Why We Should Care What the Business Elites Think

If you’re like me, Kate Kelly and Lisa Lerer’s reporting in the New York Times reads like an excellent rationale for supporting Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy.

From corporate boardrooms to breakfast meetings, investor conferences to charity galas, Ms. Warren’s rise in the Democratic primary polls is rattling bankers, investors and their affluent clients, who see in the Massachusetts senator a formidable opponent who could damage not only their industry but their way of life.

Interviews with more than two dozen hedge-fund managers, private-equity and bank officials, analysts and lobbyists made clear that Ms. Warren has stirred more alarm than any other Democratic candidate. (Senator Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as a socialist, is also feared, but is considered less likely to capture the nomination.)

There are certain people who probably ought to feel a bit apprehensive about the political implications of the current Roaring Twenties wealth distribution in our country.

“Everyone is nervous,” said Steven Rattner, a prominent Democratic donor who manages the wealth of Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor. “What scares the hell out of me is the way she would fundamentally change our free-enterprise system.”

But I have my own worries. When I think about fascism, I really look for two major warning signs. The first happens when the right wins the hearts and minds of the majority-race working class. The second happens when big business seeks protection from lawless right-wing thugs because of their fear of left-wing populism. These are the first steps on a road that can lead to the more serious things we associate with fascist movements.

Of the two, the acquiescence of big business in the destruction of norms and the constitutional order is the more serious risk. This is because the financial elites have tremendous power and play an indispensable role in policing our system. They own all the major media outlets, and they employ lawyers who go to court to challenge the government when it violates our rights. Through their philanthropy, they keep afloat think-tanks and non-profitable publications that would cease to exist without their support. Our freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, rights to due process, and rights to government transparency are all bound up with these efforts. Even our country’s role on the international stage in promoting democracy and human rights is largely shaped by organizations that are funded by the business elite. If they abandon that project in favor of defending a right-wing movement that respects none of these things, we lose the guard rails that protect us. If they go further, and put their money toward promoting similar right-wing nationalist movements on a global scale, then the risks become truly grave.

So far, this has not happened. The media has fought back aggressively against Trumpism. Almost no media outlets endorsed Trump’s candidacy in 2016. They have been in court every day seeking government records and asking judges (usually successfully) to uphold the law against Trump’s illegal policies. The impeachment of Trump is inseparable from the establishment’s support for Ukraine’s independence from Russia.

But this has happened because they’re defending against something they consider to be a threat to their way of life. If a different threat comes along that concerns them more, their calculus could change.

I think most people focus only on the influence of the media. What gets reported and how it gets reported can move a lot of votes, and this is how the always outnumbered financial elite protects its interests. But people should also focus on how big business works to protect our interests. They may do an uneven job of that, but we still depend on them. If a substantial fraction of the elites in this country decide to throw in with Trump, that could be the ballgame for our representative form of government. It’s not their ability to move votes that is most worrisome, but their ability to stop defending the system if they no longer feel the system serves their interests.

Ordinary people don’t have the infrastructure or the organization presently to step in and fill that role. And, even if they quickly tried to build that kind of capability, they’d lack the media reach to be as effective.

For me, this is the risk of pushing left-wing populism further than the elites are prepared to see it go. I’d be less concerned about it if the right hadn’t already taken over most of the white farmer-labor contingent from the left. But, with the Democrats largely ceding that field to Trump, the danger is that the two main prerequisites for a successful fascist movement will snap into place.

So, when I see panic from the financial elites about a likely Democratic presidential nominee, a part of me exults in that because they’ve let inequality and injustice grow to levels not seen since the 1920s. But another part of me worries about how the 1920s turned into the 1930s. I do not want to see that happen again.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com