The Magazine

The Problem with K Street Conservatism

Jun 24, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 40 • By DAVID BROOKS, FOR THE EDITORS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IT MUST BE MISERABLE to be on the Democratic left. For decades you've been inveighing against the evils of corporate power. For decades you've been waiting for a popular backlash against concentrated wealth, one that would finally provide momentum for the liberal economic policies you've been championing all along--for redistribution, for tighter regulations on business, for bigger and more active government.

And then suddenly, the moment comes! Almost everyone acknowledges that income inequality is on the rise. The rich are getting richer. The dot-com collapse has exposed the foolishness of the investor class. You've got the most corporate presidential administration in history, topped by two former oil executives and a former aluminum CEO. Then come a series of business scandals that exemplify a level of corporate greed that surpasses even your most pinko fantasies--Enron, Arthur Andersen, Tyco, Allfirst, Merrill Lynch, ImClone. And the biggest of these scandals, the Enron scandal, revolves around a man, Ken Lay, who is one of the biggest supporters of the president of the United States!

This is incredible! This is the perfect storm. Never before in your lifetime has there been such a confluence of events all pointing in the direction of a popular revolt against overweening corporate power. Surely now, the moment of economic liberalism is at hand.

And what happens? Nothing. A fizzle. The corporate scandals roil and roil, but their effect on American politics is practically nil. The president's approval numbers suffer not a bit. The Republican party loses no support and the Democratic party fails to gain. The liberals express joyful satisfaction at the scandals; they confirm everything liberals think they know about the rotten core of corporate America. But even Democratic leaders know that there will be no massive popular call for any of the things on the class-warfare liberals' wish list. The polls indicate that the general public does not see these as political scandals. Such issues are not playing a big role in the midterm elections. Republicans are now watering down measures to regulate the accounting industry, and Democrats concede that there will be no popular backlash.

The fact is the public is disgusted by Enron and the other scandals, but most Americans have not generalized their disgust into a widespread loss of faith in the current political-economic system. Unlike Washington activists or academic polemicists, most Americans live in the world of corporate America. It didn't take a series of scandals to teach them there are greedy and rotten people in corporations. Furthermore, the scandals don't negate the evidence they see every day--that there are many more decent and honorable people in corporations, and these businesses do far more to build wealth and improve lives than they do to mar them.

Furthermore, though there has been a loss of confidence in corporate elites, that does not mean Americans want to see government taking a dramatically more aggressive role in economic life. Outside of the liberal hard core, there is very little of what you would call class consciousness. Everybody gripes about the bosses, but that doesn't mean most Americans see the world as being divided between the People and the Powerful, as Bob Shrum and Al Gore preached in the 2000 election.

And if the economic liberals can't ride a wave to power now, when they have so much going in their favor, then they never will be able to ride a wave to power, certainly not when the economy finally recovers and when this amazing wave of scandals fades away. That's why it must be miserable to be on the Democratic left.

But that doesn't mean that all is hunky-dory for the right. Just because the class-warfare liberals are wrong, with their 1930s-style indictment of corporate power, doesn't mean that the increasing identification between the business community and American conservatism is not a problem. When conservatism was at its healthiest, it often allied with parts of the business community, but there were clear distinctions, and very often the two communities clashed. During the Cold War, conservatives wanted to topple communism, the business community wanted to trade with communism. During the early days of the Reagan administration, conservatives advocated supply-side tax cuts, while the business community by and large preached green-eyeshade fiscal austerity. During the Clinton administration, conservatives fought Hillary Clinton's health care plan, while many businesses initially sought to manipulate it for comparative advantage.

But now free marketeers and business organizations are more likely to work hand in glove. Many conservatives who came to town as activists now double as paid lobbyists. Now, typically, business groups provide the bucks and conservatives provide the troops for many of the ginned-up lobbying campaigns.