American Business Must Rethink Its Relation to Politics

Published February 24, 2020

National Review Online

American business needs to get off the path to slow-motion suicide, and to defend the free-enterprise system. Disabusing a few misguided companies of their “woke capitalist” fantasies won’t be enough. For decades, even staid and conventional businesses have accommodated leftist pressure groups who would gladly do them in. What’s needed is a return to the strategy of the 1970s and 1980s, when American business actively pushed back against ’60s radicalism and helped to usher in the era of Ronald Reagan.

The writing is on the wall. Even if Bernie Sanders goes down this time, two rising generations of Americans have been seduced by open socialism. Without active pushback, in another generation or less, American business will be lost. You may think a Sanders defeat will mean a long conservative restoration, just like after George McGovern. But even in 1972, the schools weren’t in the straits they’re in today.

Sixties radicalism fought back against Reaganism by taking over American education. Not only has business failed to fight the leftist education takeover, it has positively abetted it. Business has split the conservative movement by supporting the disastrous Common Core. In search of uniform national markets for its products and dumbed-down “workforce development” requirements, business has helped to undermine the principle of local control and decimated traditional history and civics education, alienating grassroots conservatives in the process. In pursuit of short-term gain, American business has thrown in with a Howard Zinnified education establishment that has normalized socialism — the College Board above all. On top of that, Common Core has utterly failed to produce the gains in basic reading and math competence that were its supposed reason for being. Meanwhile, higher education has become a leftist indoctrination camp with no interruption in business support, let alone efforts by business at building real alternatives to the current anti-capitalist academic orthodoxy.

We are in a fundamentally new environment, but business doesn’t yet get it. Yes, the economy is still critically important to politics. But cultural issues have vastly grown in salience because the country is split when it comes to core values. Business is trying to placate the cultural left with “woke” gestures, to no avail. The left is going socialist anyway, while woke capitalism is rapidly turning conservatives against business.

Business undermines national sovereignty and the rule of law by effectively supporting illegal immigration, then it shoots down basic protections for religious liberty in deference to the cultural left. And now developers are using Obama’s “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” regulation as a way to destroy local control over zoning and planning. That will only legitimate the next Democratic president’s neo-socialist efforts to tell Americans where to live. As the nation polarizes over culture, business is caught in the middle, with ever fewer friends on either side. Conservatives are natural supporters of the free enterprise system, but business is driving them away by abandoning traditional American principles to futilely court a left that is already socialist.

Back in the mid 90s, when I was in academia, I was naively excited to see a new movement among humanities departments called “cultural studies.” As an anthropologist with an interest in culture, I thought the rest of the world was finally catching up. Nope. So-called cultural studies turned out to be a sloppy form of interdisciplinarity meant to license literature professors to pronounce on politics instead of literature. At first, the cultural studies group met in a ramshackle old building at Harvard. Within a couple of years, however, cultural studies was headquartered in a fabulously expensive renovated building. I was shocked to see that a plaque recognizing the donors for that renovation included some of the biggest corporations in America. I knew, even if those corporations did not, that nearly every cultural studies lecture featured vicious attacks on capitalism. A quote famously attributed to Vladimir Lenin is that “capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” But even Lenin didn’t realize that capitalists would actually donate the rope.

Fast-forward to 2013, when I began a couple of years’ worth of coverage of the fossil fuel divestment movement for NRO. I began with a three-part series, the sub-heading of which read: “Our free-enterprise system is facing a legitimacy crisis, especially among the young.” At the time, unfortunately, few conservatives took the political implications of the fossil-fuel divestment movement seriously. Divestment seemed like a crazy self-defeating strategy, and the movement itself struck most conservatives as a cultural outlier, a passing fancy of youth. Wrong.

The fossil-fuel divestment movement was largely socialist-inspired, and its tactics were anything but civil. I began reporting on serious incidents of speaker disruptions and shout-downs. In retrospect, it seems obvious that this was the start of our current campus free-speech crisis. The lesson is that whatever term Bernie uses, the new American socialism isn’t going to be “democratic.” With well more than a third of college students approving of speaker disruptions, socialist authoritarianism is back.

Bill McKibben, founder and leader of the fossil-fuel divestment movement, was a huge Bernie Sanders supporter in 2016. McKibben got his youth movement to back the insurgent socialist against Hillary, and his young followers remain Sanders’s shock troops to this day.

Back in 2013-14, McKibben’s campus movement was furious that the Democrats had refused even to mention climate change, fracking, or the Keystone Pipeline during the 2012 presidential campaign. At the time, the Democrats were sensible enough to eschew a program that was in essence a direct assault on America’s economic engine. Obama himself could only signal to McKibben’s followers in code. What has happened in the intervening seven years is that a generation primed for enviro-socialism from primary school through college has graduated and turned into the activist base of the Democratic Party. The program of economic suicide the Democrats dared not mention in 2012 is now the Green New Deal few Democrats dare deny.

And what of business? They’re too busy claiming to be woke and green to fight the socialist madness. Back when I was writing about the fossil-fuel divestment movement, I discovered that businesses had no interest whatever in openly fighting it. Instead, they paid for ads to show how eco-minded they were. This has done precisely nothing to stem the tide of American socialism. The young voters business tries to placate are still coming at it with pitchforks. Meanwhile, business keeps funding a failed education policy that has yielded a socialist takeover of one of our two major parties, all the while alienating their natural supporters in the conservative movement, who’ve watched business undermine virtually every defense that conservatives have against the continuing cultural onslaught.

Lenin had a point. Business is focused on short-term profit, not long-term cultural warfare. That works only so long as we can take Americans’ support for business for granted, as has been the case throughout most of our history. Things have changed, however, and business needs to wake up to that fact.

In the 1970s and 1980s, American business shrewdly diagnosed the cultural danger it faced. That’s why the Business Roundtable and its allies fought back against the radicalism of the ’60s, helping to usher in the Reagan era and a renaissance of American conservatism. Unfortunately, the lesson of the 1980s has been forgotten, lost in a suicidal chase after woke socialists who are now only an election away from shutting American business down.

The cultural environment within which American business can comfortably play its short-term game has disappeared. Unless business begins to aggressively defend both the free-enterprise system and the broader constitutional framework within which economic liberty thrives, socialism will triumph. And you can bet it won’t be “democratic” socialism.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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