Alyssa Katz is a journalist for the New York Daily Mail and a member of its editorial board. She was editor-in-chief of City Limits, an award-winning magazine investigating the institutions and policies at work in the neighborhoods of New York City. Before covering urban policy, politics and housing, Katz was a cultural critic for The Village Voice, The Nation and Spin. Mostly recently, she is the author of “The Influence Machine: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Corporate Capture of American Life.”
Katz spoke with Real Change recently about her book and how her research into the Chamber of Commerce’s policies has affected America’s poor and vulnerable.
So a big-picture question to start with, which has to do with the history and formation of the Chamber: Why do you think Americans specifically are so enamored with business?
It’s a really good question. The freedom in the U.S. to form and grow a business is supposed to be one of the great fundamentals of our system. In theory, this is a wonderful thing. I think the challenge that the modern form of the Chamber poses to that freedom is that it is really rallying the power of a relatively small number of big businesses — only about 1,500 companies provide most of its $200-plus million budget to protect their interests and business models even as those models and products and the ways of doing business pose a lot of harms to society. One reason it’s able to retail its message so effectively is because of this American passion for enterprise and business.
In the modern history of the Chamber, there’s this real tension and contradiction between the message that it’s there for American enterprise and the actions that work on behalf of very specific businesses that have real political and social problems in the modern environment, because their products have social and environmental impacts that, increasingly, people in society and the leaders they elect say it’s not acceptable to have. So those companies can’t market under their own names because it would not be credible politically. It would be self-serving and it would be very easy to target and challenge.
So by hiring the Chamber of Commerce to do their business, these companies and industries are able to buy the message that this is red-white-and-blue free-enterprise, don’t get in the way. To act against the Chamber is to act against the American economy. It’s not just a sort of ideological message; it’s a very practical threat: It would kill jobs. There’s a grain of truth in it: e.g., the coal industry in Kentucky. There will be disruption, people will lose jobs, but there’s this door wide open to a clean-energy economy.
The Chamber was formed to represent American business writ large. It used to represent businesses in the political arena by consensus. The new script is much more insidious to democracy in that you have a group that is really amplifying the voices of those who need to — and are willing to pay to — be heard not just as a matter of lobbying or media relations or free speech but to actually shift the political and legal terrain to amplify those voices. The Chamber’s ideological and practical pursuit is business’ ability to act without government interference, even when there [is] ample public interest and legal justification for government to act.
This is in reaction to the grassroots-level revolution of sorts in American politics in favor of stronger action on behalf of consumers, the environment and labor. You had strong representation in Congress, which is in the best manner of democracy, because people demanded these things — you definitely had some alignment between ballot-box democracy and certain policy choices that were coming through Congress and the White House.
And business wasn’t prepared at all for this grassroots onslaught at first. So what Tom Donahue — the leader of the modern Chamber, who really has made it into the political machine it is now — did in the late ’90s was build a power base that they had never had before. He worked closely with Republican Party leaders like John Boehner to support the election of business-friendly members of Congress. And paradoxically, the Chamber was able to take advantage of campaign finance reform back in 2002, which strictly limited corporations’ spending on elections. So corporations started looking for new avenues to influence elections. And the Chamber said, we want to figure out a way to do this through our status as a nonprofit group.
People challenge me and ask me how the Chamber can be so powerful, they’re losing all these fights, primarily the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) passage. And I say, because we have a president who is really smart and resourceful about pushing back through executive power. But the ACA almost didn’t pass and its present, very compromised form is entirely a product of the insurance industry holding the line against far greater possibilities.
The deck is totally stacked. And this is the constant theme: If the Chamber were only out there advocating hardline for their businesses, for certain policy positions, from a certain point of view, bless them. As I say in the book, I am glad to live in a country where individuals, businesses, whoever, can organize and be heard. That’s America; that’s democracy; that’s free speech. Fabulous. Where the Chamber really got into really ugly terrain is that not only is it secretive, not only is it acting in many cases on behalf of contributors who would never be able to lobby in the light of day, they are also saying things that are patently untrue, such as arbitration is good for consumers.
The Chamber’s political power gradually built cycle after cycle and also as laws change, because each time, the Chamber and other groups were pushing the envelope. You have gone from individual voters and the power of the ballot box to this overwhelming power of money in politics and the Chamber is certainly not the only group doing this, but is really strategic, smart and influential in how it was able to create this backdoor channel we call dark money.
