How Corporations Control Politics

In my Salon column today, I look at new research examining how corporations influence politics.

Money talks. But how?

From “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to Citizens United, the story goes like this: The wealthy corrupt and control democracy by purchasing politicians, scripting speech and writing laws. Corporations and rich people make donations to candidates, pay for campaign ads and create PACs. They, or their lobbyists, take members of Congress out to dinner, organize junkets for senators and tell the government what to do. They insinuate money where it doesn’t belong. They don’t build democracy; they buy it.

But that, says Alex Hertel-Fernandez, a PhD student in Harvard’s government department, may not be the only or even the best way to think about the power of money. That power extends far beyond the dollars deposited in a politician’s pocket. It reaches for the votes and voices of workers who the wealthy employ. Money talks loudest where money gets made: in the workplace.

Among Hertel-Fernandez’s findings:

1. Nearly 50% of the top executives and managers surveyed admit that they mobilize their workers politically.

2. Firms believe that mobilizing their workers is more effective than donating money to a candidate, buying campaign ads, or investing in large corporate lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce.

3. The most important factor in determining whether a firm engages in partisan mobilization of its workers—and thinks that that mobilization is effective—is the degree of control it has over its workers. Firms that always engage in surveillance of their employees’ online activities are 50 percent more likely to mobilize their workers than firms that never do.

4. Of the workers who say they have been mobilized by their employers, 20% say that they received threats if they didn’t.

My conclusion:


When we think of corruption, we think of something getting debased, becoming impure, by the introduction of a foreign material. Money worms its way into the body politic, which rots from within. The antidote to corruption, then, is to keep unlike things apart. Take the big money out of politics or limit its role. That’s what our campaign finance reformers tell us.

But the problem isn’t corruption. It’s…

Read more here.


  1. Hal Ginsberg June 7, 2015 at 10:18 am | #

    Professor Robin – you conclude your post with this sentence: “Unless you confront the latter, you’ll never redress the former. Without economic democracy, there’s no political democracy.” I am curious as to what you consider to be “economic democracy”. Is it a system like Germany’s where labor union representatives sit on the boards of major corporations? If so, what about small businesses? They don’t have boards of directors and are controlled by their individual owner. Would you level society such that there are no wealth disparities and therefore nobody can have economic power over anybody else.

  2. charles June 7, 2015 at 11:09 am | #

    Looks pretty bleak, combined with your previous post on aesthetics. But Hal asks a good question: How now for mitigation?

  3. jonnybutter June 7, 2015 at 2:38 pm | #

    I’m sensing an implied perfection fallacy in these comments, as if by not providing a perfect solution, CRs observation is somehow invalidated. But the observation is true or it isn’t regardless, so what do *you* think about it? After you decide, then think about solutions, perfect or otherwise, or not.

    • Glenn June 8, 2015 at 11:07 am | #

      Americans are accustomed to having problems brought to their attention in the normal course of receiving a sales pitch for a commodity or service. Such are our electoral campaigns.

      The perfect consumer doesn’t think about the problem, but readies himself for the miracle solution, snake oil or not, so he can avoid the dangers of independent thinking outside of a market that is believed to present all possible socially acceptable, apolitical, market solutions, for a low, low price.

  4. jonnybutter June 7, 2015 at 3:00 pm | #

    sorry to be a little snotty there. I’ve been reading Crooked Timber which has made me crazed and obsessed with rhetorical trickery.

    What I meant was:

    a.) Do we have to decide right now how much things should or shouldn’t be leveled, economically? It’s not going to be a direct, short, definite path no matter what, about starting with something we know would help, like some labor laws? If we clear on what we want, it’s more likely that we’ll get it.


    b.) One of the biggest social pollutants we swim around in, unawares, is the idea that marketing is everything. Marketing makes it So. Maybe you didn’t mean it this way Charles, but it sounds a bit like: hey, don’t be bleak! People don’t like that! You’ll never win people over that way!

    While it is true that people don’t like bleak. that is *your* word, not the author’s. It just is what it is. No cure without diagnosis.

  5. charles June 7, 2015 at 3:39 pm | #

    ok, clarity is key. I just don’t see an end to this. I see the rate of acceleration accelerating. As as population grows, well you all know more about this than me. But Eric Hobsbawm explained well that little can be predicted because the situation is unprecedented and the acceleration removes us farther and farther from any precedent. Almost all futurists are almost always wrong. So, rather than bleak, I’ll say concerning at a level without precedent. So, how now for mitigation?

  6. charles June 7, 2015 at 3:44 pm | #

    oh, I just re-read your comment. No, I meant it’s bleak. Does anyone have a solution other than the bourgeois s revolution that isn’t coming? We have the diagnosis, we have the prognosis. Is there such a thing as democratic socialism?

