As analyses of the first months of the Trump administration continue, let’s reflect on how much control the corporate sector now has within major areas of the U.S. Government.
Let’s survey the scene. The head of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, recently hailed a new era of environmental deregulation, after he spent years fighting the EPA on behalf of the extractive sector. The Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, has no prior experience in public education apart from what she might have learned in the decades she led the lobby for privatization of education in Michigan. Meanwhile, Trump’s children oversee his billion dollar business empire while also advising him on being President, and they are taking on increasingly significant roles in the everyday operations of his administration. In the courts, Leonard Leo, head of the conservative, pro-corporate Federalist Society, has taken care of securing the appointment of another conservative, pro-corporate Supreme Court Justice.
The Trump White House decided it will keep the visitor log secret from the public, which is in step with Trump’s infamous policy to not release his taxes. Perhaps he fears us knowing which lobbyists he meets with, or revealing how his tax records might provide more detail into the $300 million he owes to (Russian money-laundering) Deutsche Bank AG. Meanwhile Trump has also been busy paying back his corporate election supporters, by reversing President Obama’s policy of moving away from federal use of private prisons. This reversal by Trump repays the $750,000 of campaign support he received from the private prison industry during the election.
From an historical perspective, the current situation represents a complete victory of the private sector strategy laid out by the US Chamber of Commerce in the 1971 Powell Memo – the playbook for how corporate America planned to influence schools, the media, and our political and judicial systems, all to advance their business interests. Fast forward more than forty years and we see how today’s Trump administration is not merely corporate-friendly, but is in fact a corporate government. The Chamber of Commerce and their friends at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are certainly pleased with the situation.
Now more than ever we must push as hard as we can to win back democratic space by separating the decision making of regulatory, executive, and judicial agencies from corporate lobbyists. Some notable, yet isolated, initiatives have occurred in the last ten or so years. For example, in 2009 President Obama took the initiative to prevent lobbyists entering government, and vice versa (which President Trump has also subsequently weakened). Within civil society, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and our partners have used the courts to reveal human rights abuses arising from nefarious corporate-state relationships. For example, CCR has used Freedom of Information laws to reveal corporate profit motives underlying the operation of US immigration detention centers. CCR has also litigated against private military contractors like Blackwater, founded by Erik Prince (the controversial brother of Betsy Devos, and occasional advisor to Trump) to illustrate how the use of private companies in support of U.S. war-making can lead to serious human rights violations. Other pioneering civil society work in the area include Color of Change’s work to boycott companies engaged in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for their leading role in diabolical legislation like stand your ground and restrictive voter ID laws.
While these efforts are making progress, we need much more attention on phenomenon of ”corporate capture,” because the groups leading the implementation of the strategies laid down by the Powell Memo are more active than ever. For example, last month the U.S. House or Representatives passed Bill 985 which is trying to stop people hurt by a consumer product or service from seeking justice in a court using a class action lawsuit. Unsurprisingly, ALEC has proclaimed the initiative as one of their own.
Far from ALEC being alone in this field, though, there are a whole suite of trade associations, like the US Chamber of Commerce (and their affiliates in other countries), that use their finances and contacts to bank-roll, threaten, coopt and otherwise wield influence over politicians, regulatory agencies and even judges.
While we may be able to count on big business continuing to push for ever more control over our democratic institutions, we can also take encouragement that across society people growing more skeptical of how corporations are taking more control over our politics and society. It’s a big part of the gnawing feeling that the system is rigged, which is transcending across political affiliations throughout the general public.
Consider too that all shades of the human rights, environmental, social justice, and open democracy movements depend heavily on the independence of our democratic systems in order to respond to the needs of people, not corporations. So any corporate control over our politics and democratic institutions is a direct threat to the well-being of everyone.
This practical reality is as much a uniting force as the common visions we share for society. By recognizing that corporate capture is a threat to us all, that we need to take common action together, we can also engage a deeply jaded population that is hungry for government to put them first.