March 2008: Corporate Power, Voter Powerlessness

Most citizens want corporate power curbed—but gov’ts don’t
March 1, 2008

What are we to make of the recent Ipsos Global Public Affairs poll disclosing that a large majority of the world’s “most informed, engaged and connected” citizens now believe corporations are far too powerful and that their activities should be more effectively regulated?

My first reaction to that survey of social and political activists in 22 countries was a mixture of astonishment and elation. It was mind-blowing to learn that so many of the most informed and active people in so many countries (an awesome average of 74% of them) share our deep concerns about excessive corporate power and want it curtailed.

The implication is that it’s no longer necessary to spend much time or effort exposing corporate infamy. Most people today, according to Ipsos, are well aware of the social, economic and environmental harm that big business firms are causing. And they want a firm government crackdown on corporate misconduct.

But just a minute. It’s great to know so many people in so many countries want corporate abuses stopped. But that raises the obvious question: why has this majority view not been translated into appropriate government action?

Think about this political delinquency for a minute and you begin to see that the Ipsos poll is a deeply disturbing one. It suggests that corporate power is now so deeply entrenched that most politicians shrink from challenging it, no matter how popular tighter controls might be with the most informed and engaged voters.

Such voters admittedly comprise a minority of the people who actually vote in most elections. But you have to assume they are also the most educated and influential citizens, and that, properly disseminated, their views would sway the less well informed voters.

This may indeed be happening in some countries in Europe and Latin America, where populist left-leaning governments have started to curb the most damaging and irresponsible corporate wrongdoing. Even in these countries, however, the power vested in large global firms by their financial might and international trade agreements still deters effective government restraint.

In the United States and Canada, even modest efforts to reduce corporate power have been missing. If anything, Big Business has been given even greater freedom to run rampant over the public interest. The anti-corporate mindset revealed by the Ipsos poll is nowhere to be seen in government policies and priorities.

The CEOs are so confident their influence will prevail politically that they no longer care if they’ve lost broad public support. Their unbridled pursuit of profit at any cost has ravaged the environment, led to mass outsourcing and layoffs, $100-a-barrel oil, and a looming recession. They shrug off obscene CEO salaries, pay and tax inequities, even corporate scandals. A few of the worst business rogues—the Enron types and Conrad Black—have been fined or jailed, but mainly because their misdeeds hurt other big investors, not because of the thousands of workers and pensioners who were victimized.

The business leaders probably laughed at the results of the global Ipsos poll: “So the best and brightest citizens don’t like our methods. So what? The politicians they elect are our pals or puppets. They either share our free-market ideology or they’re too scared to confront us. No government will ever seriously get in our way, regardless of how many voters want corporate controls.”

Is this supreme arrogance warranted? Are the big corporations now so powerful that they can safely ignore public opinion? Has plutocracy supplanted democracy?

Three-quarters of the well-informed citizens polled by Ipsos said they believe corporations are now more powerful than governments. That’s true, however, only in the sense that most of this corporate power was ceded to them by governments. When the first companies were set up, they had very little power and were kept on a tight leash. But as time went by, business lobbying and bribery led to more and more power being conferred on companies. Laws and judicial decisions consolidated their power, and deregulation and global trade deals vastly extended it.

In theory, however, the power governments bestowed on corporations can be taken back. What’s missing are politicians and governments willing to tackle this urgently-needed reform. There’s no political party in Canada, for example, that will even promise to withdraw from NAFTA, despite all its devastating economic impacts—and even though there’s a built-in escape clause.

So there’s a gaping disconnect between what informed voters want their governments to do to stop corporate abuse and what their governments are willing to do. Unless this political chasm is bridged—unless governments start governing for all citizens instead of just the business élite—simply exposing and denouncing corporate excesses will be futile.

The Ekos Global Public Affairs survey revealed the worldwide extent of this problem. But workable solutions seem to be in short supply.

Let’s get a debate going. CCPA members are surely among the informed, engaged, and articulate citizens who want the corporations reined in. The Monitor will gladly provide a forum for any proposed ideas for breaking through the political/electoral barrier.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor. A collection of his essays, The Right is Wrong and the Left is Right, was recently published by the CCPA. Click here to order your copy.)