President Obama’s recent State of the Union speech contains the following passage:
With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.
Why not? “Foreign entities” does sound awfully sinister, much more so than mere “foreign companies.” (Ian Fleming’s SPECTRE, one supposes, was a “foreign entity”.) But foreign companies employ lots of Americans, sell products to Americans, and Americans own a lot of their shares. In other words, people who own and work for these “foreign entities” engage in a lot of mutually beneficial exchange with a lot of Americans. Alas, the US government, at the behest of people who compete with the individuals who own and work for such foreign firms, likes for the gain of politicians to restrict their ability to do business (e.g., by limiting their ability to bid for government contracts), and likes to take their money to give to people who support those politicians. In this, foreign firms are no different from all other Americans, who daily must put up with the indignities and shakedowns of the predatory state.
But Americans, at least, have some capacity to fight back. (The more so in the wake of the spectacular decision Citizens United v. F.E.C. For my analysis of that decision go here.) What the president is saying, however, is that both Americans who do business with foreigners and the foreigners impacted, often negatively, by the American government ought to have the right to contest government restrictions on their ability to earn a living handicapped.
What is striking is the explicitness with which, in an anti-corporate context, xenophobia becomes acceptable. In progressive politics it is generally unacceptable to argue that people who come from overseas should have their rights limited, and indeed later in the same speech the president argued, however obliquely in light of the controversy it would cause were he more honest about it, for amnesty for illegal immigrants. Until recently, based on opposition from organized labor, many progressives were hesitant to aggressively defend the rights of immigrants. But once unions came around, to the left foreigners in the form of immigrants became as American as apple pie.
But once they take the form of a corporation, they become fair game for unequal treatment. (Could you imagine anyone taking seriously the argument that foreign newspapers were not protected by the First Amendment, or that foreign religions cannot proselytize in America?) The progressive wing of statism is just as willing to pander to anti-foreigner attitudes (if it synergizes with their anti-corporate rage) as any Know Nothing ever was. (Note that the argument that foreign corporations contaminate American democracy fails, because so too can immigrants, especially amnestied illegal immigrants, who come here in sufficiently large numbers. So too do foreign media that contaminate the American political conversation.) Ethically the whole progressive framing misconceives the problem, which is not virtuous Americans versus nefarious foreigners. Rather, as long as the American government reserves the right to pass laws that take money from “foreign entities,” those entities, and the Americans enriched as shareholders, workers, and customers by their commercial activities, have every right to try to get those laws changed.
It will be interesting to see how far the left, in conspicuous rejection of its own recent aggressive defense of foreign alteration of the American political conversation, is willing to push the anti-foreign version of the anti-corporate argument.