“Ah, David,” Buckley replied, arching his brows and flaring his nostrils in his characteristic way. “I suppose if Lee Iacocca were here with us, he would give you this answer.” The Chrysler boss was perhaps the most famous businessman in America at the time, and the idea that he might parry my thrust was so heady that I leaned forward eagerly. Buckley paused a beat, then hit me with a simple two-word f-bomb.
A lot of what I thought at 19 I no longer believe to be true, and I’m suspicious of anyone much older than 20 who can’t say the same. But that insight into the hypocrisy of corporate socialists — a government for me but not for thee — remains unrebuttable, except with a middle finger. America’s small and midsize businesses are fierce competitors, but once a business becomes large enough to influence Washington, its inner dole-sponge rises to the surface. Too many big businesses hate the free market; it’s so energetic and demanding. They hire armies of lobbyists and spread mountains of cash to secure protection and largesse at the expense of would-be rivals.
This is not a left-wing or right-wing critique. You can find it in the progressive pages of the Nation and in the conservative columns of the Wall Street Journal. Even casual observers got the picture when the hard rain began to fall in 2008 and 2009. Main Street lost jobs, homes and businesses in the Great Recession, while Wall Street extracted massive government bailouts to save their megabanks and factories from the stern discipline of the market.
In the coming election, President Trump hopes to wrap the word “socialism” around the neck of the Democratic nominee. And polls show that many Democrats are fine with the word. Trump will have plenty of material to work with.
The best response is to remind voters that big business enjoys the cushiest of safety nets and first dibs at the government trough. Its welfare checks round up to the nearest billion. If Democrats champion socialism against capitalism, they lose. But they might win as champions of a government for the little guy against government for the rich. The key battlegrounds are those hundreds of counties across America that supported the outsider Barack Obama and later backed the outsider Donald Trump. Those folks understand, and resent, the socialism of the well-connected.
To my surprise, Sen. Bernie Sanders found the right note in a recent speech (though he usually sounds like a tourist trying to special-order a Taco Bell chalupa at a restaurant in Madrid. Slow . . . er. Loud . . . er.). “Overnight,” Sanders said of the Great Recession, “Wall Street became big government socialists and begged for the largest federal bailout in American history — some $700 billion from the Treasury and trillions in support from the Federal Reserve.
“But it’s not just Wall Street that loves socialism — when it works for them,” Sanders continued. “It is the norm across the entire corporate world. The truth is that corporate America receives hundreds of billions of dollars in federal support every single year, while these same people are trying to cut programs that benefit ordinary Americans.”
Personally, I would love to see a candidate in 2020 willing to make a spirited case for capitalism. I believe it is the most dynamic force for progress and freedom the world has ever seen. But with the left wing revitalized in the Democratic Party, and fat cats running amok among Republicans, my cadre of capitalists, ready to compete vigorously and creatively on level ground, is politically homeless.
When an economy at full employment still runs a trillion-dollar deficit, no party involved can plausibly claim to be in favor of small or responsible government. Instead, the 2020 election will play out against a backdrop of runaway government spending. The challenge for Democrats is to hold Trump and the Republicans accountable for their rampant corporate socialism.
The Americans, many of them young, who proudly tell pollsters they are socialists may not hold those views forever. For now, they’ve noticed that the government vault swings open whenever the well-connected come calling. They sense that the game is rigged, and their answer isn’t complicated. In fact, it boils down to two simple words.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.