It was in a speech before the Society for American Newspaper Editors that President Calvin Coolidge uttered the famous words:
After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these the moving impulses of our life.
It wasn’t an uncommon sentiment at the time. Booker T. Washington regarded commerce as the best solution to racism, as he announced in his famous Atlanta Compromise Speech.
During those early decades of the century, it would have been rare for any business leader to take a strong public position on social or political issues that didn’t bear directly on his business. But as Patrick Deneen argues well in “The Power Elite,” it has been many years since big business has stuck to commerce and left social and political issues alone. In that essay, which examines the Indiana RFRA controversy, Deneen claims that the support corporations give to the LGBT cause is a wise marketing decision. LGBT advocacy has become a fashionable social norm, and supporting it is nearly cost-free!
Added to that, twenty-first-century corporations have “a strong affinity with the lifestyles of those who are defined by mobility, ethical flexibility, liberalism (whether economic or social), a consumerist mentality in which choice is paramount, and a ‘progressive’ outlook in which rapid change and ‘creative destruction’ are the only certainties.” Rules about religious liberty only hamper the fluid boundlessness of free markets and the movement of capital.
One has to wonder, though, whether corporate activism in 2017 is still the wisdom it appeared to be in 2015. I say this because of the step Tim Cook of Apple took this month, of donating $1 million to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Cook added that the company would double-match employee contributions to the SPLC and other human rights groups.
And now others are following his lead. J.P. Morgan is pledging $500,000 for the SPLC to continue its “work in tracking, exposing and fighting hate groups and other extremist organizations,” the bank’s head of corporate responsibility said.
But let’s be clear about this action. The SPLC is not a “human rights group.” It used to be, back in the 1970s when it fought Klan groups across the country. Now it has become a smear organization that, as Charlotte Allen wrote in March, “pin[s] the label ‘white nationalist’ and ‘extremist’ on anyone who bucks the prevailing politically correct narrative.”
Of course, corporations have been contributing to liberal groups, such as NPR and the Ford Foundation, for a long time. But with this step, corporate America has entered a whole new hyper-political territory. As Kimberly Strassel noted in her op-ed on the donation in the Wall Street Journal, and as many readers of First Things are already aware, the SPLC has such an expansive definition of hate, it includes the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council in its notorious “Hate Map.” The map covers 917 groups—an easy number to reach, if following Biblical definitions of marriage as between a man and a woman counts as “hate.”
In other words, the SPLC is a political hatchet organization. This is, one might say, another triumph of the academics, the neo-Marxists I first encountered in graduate school in the mid-1980s. They weren’t terribly bright, and, surprisingly, they weren’t very learned. They didn’t even have chapter and verse of Marx himself in their heads. But they did have nifty slogans such as “Everything is political” and “You can’t escape ideology.” Well, they’ve done a good job of putting politics into everything, even the makers of digital tools and managers of the world's money. And they wonder why Donald Trump got elected…
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.