes, of course, that many of the individuals making very large political donations are corporate CEOs who, like the Brothers Koch, have their corporate interests first and foremost in mind when making what may otherwise appear to be more generally ideological political investments. It’s also worth remembering that while direct corporate giving remains a relatively small part of the political process, corporate associations—most notably the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—are more active and nakedly partisan than ever.

But Porter’s counter-intuitive argument that the GOP is moving “to the right” against the wishes of Corporate America is worth thinking about. That is almost certainly what the tribunes of “libertarian populism” would have us think.

I suspect, however, that Porter’s (and others’) focus on immigration reform is leading to a major overestimation of the estrangement of right-wing pols from the business community. And it misses the much larger phenomenon that happened so gradually that it’s easy to underestimate: the rapid and increasingly universal conversion of “populist” cultural conservatives to quasi-libertarian economic policy orthodoxy.

One reason for the persistent prominence of differences of opinion on some cultural and many strategic difference of opinion within the conservative movement is that arguments over economic policy—including taxes and the role of government in the economy generally—have faded. And one of the most important corollaries of the “constitutional conservative” ideology that is at the heart of Tea Party activism is the virtual divinization of limited-government and absolute property-rights nostrums as fundamental to the enduring character of the country as blessed by the Founders, natural law, and Divine Providence.

To put it another way, the rightward trend in the GOP has given far more to corporate America in an unshakable commitment to its long-term interests than it has taken away in occasional revolts against the business-community “line” on individual issues like immigration reform. Add in the corporate influence on the Democratic Party that has been fed by the drift of professional elites in their direction and the need to compete with the GOP financially, and there are few grounds for legitimate complaints from board-rooms. Even if Corporate America does lose a few political battles, it is doing quite well in the war.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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