And this is one slight misconception I’m always at pains to correct is that people think that Citizens United (2010) was sort of the enormous disaster that accounts for all this dark money in politics. Yes, it said that companies could spend unlimited amounts in politics and on elections but it made very clear that the sources of this funding had to be disclosed. And eight out of the nine justices spoke both in the majority and in the dissent saying this isn’t going to work unless you have disclosure. So the Chamber is leading the way in saying: We will take your money and we will never disclose your identities to anyone and we can justify this as our protected speech. The Federal Elections Commission (FEC) should step in here, but the FEC is three Democrats, three Republicans: deadlocked on everything.
Are the attack ads the Chamber runs what sway political opinion in the country or are they more focused on changing the laws so that it doesn’t really much matter what the public thinks because now we have the law on our side?
It’s a combination of all these efforts because you can’t change the laws without having majorities with the voting power to do it. It is very different for politicians to go against the grain of just basic, intuitive public sentiment about what’s in their interest. People know what they want, whether they identify as Republicans or Democrats, whatever their values and other kinds that go into their voting. They want a fair deal, they want a fair wage, basic stuff. The problem is that voter turnout is so low, people are so demoralized, that these ads do have an influence. The Chamber made common cause with Boehner to win the Congressional majority and to make sure that popular legislation, like the ACA or cap-and-trade or single-payer health care, any policies objectionable to business are out of the realm of possibilities.
So I’ve read Philip K. Howard’s “The Rule of Nobody,” and my take on what he said is that what’s crippling America is too much regulation in every sector of life. The Chamber’s work has led to a lot of deregulation, and I don’t think Howard would say that that’s good, but overall, if regulation is the problem, then wouldn’t deregulation work?
I agree with Howard: It’s serious not just in development, but in infrastructure. It’s unquestionably a drag on the economy. But the Chamber’s reform agenda is not Howard’s. It is not about getting rid of red tape to create better social goods and streamline processes and stop wasting government resources. The issue is, when anti-regulatory action is ideologically driven or on a broad-stroke basis regardless of the merits of the regulation, you end up engendering a kind of defensiveness. It becomes a reflexive protection because you don’t want to allow for any inroads. It’s a very natural defensive mindset and because you don’t necessarily have fresh political thought leaders.
I think Obama is doing this to some extent, and Clinton did it to some extent, but in general, in the Democratic Party, you don’t have so much of the dynamic political leadership that sees new opportunities to build coalitions, build common cause with, say, businesses that want to do things differently. And not just with nonprofits, but with the Googles and Apples of the world, businesses that have a lot of resources and obviously are not entirely angelic actors in their own right but at least are not out there promoting dirty businesses, which is really the Chamber’s main reason for being at this point.
So that is the perfect segue into my final question, which is what can individuals do? What would you recommend to remedy this?
In terms of regulated, the campaign finance stuff, all political donors need to be disclosed. Also, it might be a dumb thing to say, but people need to vote and engage and understand that it does make a difference. The Chamber has made its inroads into swing districts, take democratic districts that were fairly pro-consumer, pro-labor, pro-environment, flip them to conservative/Republican who could be someone who’d been vetted to be reliable friends of business.
If they can be flipped one way, they can be flipped another. And again, it doesn’t matter which party we’re talking about, it just matters that that individual member of Congress knows who they answer to. They can’t continue thinking, as they unfortunately do now, that they’re just going to answer to the person writing the checks. At the end of the day, unless the electronic voting machines are more compromised than we realize, people still vote. Those election results are still the ones that prevail, so individually, we can just exercise our power as citizens. We can do our best to be informed citizens and we can only do that if the disclosures are what they need to be. I have no easy answers,c but those are my best recommendations.
We’re at such an interesting moment because people’s identity as citizens is so fragmented. I kind of attribute the polarization on both ends to being overwhelmed by information. People are busy; they want someone who’s going to make things make sense to them. And the narratives that are going to make sense are the ones that don’t have shades of gray, that are going to be at the extreme. And even if you’re inclined to do a lot of thinking about this, you want a clear and coherent narrative. And so you end up in a realm of competing narratives that all aim to push emotional buttons. Or maybe you sort of know how compromised all the candidates are, you don’t have any sense that this really is a democracy. Democracy’s tough; you have to work for it.