  7. charles June 7, 2015 at 3:59 pm | #

    And I enforce labor laws for a living. I side with my clients, and I side with labor. But I cAn see a lot of negative unintended consequences of the labor laws and there enforcement. We sued all of big pharma claiming that the reps that drop off samples were entitled to overtime. The Administration agreed. We won in one Circuit and lost in another. SCOTUS decided 5-4 against us. What if we had one? I would have done exceedingly well. tens of thousands of class clients would have done very well. But I might have cost 100,000 people their jobs. I know this from defense counsel I discussed it with long after. Those jobs will go anyway with time (technology) but in the meantime, tens of thousands of people would have lost their homes, many families would have broken. The overtime and anti discrimination laws are beautiful things, but carried to the ends that any individual case might in fairness demand, they can create a permanently unemployable underclass. I think this might be the case in some European countries- if you can’t fire w/o cause , many people with a blemish in their personal or work history will never get a second chance. Let’s take Cory’s case. I propose a law outlawing political coercion of workers. Sounds good. What are some of the negative unintended consequences? Maybe people with tea party social media are the only people that get hired?

  8. jonnybutter June 7, 2015 at 4:43 pm | #

    I pulled labor law out of the air (or out of my ass, if you prefer). I don’t know that that’s an answer in the near term, but it probably is. You narrative isn’t convincing about the trade offs. The devil is in the details. There may be *some* kernel of truth in it, but…you know because defence atty told you that 100k people would lose their jobs if Case A went one way or another? Is it always zero (or negative) sum like that?

    I also don’t understand this (and forgive me in advance if I am just dense): “if you can’t fire w/o cause , many people with a blemish in their personal or work history will never get a second chance.” Do you mean that it’s better to be fired without cause because being fired with cause makes it harder to get employed again? Really?! THAT is a new one on me.

    My view is that there will be fewer and fewer jobs for more and more people in the coming years no matter what. How we deal with that – either by guaranteeing something like a universal income on the one hand, or by allowing rentiers to make most people dance a pathetic jig just to survive (so that they ‘deserve’ to survive), on the other. There is some kind of revolution coming no matter what.

    • charles June 7, 2015 at 5:26 pm | #

      as to the defense attorneys, they weren’t the CEO’s and they probably didn’t know what they were talking about. It was just an illustration of consequences. IOW- we would have said L’chaim about our victory for exploited workers, but without thought to what that means all in.

      Yes, it is true, and I think it can e demonstrated. If you are an employer (I am) , the employment at will doctrine still operative in this country means that you can afford to take a chance on someone that might have some skeletons, or someone you think might work out and you are willing to give them a shot. You can fire for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason at all. For instance, you as an employer make a mistake and fire someone for habitual tardiness. It turns out they were never tardy. They have no claim unless you fired them for a discriminatory reason; a mistaken reason, or you just don’t like them, is permissible. If that were not the case, a large % of people could not get jobs because only proven good workers with no slip ups or resume gaps are safe to hire- since you cannot fire without cause and cause is usually subjective and firing brings a lawsuit by someone like me. So there develops a permanent class that will never be hired because there very employment carries legal risk. This is another way of life being for the lucky or the strong. Bottom line, if we seek perfect fairness, we screw more people than we help. It’s heart v head.

      You have proposed a solution, revolution. That might be a good solution, but what is the new system? If we redistribute wealth, concentrations of capital will again develop over time, and workers will have traded one overlord for another.

      Obviously, this sucks. But how to mitigate?

      • Perhaps, as a possible solution, we should strip employers of ALL power over non employers since even the latter find themselves suffering at the will of the so called “job creators”, so bold are they to declaim their indispensableness to the rest of us. One of the central theses at the heart of Corey’s analysis is the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of the employer’s power over workers (and even over those of that class who are without employment due to no choice of their own).

        To be an employer is a privilege and not a right. Yet rather we treat being employed as a fact of sheer good luck borne of the “oblige” of the employer (some even pray over their meals to God for the bounty before them). Consequently we treat employers as those to whom we supplicate for employment, to thus rescue us from destitution. Our own right to live is the privilege gifted to us by our bosses — until we get fired for whatever reason (offshoring, “cause”, or anything else).

        If we accept that being an employer is only a privilege, borne upon the sufferance of the laboring classes, then that shifts the critical dimension dramatically. It is labor that matters and not the boss class that pushes it around.

        There is a reason why, in some countries (and in the past, the United States) that the military and the paramilitary is called upon to shot restive workers is because “bosses” do not want workers to get it into their heads that workers matter more than bosses do. Any understanding of the workers true importance will upend the dynamic that places bosses as the power over workers. The prospect of injury inflicted by bosses and their agents is to be avoided. That this is even a prospect AT ALL allows a misreading of the employers’ power as an employers’ rights.

        Take away that power over workers — and with it ALL POWER OVER WORKERS — and democracy stands a better than even chance of penetrating those levels of social relations where democracy is sorely needed.

        I toss down a gauntlet: someone defend the employer as boss.

        There are ways of obtaining a living with an employer that do not mean that a boss gets to rule your life and your government.

        Economist Rick Wolff explores some in his writings. Naomi Klein and her husband made a documentary about an example in South America.

        Another world is possible.

        It can be done.

