The United States Chamber of Commerce is the nation’s largest lobbying group, bending the ear of many a Congressman to hear and heed the needs of the business community. Its wholesome image conjures up a neat row of Mom and Pop shops lining the main street of Anytown, USA. However, it’s not only, or even mostly, the voice of downtown business districts. It’s a special interest group of immense proportions, lobbying for the interests (read: profit) of many of America’s largest corporations. Corporations, it turns out, which may not have our best interests at heart.
Our two major political parties are both coalitions of those whose positions fit better under one metaphorical umbrella than the other. The rightmost-leaning of these could be said to have two major divisions, the Chamber of Commerce branch, representing corporate America, and the evangelical wing, representing the Religious Right. These strange bedfellows came together around the time of Barry Goldwater, once the darling of the Chamber of Commerce Republicans but who is now considered a RINO by many of those who supported the Arizona Senator during his 1964 Presidential campaign. At the time, though, the Chamber of Commerce and Goldwater’s conservative credentials were unimpeachable.
My, how times have changed. With the conservative side of the spectrum run by evangelicals (exactly what Goldwater warned us about), perversions of corporate responsibility (such as the Koch brothers and ALEC), and a hysterical man-child at the top of the heap, conservatism seems to have lost anything actually, well, conservative about it. The very term “conservation,” as in protecting our best, most effective institutions and resources, shares an etymological root with the movement, and nothing else. Whenever there’s a political charge to suppress some right (except for the right to your own arsenal, of course) or ruin what’s left of some natural place for profit, you could put money on it being backed by self-identified “conservatives.” That is, if you have any money left.
Which brings us back to the Chamber of Commerce. Once a bastion of conservative respectability, the Chamber still is – if you factor in the mutating definition of “conservative.” Increasingly investing its members donations in lobbying efforts aimed at thwarting any effective response to the threat of climate change, the Chamber of Commerce can see only as far as next quarter’s profits. Equal pay, sustainability, and other socially responsible goals have been similarly rejected by the group. Unfortunately, every dollar we spend at any business on its secret list of donors potentially works against our keeping our world a habitable place to live. When dollars are speech, they can yell a whole lot louder than we can.
However, there’s a ray of hope, falling like a trickle of corporations leaving the Chamber of Commerce behind. A surprising list of big name businesses are parting ways with the Chamber, citing a difference of opinion on climate change and not wanting to be associated with the group’s donations to far right wing candidates. Apple and Pacific Gas & Electric left the Chamber of Commerce as far back as 2009. Starbucks, Unilever, Costco and General Mills followed. CVS left in 2015 because the Chamber’s push to ease restrictions on tobacco sales conflicted with the the pharmacy’s aim to stop selling cigarettes.
Other companies that claim to support socially progressive goals, such as Disney and The Gap, are under pressure to quit, or at least to quit funding, the Chamber of Commerce.
Make no mistake, the biosphere isn’t going to escape unscathed on the other side of late stage capitalism. It’s going to take more and bigger changes to industrial culture than a few big companies deciding to do better things with their money than donate it to climate-denier candidates. If the concept of business survives the next handful of generations, it’s likelier to resemble the medieval system of tradesmen and guilds than it is to look like Costco or Unilever. Still, though, we live in Interesting Times when the most conservative companies – defined as those who want to appear to conserve the living world and a modicum of equitable distribution of the wealth derived from it – are those leaving the Chamber of Commerce instead of flocking to it. What would Barry Goldwater say?