Corporations aren't people, despite what Mitt Romney famously said… but can they be partners? That's a question progressives have been discussing since Bill Scher's essay appeared in the Times this Sunday, arguing that liberal change happens when corporations are brought in as allies, not adversaries.
Scher - an author, blogger (and, I should note, a friend) - made the case that Obama's signature achievements required cooperation from Big Business: the Chamber of Commerce was on the side of the stimulus; insurance companies helped pay for ads supporting the Affordable Care Act. Furthermore, Scher contends that historical heroes of liberal achievements - FDR and LBJ - learned when to play nice with the titans of capital in order to get things done.
Not all progressives agree, and Scher has been taking punches since the piece was published, reacting with his usual humor and charm. The main criticism of his assessment is three-fold. First, because Obama didn't try to do it without corporate corroboration, we have no idea how far he could have gotten. Second, because he intentionally opened the door to these money-driven allies, he gave them access to weakening the legislative acts and conforming them to ends more pro-profit than pro-public. Third, some have argued that we will never truly change the system until we try to do so without the imprint of Big Business.
Scher contends that Bill Clinton's failed healthcare drive shows what happens when you shut corporate allies out. And he clearly considers the ACA a victory, while other progressives may begrudgingly call it a step forward, and still others see it as a terrible step backward. Overall, he argues that corporate resources and reach shouldn't be ignored - they can hurt you, or they can help you.
I made a kindred-spirited argument last week in discussing Nike's cooperation with the LGBT community to combat homophobia and bullying in sports at all levels. Personally, I do think the Obama Administration has been too cozy with corporations - something I would have vehemently slammed their predecessors for. However, I do agree with Scher's larger argument - if we can't beat them, engage them.
Look beyond healthcare and financial reform - are there other issues where corporations can be the allies we need? We've seen big tech companies come to the aid of a free and open internet - sure, it's the right thing to do, but it's also critical to their bottom line.
There are energy companies that are investing more heavily in solar, geothermal and renewable energies because our public policy has incentivized them - and that may make them our partners in weaning off of oil.
If we want immigration reform, an increased investment in education, support for infrastructure, advances in medical and climate research, we can find businesses with aligning interests. The key is not to let them dictate the terms and that's where you do want a more vocal and unequivocal anti-corporate faction pushing the negotiations to the left and keeping political brokers honest.
For Scher's approach to work well, Scher's more uncompromising critics also need to be at the table. We can work toward a world where no bank is too big to fail, no big box chain or fast food franchise holds veto power over how our food is grown and products are packaged, no conglomerate is so large that they define working conditions. We should work toward that end - but we can't wait for that to become a reality before making progress now.
Corporations still aren't people - but they exist - and let's make sure they are working for us and not just the other way around.