I sometimes hear it suggested that almost all political problems can be blamed on the financial clout of corporations. Indeed, it’s obviously true that corporations do have a lot of influence. Even before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that overturned a century’s worth of laws preventing direct corporate funding of political campaigns, big business spent huge sums on lobbyists, and the people who run corporations raised fat campaign contributions for their preferred politicians.
On the other hand, while corporations have some interests in common (notably lower corporate taxes and less regulation) there are plenty of political disputes where there’s no particular corporate economic interest in either side (abortion and same-sex marriage, for example), or where different corporations would benefit from opposing policies (e.g., open versus restricted international trade). Naïvely attributing everything in politics to the economic interests of corporations ignores major factors, notably ideology and religion.
A September 3 article by Eduardo Porter in The New York Times makes a number of points worth noting. Large corporations typically favor immigration reform and major infrastructure spending, but it’s the Republican Party, the party most supported by big business types, that has blocked both. Meanwhile the anticipated flood of corporate cash following Citizens United doesn’t seem to have materialized, at least not yet and not to the extent feared. Of the $6.3 billion in 2012 political spending, corporate treasuries coughed up only about $75 million in direct contributions. Even if indirect spending is accounted for the total is a pretty small piece of the political pie.
According to Porter’s article, a lot of academic research suggests that ultra-wealthy individual donors are the ones who tend to back the sort of extreme candidates who have created today’s hyper-partisan politics (especially on the right) and led to a gridlocked Congress.
Incidentally, Porter omits to mention the mid-1990s K-Street Project led by Representative Tom DeLay (R-Mordor) to pressure business to favor Republican interests, an example of politicians influencing corporations rather than the other way around.
Things may be even worse at the state and local level. Corporations have long spent a lot to influence state governments in order to get the rules they want, but lately rich individual donors have spent so much getting their individual candidates elected at the lower levels that the far right has taken over a few state governments, including ours in North Carolina, and started using gerrymandering and voter suppression in an effort to lock in their current control.