Montana Voices: An opportunity wasted by Democrats, Republicans alike

Jim Elliott

If there was ever anything that the right and the left could make common cause over, it would be the corporate control of America. It may be the only thing they agree upon, but since they disagree on almost everything else they won’t join hands to accomplish something they both want. They don’t trust each other, either, which doesn’t help.

And just what is this corporate control? Essentially, you have a group of corporate titans getting government to make policy that favors their own interests, not the interests of the rest of America. It’s a non-partisan group.

Remember the Great Recession of 2008? One of the principal players in wrecking the American economy and ruining the jobs and retirement plans of millions and millions of Americans was Goldman Sachs, a giant investment firm. As presidential advisors from Clinton through Obama Goldman Sachs executives have served in important governmental roles.

Goldman Sachs executives Robert Rubin became Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury and Larry Summers became Obama’s Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors.

During the Republican primary, Trump blasted Ted Cruz’s ties with Goldman Sachs, where Cruz obtained a substantial loan and where his wife served as a Houston based managing director. But when it came time to put his team together, he brought in Gary Cohn, the president of Goldman Sachs to head the Council of Economic Advisors, and former Goldman Sachs executives Steve Bannon; Chief Strategist, Steve Mnuchin; Secretary of the Treasury and—lest we forget—the Mooch, aka Anthony Scaramucci; Communications Director.

So there have been plenty of Wall Street advisors from Clinton, to Obama, to Trump who have put corporate America first and the rest of us last that Democrats and Republicans could go after.

But instead of going after the common enemy Republicans and Democrats go after each other, doing their part to provide the divide of “divide and conquer” while Wall Street does the conquering.

The lack of unity among the parties on this unifying issue is understandable, given that they can’t even unify within their own ranks, and what success they have politically seems to be based solely on their dislike of each other, which is kind of unifying, I guess.

Therefore, over the years corporate America has had significant success in defining itself as America’s spokesmen. As corporations began their growth in the late 1800s they were seen less as a part of the community, which they had been, and became more monolithic and harder to love.

Helping to make them harder to love were people like banker J. P. Morgan who said, “I owe the public nothing,” or railroad magnate William Vanderbilt’s, “The public be damned.” Theirs were among the huge corporate conglomerations that were the focus of the “Trust Busters” led by President Teddy Roosevelt. The corporate trusts, stunned and somewhat chagrined, lamented that “The public doesn’t know us.” [AT&T Vice President Edward Hall, 1909.]

It was at this point that America’s most successful advertising consultant, Bruce Barton, got involved in creating the corporate images that would paint the corporations in a softer light. Big Business knew it was in disfavor with working America, and together with Barton they devised a long-term strategy to show the common folk that they just wanted to be their good neighbors.

When the New Deal came along business’ rabid opposition provided an even greater incentive to win the public trust, and their image was helped immensely by their extraordinary production effort during WW II. “Leaders of big business [became] both at home and abroad…the recognized spokesmen for the American social system,” wrote economic historian Thomas Cochran. (Today that role seems to have been assumed by Hollywood.)

That was in the 1940s, and they have been doing a pretty good job of making the best of a good thing ever since. Over the years they spent a lot of money on public relations and good lobbyists. For years they were cruising along pretty well and didn’t figure it could get any better…until the Supreme Court handed them Congress on a platter with the Citizens United decision that basically allowed them to buy politicians outright instead of on the installment plan.

[Much of the information in this article comes from the excellent book, “Creating the Corporate Soul” by Roland Marchand.]

Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.