Is the Big-Business Era Over?

It may be true that the era of big government being over is over, as conservative Christopher Caldwell has argued, done in by President Bush's reluctance to challenge popular spending programs. But it may also be true that the era of big business being over has just begun.

By that, I don't mean that people are ready to storm the barricades and hang the assorted CEOs (though I suppose there might be a hanging-in-effigy here or there). What's happening is much more serious: the loss of a secular faith. Once the public believed that big business, while guilty of occasional excesses, could more or less be trusted, and that its activities were the chief source of social wealth and progress. Because of this, they let the dynamic duo of big business and the market do their thing: If government tried to get in the way, it would just do more harm than good.

That was the era of big business; now it's done. The seemingly endless wave of corporate scandals and the collapsing stock market have convinced the public that big business can't be trusted to regulate itself or to deliver prosperity. It needs help and, realistically, that help has to come from government, the very folks who were supposed to get out of the way.

Consider the following: A CBS/New York Times poll in mid-July shows just 15 percent of the public expressing a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in big business. That's the lowest recorded level since pollsters began asking this question in 1986. More amazing still, in an early July news poll conducted by CBS, 67 percent said that most corporate executives are not honest, compared with only 27 percent who said they are. That's not "some." That's "most."

That helps explain why big business is increasingly viewed as the biggest threat to America's future, according to 38 percent of respondents to a USA Today/Gallup Poll taken in June. True, 47 percent said big government's the threat -- which might sound perfectly normal coming from antigovernment America, until you look at the trend data and realize this is the highest "threat" reading for big business since pollsters started asking this question way back in 1965.

Similarly, since 1981, pollsters have been asking whether there is "too much, too little or about the right amount of government regulation of business and industry." Customarily, Americans are not big supporters of regulation -- but in a Gallup Poll, 33 percent said there was "too little" regulation; 32 percent, "too much"; and 30 percent, the "right amount." That's the highest "too little" reading since the question was first asked.

Government's not so bad after all. Nothing illustrates this sea change in public attitude better than results from a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll in late July. Respondents were asked for their view of government regulation: Did they think most regulations were "necessary and protect consumers or the environment," or did they think most were "unnecessary and harm the economy"? Back in January 1995, when Newt Gingrich stormed into the House speakership, 47 percent said most regulations were unnecessary, while 40 percent stuck up for regulation. Today, a scant 30 percent say most regulations can be dispensed with, while the number of people who believe these regulations are necessary has soared to 52 percent. The meaning of these numbers is clear: It really is the end of an era.

But if the era of big business is over, what's likely to take its place? Not an era of big government as such. Maybe an era of both -- working together. (Say, that's an idea: the mixed economy!) For that to happen, though, Republicans who remain basically hostile to government and the mixed economy would have to get the boot, enabling Democrats, who are basically sympathetic to both, to govern (however unaccustomed they may be). So how likely is that to happen?

More likely than most people think, and much more likely than a couple of months ago. At that point, despite a domestic-issues agenda that favored the Democrats and that seemed increasingly salient, the special consideration -- almost deference -- accorded the president was cushioning the GOP from potential losses. But as the pace of corporate scandals has quickened and the stock market has tanked, and as Bush and his administration have seemed completely adrift in unfamiliar waters, that deference has mostly evaporated. The president's overall job approval rating, while remaining relatively high, is now dropping about 4 percentage points a month, compared with its more sedate 2-percentage-points-a-month descent before June. His approval ratings in all domestic areas are also rapidly going south; some are now quite negative. One CBS News poll from late July has Bush's approval rating on the economy at just 44 percent, with 45 percent expressing disapproval.

And the bad news doesn't end there. Americans are no longer convinced that Bush is on their side when he has to choose between them and his friends in corporate America. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in mid-July, respondents were asked whether Bush cares more about protecting the interests of ordinary working people or the interests of large business corporations. By 50 percent to 37 percent, the public said he sided with the large corporations. That was a complete turnaround from just two weeks earlier, when the public had thought Bush was on the side of ordinary people by 12 points. It's also the reverse of how the public currently feels about the Democrats: By 49 percent to 37 percent, Americans say the Democrats are on the side of ordinary people.

It doesn't look like the GOP can count on hiding behind Bush this November -- or afterward, for that matter. Bush has returned to earth, and the Republicans are stuck with, well, being Republicans.

And the public thinks the Republicans are really on the side of the folks whose era is coming to an end. By 67 percent to 4 percent, the public believes that big business has too much, rather than too little, influence over the Republicans, and by a two-to-one margin (58 percent to 29 percent), the public says the GOP is more interested in protecting large corporations than ordinary Americans, according to a CBS/New York Times poll. That's not going to help them when voters start thinking more about the Republicans' proposals on most important issues -- proposals that are already unpopular and becoming more so. Recent polling shows the public favoring the Democrats by wide margins on key domestic issues (by 36 points on improving health care, for instance, and 41 points on protecting the environment, according to the CBS/New York Times poll). And support for one of the Republicans' signature proposals on a key domestic issue has swooned dramatically, if unsurprisingly: The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that backing for the partial privatization of Social Security has gone from an even split last December to the current figure of 55 percent opposition to 41 percent support.

All this should be good news for the Democrats. But can they rise to the challenge? Sure they can, though the Republicans will do their level best to "me too" them to death and blur the differences between the two parties' proposals. But shame on the Democrats if they let them get away with it. They should press ahead with their package of corporate financial reforms, their prescription-drug plan and a patients' bill of rights, their defense of Social Security and the environment, and be confident that their approach to these issues enjoys majority support. They should remember it's the era of big business that's coming to an end, and it's the Republicans who should be afraid. Very afraid.

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