The GOP and Corporatism
Those easily sickened should avoid reading this Slate article, which recounts KBR’s infuriating attempt to shuffle an employee who was allegedly gang-raped into private arbitration instead of allowing her a day in court. The company’s blatant disregard for Jamie Leigh Jones’ allegations are bad enough, but the GOP’s clueless response is quite possibly worse:
Evidently KBR is still smarting from Sen. Al Franken’s amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, which withholds defense contracts from companies that “restrict their employees from taking workplace sexual assault, battery and discrimination cases to court.” That measure passed the Senate in December, with 30 Republicans voting against it. President Obama signed it into law.
Those same 30 male Republican senators who voted against the Franken amendment learned the hard way that it’s never smart politics to try to lock Jamie Leigh Jones in a closet. They were mystified by the blowback last fall. David Vitter of Louisiana, for example, was confronted at a town hall meeting by a devastated rape victim. (Vitter blamed President Obama and walked away). John Thune of South Dakota tried to say the Franken amendment was a “politically inspired amendment” that aimed to do away with arbitration in labor agreements.
If you find the response of noted bordello client David Vitter baffling, you’re not alone, but I think this incident offers some insight into the GOP’s uncomfortable relationship with corporations and corporatism. The standard liberal explanation for the Republican Party’s close affinity for the business community is that Republicans get a lot of campaign contributions from big companies. The reality of corporate political influence is a lot more complicated, but even if the liberal hypothesis were true, it doesn’t offer much of an explanation for Vitter and Thune’s enthusiasm for defending accused rapists. Doesn’t the risk of a public backlash outweigh the financial support of a single corporation, even one as powerful as KBR?
This is not the first time I’ve been confused by Republicans’ strange aversion to anti-corporate populism. Responding to President Obama’s proposed banking reforms, Thune accused Democrats of inciting “class warfare.” That Thune disagrees with the president’s prescription for financial reform is no great surprise – he remains, to the best of my knowledge, a Republican in good standing. But his proposed alternative consists of . . . repealing the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Ending TARP is not an outlandish idea, but I’m not sure what it has to do with solving the problem of a financial sector that remains dangerously prone to systemic collapse. Instead of proposing a populist conservative alternative, however, Thune can’t get beyond yelling “class warfare” and implausibly claiming that the public’s anger is rooted in opposition to wasteful earmarks. This is not only wrong-headed but fundamentally bad politics: the public’s anger clearly has something to do with the massive corporate bailouts they were forced to subsidize.
In both the KBR rape case and the debate over financial reform, Republicans remain strangely unwilling to tackle corporate malfeasance head-on, even when it’s richly deserved. The most recent – and absurd – example of this tendency came during the debate over health care reform, when Republican lawmakers only denounced the bill as a corporate giveaway after progressives aired similar criticisms.
For better or worse, the Republican Party has historically associated itself with the business community to defend free enterprise and limit the growth of government. The unwillingness of Republicans to actively denounce corporatism strikes me as a logical outgrowth of this relationship, as conservative politicians seem conditioned to avoid blaming corporations for just about anything. But Republicans shouldn’t have to be prompted by the Left to denounce big business. Instead, they should recognize that concentrated corporate power and corporate-government collusion are at least as great a threat to personal autonomy as statist encroachment. Despite its tone-deaf approach, the GOP has inadvertently benefited from populist and anti-incumbent sentiment in Massachusetts, New Jersey and elsewhere. If the GOP is unwilling to respond with populist policies that address genuinely pressing issues like financial reform, I predict that this highly-touted Republican renaissance will prove fleeting.