The Business Lobby and the Tea Party

Source: Kim Phillips-Fein, New Labor Forum, Vol. 23 no. 2, May 2014
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….At first glance, the widening divide between the Tea Party and the organized business lobby may appear at least mildly surprising. After all, many of the central positions of the politicians associated with the Tea Party—vigilant opposition to the welfare state, contempt for labor unions, advocacy of low taxes, a hatred of regulation—are in fact shared by many of the major business groups, at least to some degree. Moreover, politicians associated with the Tea Party movement have benefited from the lavish donations of several prominent business activists—most famously the brothers Charles and David Koch, but also such advocates as casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. When he was running for office in 2012, for example, Ted Cruz drew donations not only from the Club for Growth (the libertarian business organization which includes developers and regional finance types on its board) but also from a Texas-based banking company, a host of law firms, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (In 2013, his donors included Berkshire Hathaway—none other than liberal financier Warren Buffett’s holding company.) The merest hint of any kind of opposition evokes intense paranoia from some financiers; for example, venture capitalist Tom Perkins warned, in January 2014, of the dangers of a coming American Kristallnacht: “I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘1 percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American 1 percent, namely the ‘rich.’” The rise of the conservative right has helped lead to a massive enrichment of the American elite, and it is easy to see how and why the entire Tea Party mobilization might be caricatured—as it has been—as little more than the invention of wealthy men.

But despite the many ways in which business has been able to profit from the rise of the right in American politics, and the financial and political contributions that business activists have made to the development of conservatism, the relationship between organized business and conservative activists has long been characterized by ambivalence. From Joseph McCarthy’s denunciations of those born with silver spoons in their mouths, to Barry Goldwater’s earnest plea to reinvent free-market conservatism as a politics of “conscience” rather than crass self-interest, the right’s efforts to claim the mantle of populism have always made it difficult for conservatives to simply trumpet their connections to the very rich. …