In his Substack essay “Why is Everything Liberal?” Richard Hanania explains why liberals are overrepresented in our society’s institutions, from academia, to the media, and now corporations. Through analyzing political donations, Hanania concludes that everything feels liberal in a closely divided country because politics is a participation sport. Liberals care more about politics, and eagerly push their values in the institutions they participate in. If conservatives want to ‘win the culture,’ they should care more, too.
Hanania’s observation, which captures the results of everything being liberal, may have answered the “what” question. But the “why” question cannot be answered without an examination of “how” things become liberal. Certain institutions, like colleges, have been left-leaning for generations; no big surprises there. What people are beginning to realize is that 1) institutions are much more outwardly liberal than in the past; 2) corporations that were traditionally neutral, like Salesforce and Delta Airlines, have become much more political; and 3) there is no meaningful counter from the right. The growth of the managerial class -- educated professionals working in hub cities -- which sees social conservatism an active impediment and fiscal conservatism less of a necessity, only exacerbates the problem. The alignment of cultural, economic, and political forces demand novel solutions from the political right.
Cultural dominance of any kind doesn’t suddenly grow out of nowhere; a sufficient number of individuals have to be devoted to the cause in the first place. What type of person is most likely to become an active participant in liberal politics? Typically, individuals derive happiness from their social influence as well as their relative financial gains. What we lack in either social or financial capital, we compensate by exercising more of the other. For example, younger teachers, musicians, professors, and journalists, despite their initial lack of economic capital, wield disproportionate levels of social influence in the major cultural institutions. Young journalists may still have sums of student loans to be paid but can reach thousands through their reporting. New teachers, despite their relatively low pay, bear tremendous responsibility in cultivating values of younger generations. Professors certainly make sure to have their voices heard with their outsized ability to shape political discourse.
In recent decades, a new educated managerial class within large corporations have joined the ranks of teachers, journalists, and professors in embracing progressive social values. Previously, those who managed capital also oversaw the production and accumulation of capital. For example, Fortune magazine found in 1952 that two-thirds of senior executives had more than 20 years’ service at their current companies. The entire process of production, from supply chain to manufacturing to distribution, requires a high level of patience, predictability, and trust. Many industries, like agricultural, chemical, and energy companies, still rely on that kind of long-term thinking.
However, the managerial class is more likely to be responsible for one slice of the whole process, and usually during the finalizing phase. Now, for many younger professions, the production process gets condensed to 3-month projects for young consultants or one of an array of options for a portfolio manager. For marketing directors and corporate HRs, capital ownership and production become data points in Excel and the latest MBA buzzwords in deliverables. In fact, conservative values have become roadblocks in advancing the career ladder. Whether choosing between time with family or work or the constant changing of jobs and job locations, the corporate culture expects an up-front sacrifice of the personal and family values conservatives hold dear. Conservatives value process, stability, and ownership; the new managerial class values efficiency, flexibility, and mobility. This new class, clustered in major metropolitan areas, are physically removed from where production takes place and the values of those producing the goods they manage, advertise, and sell.
Still, not all corporations are Nike or Delta Airlines. One study finds that a majority of U.S. CEOs identify as Republicans, and only 19% identify as Democrats. However, the tech industry, which has become an accelerant of progressive politics, exclusively leans left. Like the managerial class, the tech industry sees traditional social values as impediment to maximum efficiency -- and they’re right. Further, the tech industry abandons fiscal conservatism, because it can afford to do so. Conservative economic principles (e.g. spending within your means) apply primarily to long term sustainable ownership and entail a healthy dose of risk aversion. The tech industry, however, thrives in a high-risk, high-return environment. With billions in venture capital money floating around, cash is almost immediate. For those with a six-figure salary right out of college, the immediacy of capital accumulation makes financial security a tertiary matter.
When a group with outsized financial and social influence steer societal discourse, a backlash often ensues through the political process. Traditionally, one’s political power (i.e. voting) is roughly proportional to one’s say in issues of the day. Now, with more and more feeling that their voices are crowded out in public fora, people resort to anti-system populism. At the same time, populists’ policies -- like limitations on free trade and isolationism -- are perceived to hurt the economic interest of many businesses, which encourages businesses to oppose populist trends out of pure financial interest.
Our age of abundance and consolidation implores the political right to reorient its political-economic agenda. Out of the three legged stool of cultural, economic, and political power, conservatives have ceded ground on the first and are now witnessing growing hostility to their causes from economic giants. They now have to wrestle with what they want to do with political power. As Ben Esposito pointed out in the Review, the right appears to have its reckoning with big businesses. However, the right is very much constrained by its fundamental governing philosophy of small and limited government and its pro-business history.
There are a couple angles through which conservatives can craft and deliver a positive agenda. Short-tem, conservative politicians should exert pressure and win in the court of public opinion where corporations intervene in state and local policies. However, conservatives can only win in the long-term with the combination of their own political and economic capital. One way to address this is to tackle the vast regional inequality problem. Seventy percent of private equity investments are made in companies located in New York, Boston, and California. Higher investment in places that normally don’t attract private capital would spur much-needed growth and amplify the values of under-invested regions and the people who live there. Individual conservative entrepreneurs can only do so much in building institutions. Their actions need to be buttressed by conservative politicians willing to deliver for their constituents. The specific solutions deserve their own space for further deliberation, but it’s without a doubt the right time for conservatives to re-think their priorities.