        • jonnybutter June 8, 2015 at 6:55 pm | #

          things are so out of whack that employers make localities and states *compete* for job sites via gigantic tax breaks when in reality the jobs and businesses exist as an exponent of government, not the other way around. The American Way, most of the time, has unfortunately been to subsidize big business as a matter of course, as if the public owes its life to the companies, rather than vice versa. From firms not paying for externalities (like pollution) to subsidizing WalMart’s low low wages with food stamps, etc, the method changes, but the ethos doesn’t (usually).

          I’m with Donald anyway, however. Another world most certainly *is* possible. Eventually, the inevitable collapse of the job market will be a cataclysm I hope people who care about deep, evolved, human dignity are prepared for.

  9. jonnybutter June 8, 2015 at 9:07 am | #

    I didn’t propose a revolution. I said that one was coming no matter what, because in what we still call ‘the industrial world’, we aren’t going to need humans to do very much work in the near future, hence very few jobs.

    You explaination of why utterly contingent, powerless labor is better for labor than labor protections strikes me as bizarre, but I have a busy day, so won’t argue with you about it. Cheers.

  10. graccibros June 8, 2015 at 3:13 pm | #

    Good post Corey. A couple of follow up points:

    Alan Brinkley’s “The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War,” which came out at the height (arguably), the high tide of neoliberalism and the nadir of labor’s power in 1995, the Clinton era, hones in on the closest we have ever come to economic democracy, in the middle to late New Deal, after the Wagner Act, when labor had some real leverage and tried to exert it within the coming mobilization for war, 1939-1941. Labor’s seat, participation on the boards governing war work, how far did it go, what did they have a say over…not a voice over the internal processes, in return for a no-strike pledge (not honored very well) the trade-off of union acceptance and union shops…and I think it’s fair to say we didn’t even achieve economic democracy here, at the height of union power…all down hill after that..Taft-Hartley…Red Scare…McCarthyism…mobility of capital, going to Mid-West, then Mexico, then Asia…

    Second, it’s pretty tough for any courageous individual or organizing attempt in the private workplace to get any leverage if “only the private sector can create jobs”, if there is no “Second Bill of Rights” with the government stepping in, in a new CCC or WPA, to achieve full employment…a great imbalance of power…see FDR’s Second Bill, 1944…will Sander’s refer to it?

    Third, from personal first hand experience at a large retail firm whose hiring practices meant such an age, race, ethnicity, gender fragmented workplace that it would take a Ph.D in the following fields to organize successfully: anthropology, sociology, psychology and fluency in at least four languages…Harder than the steel/coal workplaces of 1880’s-1890’s? I don’t know. I think it is…equal at least…

    Four: Does Gar Alperovitz have the correct approach: to founding co-operative workplaces from scratch, in a low key, small is beautiful (and beneath the radar of the ideological currents Corey writes about)? I don’t know. I do know that he ignores the power of individualism in American life, intensified by 30 years of neoliberal emphasis on competition, not co-operations, and overestimates how much alternative thinking is left in even the co-operative listings he keeps ticking off…

    Five: Small may not be ideologically beautiful, as the Tea Party’s base in small firms tends to show…Even among good green alternative firms, and they are a reality: when it comes to wages, labor policies, gov’t regulatory programs…do they go left or right…many are libertarian…?

    Change comes down to the “ideas inside peoples heads” on what Corey has written about and my “footnotes” here. I have noted in my own life that those most favorable to Gar. A’s direction tend to detach from the battle of ideas and electoral processes. Not an absolute, not close, but a tendency to withdraw from the national and state capital gridlocks and stalemates, and go local, with our culture’s long standing steak of Leathertocking individualism, Helen and Scott Nearingisms…and so forth…

    And yet I am heartened by the response so far to Mr. Sanders’ campaign. Can it get at what Corey is writing about? Maybe it has and I have not be paying close enough attention.

    • Glenn June 8, 2015 at 3:30 pm | #

      The Sander’s campaign rhetoric lists precisely what the Democratic Party stands opposed to, has opposed in the past and will most likely oppose in the future.

      Sanders, like Obama before him, knows exactly what the people want, but they are not going to get it.

      The party is not ready for reform.

      Nor, in the scale of changes needed, revolution.

      We vote for rhetoric, not policy. These must never be confused.

  11. Junius June 16, 2015 at 8:56 am | #

    You can becoming rich as you want: just your power must be accountable.
    Is it possible? Certainly not. Power is also the power to escape responsibility. And capitalism is absolute absence of responsibility. (Remind Strauss’s arguing about the modern meaning of the word “responsibility” and Orwell’s arguing about the Hayek’s Road to Serfdom “of irresponsibility of the market”)
    Or capitalism, or democracy. But “no capitalism” is not “yes democracy”…
    The best way, in my not so humble opinion, was the european way: Constitution limits government, government limits market, big Unions limit big corporations, and small and medium business become the real “well being” and democratic core power
    In the SMB’s, the worker is not a human resource: He’s a person on which the entrepreneur has invested time, money and passion.

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