Civil war would be bad for business

The capitalist class is surprisingly blasé about Republican attacks on democracy

TNT and a detonator.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

The Republican Party move against democracy is accelerating. Texas Republicans were temporarily blocked this week from passing a harsh vote suppression bill that would also make it easier to overturn election results, but that is almost certainly only a short delay. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn called for a Myanmar-style military coup at a recent QAnon event; Donald Trump is now reportedly saying he will be reinstalled in the presidency in August.

The utter fecklessness of key Senate Democrats in even acknowledging this threat has been widely noted. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) is apparently bound and determined to allow Republicans to block every piece of legislation, including voting rights protections and the commission that would have investigated the Jan. 6 putsch, that can't be got through budget reconciliation.

But there is another group even more powerful than Manchin that is doing little about a clear and present danger to their own position: big business. As Doug Henwood writes at Jacobin, while a portion of the capitalist class is firmly behind Republican authoritarianism (the Koch network, innumerable small regional businesses), a much larger portion is not doing much of anything either to push Democrats to shore up democracy or to contest Donald Trump's stranglehold on the GOP.

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After the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, a whole slew of companies announced they would no longer support politicians that threaten democracy. Thus when Georgia Republicans swiftly passed a vote suppression bill in response to losing this year's dual Senate runoffs, Major League Baseball moved an All-Star game to Colorado, Delta criticized the law, and so on.

Predictably, that promise has since been quietly broken by many marquee firms. As Judd Legum reports at Popular Information, Walmart, General Electric, AT&T, Pfizer, Sanofi, and Oracle all promised they would no longer donate to politicians who voted to overturn the election, but have since resumed donations to Republican political committees that fund those officials' re-election campaigns. Cigna, Toyota, T-Mobile, JetBlue, GM, Ford, Altria, and Northrop Grumman all said they would re-evaluate their donation policies after Jan. 6, but have since restarted direct contributions to Republicans who voted to reinstall Trump.

What is going on here? One theory here is that big business actually supports Republican one-party rule. They pretend to care about democracy as a branding exercise, but will gladly overthrow the Constitution in exchange for a tax cut.

But this doesn't quite square with the facts. In the first instance, it's not like the Biden agenda is some serious threat to the power of the capitalist class. He proposes some objectively modest tax hikes on business and the rich to pay for some smallish welfare programs and infrastructure spending. It's very far from Franklin Roosevelt's 94 percent top marginal income tax rate; it's more the kind of moderate class compromise that business in every rich country has accustomed themselves to over the years, and well short of what is normal in most European countries. The infrastructure spending, meanwhile, would probably help business on net by making transportation and communication cheaper and more reliable.

More importantly, stable political institutions are immensely valuable for capitalists. Business depends on the state at every turn — to protect property rights, to operate a legal system and enforce contracts, to sustain a widely accepted currency, to build infrastructure that facilitates commerce, and a hundred other things. Neoliberal economists often picture the economy as something that operates by itself, constantly dragged down by meddling regulations, but in reality without government there would be no economy and no business at all.

The developing Republican plot to reinstall Trump (or someone like him) in the White House in 2024 poses a potentially existential threat to the comfortable ride business has gotten from American government since 1789, with a few exceptions. The legitimacy of the American state is based on popular consent — the idea that who governs will be chosen by the people. Obviously the basic structures of the Senate and the Electoral College violate this principle, but not so much that it is an open fraud. Trump did win with fewer votes in 2016, but he still lost in 2020.

So suppose the worst happens, and the GOP blatantly steals the election from Biden in 2024. Biden wins enough states to assemble an Electoral College majority, but Republican-controlled legislatures refuse to certify the victory, and instead send their own slate of Trump electors to Congress. There can be no legal resolution to that kind of action — norms, traditions, and laws would quickly dissolve into a question of raw political force.

It's not at all out of the question this could lead to widespread political violence or even civil war. After all, that is what happened the last time a conservative minority refused to respect the results of a presidential election. Democrats control California, New York, Virginia, and numerous other states. Biden would remain president during an attempted fraudulent transition. The military might be forced to choose sides.

A shooting war in the streets is generally not great for business. People will slash their spending, finance and transportation would be hugely disrupted, and the state of the stock market could depend on whether fascist militias seize control of the New York Stock Exchange or the Federal Reserve. A chaotic economic collapse, instantly reverberating around the world, might quickly follow.

So however remote this possibility, it would be worth spending a great deal of money and effort to try to head it off. Instead, corporations are just blithely continuing their stream of donations to Republicans who are packing dynamite around the political structure capitalists are resting on. They are neither trying to shore up the Democrats (by putting pressure on Manchin, for instance) nor trying to wrest control of the GOP from Trump.

Henwood is correct to argue that as a class, big capitalists lack wisdom and unity — at least when it comes to confronting the extreme right. After the total triumph of the 1980s and '90s, when both parties became capitalist lapdogs, "the focus of business narrowed dramatically, to sectoral and even firm-specific issues. Its fragmentation was so complete that it was unable or unwilling to mobilize when a posse of hopped-up reactionary GOP backbenchers shut down the government and threatened default on Treasury bonds," he writes.

I suspect also that the immense privilege and wealth of the ultra-rich makes them unable to believe that anything bad could really happen to them. Hence the belief that if companies just wait for bad things to blow over, they can return to bribing both parties and everything (for them) will be fine. It's of a piece with the inability of timid liberals like Manchin to understand how dire the political situation in this country really is.

The Trumpist right is backed by smaller capitalists, usually in charge of privately-held smaller firms rather than publicly-traded ones. But an organized minority can beat an inchoate majority. Somebody is going to have to organize the majority of the American people to defend our democratic institutions. Big business is not going to do it for us.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.