The end of the businessman president
There’s no managerial method—no special business sense—that can clear away the obstacles that are eroding our democratic system.
Welcome to Unshared, a newsletter by me, Kyle Edward Williams, about the history of the corporation and political economy. First things first—thanks for reading.
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Today what’s on my mind is the role of the businessman in American politics. And I don’t mean the business lobby or the power of big business to influence our democratic systems. I mean the idea that what America’s political institutions really need is a brash CEO type who’s iconoclastic enough to shake loose bureaucratic inertia and tear down entrenched special interests but who is nevertheless professional enough to solve our problems and govern equitably. It’s a myth akin to the fantasy of a superhero rescuer like Batman—the alter ego of a business executive, by the way, who fought the crime that Gotham City’s own municipal police were either too corrupt or too incompetent to handle.
But it’s a powerful myth and it’s been long held by many would-be reformers on both the political left and the right. Ross Perot was probably its original embodiment in recent American history. But plenty have tried their hand at it: Michael Bloomberg, Howard Schultz, Andrew Yang, Mitt Romney, among others. The most successful political figure to cast himself in the role of the omnicompetent business reformer, however, was Donald Trump. He ran his campaigns on the promise of draining the swamp and making the deals that no one else could.
I wrote about Trump and the history of the idea of the business reformer for The New Republic.
Modern America has long been infatuated with the transcendental wisdom ascribed to business sense, so it’s something of an oddity that the U.S. has not elected more businesspeople to the high office, even if many have tried. Indeed, it’s never really been the case that America has exhibited total deference to business leadership. Hoover was an engineer and business administrator, but he came to the presidency by way of a long tenure as secretary of commerce. Nelson Rockefeller tried and made it as far as the vice presidency after nearly four complete terms as governor of New York. But even Rockefeller’s background in business came more via family tradition than an actual career choice. (“Wasn’t it wonderful of Grandfather to make all this lovely money?” he once remarked.) George Romney, the Michigan automotive executive and governor, was another. He withdrew early from the 1968 presidential cycle as Rockefeller fought the Republican nomination out with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
In recent years, presidential candidates have made their business experience an important part of their pitch to the American voter. George W. Bush had a less-than-stellar career as an oil and gas executive, and his first major business success came from a lucrative deal with a group of wealthy family friends that made him managing general partner of the Texas Rangers, but he was still the first president to have an MBA—and his came from Harvard Business School. Time called Bush the “CEO president,” though one suspects that he might have been happier (and almost certainly more effective) as the commissioner of Major League Baseball.
Mitt Romney was a more realistic representative of today’s business world. As founding partner of the private equity firm Bain Capital, he made a killing doing leveraged buyouts of companies like Sports Authority and Domino’s, reorganizing them and often laying off massive numbers of employees before selling them again. It was a financial musical chairs routine that Romney touted as evidence that he was more equipped than Barack Obama to solve America’s economic problems back in 2012. Perhaps it was unsurprising that Americans didn’t trust an icon of outsourcing to turn the tide of unemployment. As his 2008 primary opponent Mike Huckabee famously remarked, Romney “looks like the guy who fires you,” as opposed to the guy you worked alongside—and Romney himself confirmed as much with his robber-baron pitch to a clatch of wealthy fundraisers that 47 percent of Americans were wannabe victims who lived on the government dole, which meant that the true makers of wealth had to seize and renew America’s flagging initiative. Other candidates or would-be candidates have marshaled their special business abilities and resources over the last 20 years: Steve Forbes, the late Herman Cain, Howard Schultz, Ted Turner, Michael Bloomberg, Carly Fiorina, Tom Steyer, and Andrew Yang.
Two or three more things…
This is a brief interruption before my next missive in which I’ll take up the history of conglomerates in the 1960s and the sophisticated financial strategies that came along with them.
I’m writing a book on the history of corporate power and the idea of business responsibility. It’s tentatively titled Unshared: A Failed History of Corporate Social Responsibility. And it’s under contract with W.W. Norton & Company.
My Twitter account is here.
The website is at www.kyleedwardwilliams.com.