Elections are just around the corner again and one thing is certain– we’ll be hearing plenty from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. After all it has a cozy, some might even call it incestuous, relationship with every mainstream media outlet. Big money buys big access and the Chamber is one of the biggest spenders on the planet. In fact it is the largest lobbying group in the U.S., spending more money than any other organization on a yearly basis. It is also one of the most conservative.
The Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1912 by Taft as a firewall against what was seen by business interests as an increasingly powerful federal government (remembering Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting administration) and a surging labor movement (Eugene Debs’ Socialist Party won 6 percent in the 1912 election). From the beginning the Chamber’s raison d’etre was to undermine organized labor. It schemed in concert with another extreme anti-union outfit called the National Association of Manufacturers, which opposed efforts to expand workers’ compensation and ban child labor. They were quite successful (with an assist from politicians and police who dutifully ginned-up the Red Scare in 1919), leading to previously unparalleled business prosperity in the roaring 20s. But the party came at the expense of the working classes, the fortunes were made by speculators, corporation owners and bankers, not by those who produced and bought goods. We all know how that ended, with the stock market crash and the Great Depression.
Unfazed after helping run the country aground, the Chamber then tried to block the rescue boats from entering the harbor. It despised the New Deal, accusing Franklin Roosevelt of attempting to ‘Sovietize’ America, lobbying heavily against the president’s entire legislative package. Later, with the onset of war in Europe, these folks were so wrapped in ideological hatred for FDR that, incredibly, they opposed the Lend-Lease program, designed to supply the allies with critical material to fight the Germans (and which ultimately made their business constituents millions). Here is a question worth asking: had it not been for the devastation of U.S. industry in the Depression, and had not so many of the nation’s factories been laying fallow, would the Chamber and its allies have allowed FDR to so easily transition the industrial base to create the “arsenal of democracy” to fight and win WWII?
In the 1940s, as the nation’s economy recovered, so did the Chamber of Commerce. In 1947 it was instrumental in passing the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, the first major blow in the fight to emasculate a newly emboldened organized labor. In addition, the Chamber established itself as a permanent source of funds for America’s Cold Warriors. In the 1950s, learning from earlier successes, the Chamber was instrumental in bringing us the second Red Scare by lending critical financial and political support to Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt to root out communists in the trade unions, schools and government, ruining countless innocent careers and lives in the process; in the 1960s it lobbied, unsuccessfully, for the killing of Medicare; in the 1980s it campaigned against regulations on nuclear plants and mine safety rules. The list goes on, and on, ad infinitum (ad nauseam). But that’s the price of doing business, right?
Throughout its existence the Chamber of Commerce has consistently fought against healthcare reform, unionization, living wages, workplace safety, progressive taxation, progressive education and environmental action. In the fight against global warming poll after poll shows that a large majority of Americans believe the climate science, they understand that the planet has never faced a bigger challenge, but nearly all attempts at remedial action have been completely blocked in Washington, and the U.S. Chamber is a major reason why. It has lobbied against every effort to cut carbon emissions, most recently celebrating a SCOTUS decision allowing coal plants to continue to foul the air with mercury. Enormous amounts of Chamber of Commerce electoral contributions go to climate change deniers. The NAFTA and TPP trade deals, bad news for American workers and the environment, were practically authored by Chamber lobbyists.
One agenda where the Chamber of Commerce has failed miserably at home in recent decades has been in its effort to support big tobacco. But has that stopped these assassins? Nope, the Chamber continues to see no evil in killing people for profit, it has just pointed its death-ray at new targets:
U.S. Chamber of Commerce Works Globally to Fight Anti-Smoking Measures
So next election season, when I see those campaign ads sponsored by the innocuous sounding Chamber of Commerce, it will be my tipoff to vote for the other candidate. Easy!
You can bet the farm it won’t be bankrolling Bernie Sanders….
