Like many Americans, Mark Mizruchi had grown increasingly distressed by the state of our politics. He was unhappy with the gridlock in Washington, the inability to accomplish even the most routine tasks of government, and the intransigence of those who have managed to hold the nation hostage to their extreme views. In trying to understand the problem’s roots, Mizruchi came to see the issue as a lack of national leadership from a group that had previously played a major and constructive role in developing solutions to new problems and keeping American politics mostly centric: the leaders of large American corporations. His goal in The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite, new this month, is to explain how this relatively cohesive group emerged, what sustained it, how it declined, and the consequences of its demise. In the book excerpt and video below, he outlines his argument.
I argue that the leaders of the largest American corporations, to whom I refer as the American corporate elite, once played an important role in addressing, if not resolving, the needs of the larger society. Since the 1970s, the members of this group have largely abandoned their concern with issues beyond those of their individual firms. This abandonment, I suggest, is one of the primary causes of the economic, political, and social disarray that American society has experienced in the twenty-first century. In earlier decades, the United States had a corporate elite that, however imperfect, was willing to see beyond the short-term interests of the firms that its members directed. Today this is no longer the case. The corporate elite that exists today is a disorganized, largely ineffectual group. Paradoxically, I argue, individual American corporations have more political power in the early twenty-first century than at any time since the 1920s. As a group, they are fragmented, however. Unlike their predecessors in earlier decades, they are either unwilling or unable to mount any systematic approach to addressing even the problems of their own community, let alone those of the larger society.
In this book I examine the rise and fall of the American corporate elite, from its pinnacle in the 1945–1973 period, through its period of turmoil and transition in the 1970s and 1980s, to its present state, in which the group is only a shadow of its former self. I argue that the decline of this elite is a significant source of the current crisis of American democracy and a major cause of the predicament in which the twenty-first-century United States finds itself.
In making this claim, I do not want to imply that the corporate elite of the postwar period was uniformly altruistic or public spirited. On the contrary, business leaders during that age were strongly protective of their interests, as they have been in every historical era. Nor am I suggesting that postwar America was a society that we should attempt to emulate in every respect. Social and cultural norms have become far less oppressive since that time. Our society today is far more tolerant and accepting of difference than it was half a century ago. Innovation, especially in the area of information technology, has improved peoples’ lives in many, albeit not all, respects. Consumer products in general are more plentiful and less expensive than in earlier years. There is no returning to the past, nor should this be an ideal to pursue. Yet for all its problems, the postwar United States had a number of qualities that are lacking today: an expanding economy with a high level of upward mobility, declining inequality, a relatively high level of security, a well-functioning political system, and a widespread belief that problems were solvable. And underpinning these forces was a corporate elite that provided a degree of leadership and vision that are not in evidence today.