The Emerging Anti-Corporate Majority

Hatred of companies' growing power and influence has become a uniting force.


Photographer: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

In this age of seemingly unending partisan rancor, it’s heartening to see something that brings the nation together. Something like, you know, hating on United.

Sure, the airline’s passenger-dragging debacle last week elicited differing explanations and proposed solutions from people of differing political persuasions. But apart from the apoplexy occasioned by a Chicago crime journalist who suggested on Twitter that the United passengers who documented the incident on their smartphones should be prosecuted (and has since described her statements as part of a “parody & satire act”), the incident seems to have drawn Americans together, not apart.

This is mainly a problem for United Airlines Inc., which continues to grapple with one of the greatest corporate-reputation disasters of modern times. But there may be something broader afoot -- and people in the business world should be concerned about it. It’s that if there is potential for a political alliance that can break through Washington’s long deadlock, it might just be a coalition aligned against large, publicly traded corporations.

Consider the Huffington Post/YouGov poll taken after President Donald Trump signed a bill allowing telecom and cable companies to share customers’ web-browsing histories without consent: 84 percent of Republicans, 82 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of independents polled agreed that telecom and cable companies shouldn’t be allowed to share customers’ web-browsing histories without consent.

It is true that airlines, cable companies and telecoms are especially disliked. In the American Customer Satisfaction Index rankings, providers of internet, television and telephone services dominate the bottom of the list, just below airlines, health insurers, utilities, hotel chains and, interestingly, social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook.

In an examination of the United affair in the National Review, Kevin D. Williamson heaped together airlines, cable providers, health insurers and banks as highly consolidated, heavily regulated industries that all enjoy an “in-your-face asymmetry of power” vis-à-vis their customers. Williamson’s main takeaway was that regulation is the problem -- and in some sectors, that’s surely a big part of it.

But Facebook doesn’t enjoy an “asymmetry of power” because of regulation; it enjoys it because of the winner-take-all nature of the business it’s in. Industry after industry in the U.S. has been consolidating in recent years. And corporate interests’ influence on the legislative system and courts has been growing as well.

This growing corporate power inevitably breeds resentment. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both stoked it on the campaign trail with their tirades against outsourcing. Since becoming president, Trump has toned down his corporation bashing -- and, whaddya know, his approval ratings have sagged, while Sanders is now the most popular active politician in the U.S.

That’s partly because it’s easier to rail against corporate misdeeds than it is to come up with practical political actions to correct them. Resentment of concentrated economic power has been a factor in American politics since the very beginning, but it has only occasionally been decisive. Voters are usually more concerned about other issues, parties prefer to build coalitions that don’t exclude people with lots of money, etc.

Still, this does seem to be an era in which the anti-corporate mood stands a shot. Voters around the Western world have already been expressing disdain for things that big corporations like, such as immigration and free trade. What’s to stop them from focusing their ire more directly at the corporations themselves?

Ronald Reagan did such a brilliant job in the 1980s of focusing ire on “big government” that Americans still see it as the greatest threat facing the nation -- at 67 percent in the latest Gallup poll on the topic, compared with just 26 percent for big business and 5 percent for big labor. But when the pollsters phrase things differently and ask if respondents are satisfied with “the size and influence of major corporations,” 58 percent aren’t. If another Great Communicator comes along who finds a way to make scheming corporate executives the villains of the national narrative instead of intrusive government bureaucrats, watch out.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.