Related: How the Chamber of Commerce Established Libertarianism and Milton Freidman
The author interweaves the entire narrative with this class-warfare theme. Plentiful throughout are stories about pressure from below for political and economic reform vigorously countered by ruling elites. Over and over we read that the primary method for bolstering the bulwark against popular change was the manipulation of external threats to divert popular opinion. Nowadays we’ve heard the standard refrain all too many times, eerily similar to that of Livy– an enemy, real or perceived, threatens the national safety so an army must be raised. Senate (Patricians) can vote for war, but the Tribunes (Plebeians) can block the troop levy. Brinkmanship ensues, lines are drawn and scapegoating begins, political vacuums emerge and are filled, frequently by dictators, then more war. Dictators rise and fall, heroes are worshipped and human frailties frowned upon, gods are angered and placated with religious offerings, consuls and tribunes come and go. Through it all the populace is kept in constant fear of the barbarians just outside the gates. Rinse and repeat.
History reveals that the Plebeians have not fared well on average over the years in this environment. On the rare occasions when popular sentiment won the day the victors sometimes gained only the appearance of more power. Take the story of Servius for example. In it Livy explains that there was fairly broad suffrage among men in Rome, but that each vote did not carry the same weight from class to class. “The political reputation of Servius rests upon his organization of society according to a fixed scale of rank and fortune. He originated the census, a measure of the highest utility to a state destined, as Rome was, to future preeminence; for by means of its public service, in peace as well as in war, could thence forward be regularly organized on the basis of property; every man’s contribution could be in proportion to his means.” Livy states that “this had the effect of giving every man nominally a vote, while leaving all power actually in the hands of the Knights and the First Class.” (Livy, 1.44) Hence a narrowing of the field upon which the struggle for power is contested to a small number of privileged property owners.
Now think about how the US Congress is stacked against the popular will. By the time each Congress comes to order for the first time we the people have already surrendered a significant portion of our popular will by allowing ourselves to be winnowed down to 535 representatives (plus DC’s 3 electoral votes), some of whom stay on for decades. This narrowing of the target range to a manageable size creates a distinct advantage for influence peddlers (lobbyists and their benefactors). Then we double down by giving the less representative Senate the filibuster, thereby allowing a determined minority to kill bills that might emerge from the popular passions of the more representative House. The founding fathers did this by design to offset the tyranny of the majority. This is one of the famous checks and balances, and to be clear, by itself it is a strong philosophical concept and a serious requirement in a democracy. How else to offset the rule of the mob? In an oligarchy unfortunately it becomes a device to lock-in the desires of the ruling class. So, in the Senate, Wyoming has just as much power as California. Two senators each. Again the targets are narrowed even further for those fortunate enough to be allowed on the shooting range. Add a pinch of Citizen’s United and a dash of Gerrymandering and just as in Livy’s day there is broad suffrage, but most power actually resides in the hands of the Knights and the First Class. In that environment it is easy to see how the hopes and aspirations of the many can easily be hamstrung by the wishes of the few. Any wonder that it took one hundred years after the Civil War, and numerous failed attempts, to pass a civil rights act?
Livy writes in the preface: “The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see: and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.”
The class struggle still exists, and it is still rotten. For the Plebeians hope is the dope their masters keep pushing, but it’s a weak dose, just enough to keep ’em strung out. The Patricians meanwhile continue to sit high on the hog. The history is there for all to see, but the power elite owns powerful tools to blind people from seeing it, and hence learning lessons from it. They keep a nice clean the sheet of the collective memory. When is the last time you saw a history of American labor on the TV? We get barraged with content on the history of war, and capitalism, and politicians, and celebrity, but you will be hard-pressed to find anything on the struggle for unions, equal rights and fair wages and better working conditions. Several years ago I visited the Newseum in Washington, which was advertised as the national museum on the history of the American media, dedicated to news and journalism that promoted free expression and the First Amendment. I found precious little material on working class movements, strikes or industrial and corporate malfeasance. How much of this information were you taught in school? How much is in the textbooks? Yet most of us spend a large portion of our waking lives laboring. I imagine you will hear plenty about Chinese balloons today though. Not much has changed in the 2700 years since Livy’s tales. RF