Retiring the Corporate America flag

Image Source: Photograph by Jen Dolan

Throughout the past few years, so much of what I believed has been turned onto its head. Most notably, my view that corporate influence on government is the greatest threat to democracy.

During the previous administration, the nation saw corporations take the lead while the federal government was missing in action on a number of issues. Dick’s Sporting Goods banned sales of assault-style weapons in its stores. Amazon adopted $15 minimum wage for all of its U.S. employees. Walmart and Kroger implemented social distancing and mask policies in response to the pandemic. E.L.F. Cosmetics, Warby Parker, Sephora, and several other corporations embraced Black Lives Matter.

Any noticeable improvement that came about in the past four years was, at least in part, the result of certain corporations that were making changes to act in the best interest of the American people. That is not to say that “let the markets decide” is all the more government we need, but corporate intervention helped our democracy survive the rule of a wannabe autocrat.

Anytime I displayed the Corporate America flag during the past four years, I realized I intended it less as a statement against corporate influence on government and more as an expression of a system that was preferable to the dysfunction of the Trump years. Corporate interests were more inline with American interest than the destroyer of trade agreements that some, including myself, once saw as deleterious to an American workforce.

The promise to “drain the swamp,” the swamp serving as an awkward metaphor for corporate lobbyists, was a message that likely would have resonated with progressives more than conservatives. Swamps, in actuality, are necessary parts of a healthy ecosystem after all. But is corporate influence actually a part of a healthy democracy? I used to think not, but find myself reflecting upon this point.

President Biden recently met with the CEOs of Walmart, Gap, Lowe’s, and JPMorgan to talk about COVID relief, minimum wage, and future infrastructure. I am certain that when a COVID relief bill is passed, that someone will spin it as a bill that has been coauthored by big businesses. But I think that it is reasonable to have input from employers, just as I believe it is reasonable to have input from labor.

Both corporations and governments have the potential to do good, and both can be subject to corruption. Corporations seem to define political extremes; on one side, there are corporate ruled governments, and on the other, government ruled corporations. But the messiness of a democracy is bound to allow for a little of each at times, and whether that is bad or good depends upon the circumstances.

I tend to view the Federal Reserve’s purchase of corporate bonds last year as setting a dangerous precedent, but there are many economists who deemed the move necessary. I hope I am wrong and they are right. Such a move can be viewed as socialism, but it can also be seen as another bailout that rewards bad behavior.

I now understand the relationship between corporations and the U.S. government to be complicated. Neither of my past interpretations of the Corporate America flag coincide with what I now deem as important.

This flag embodies one thing for me now: irony. Its manufacture in China, likely in a sweatshop, should have been contradictory for Adbusters, the organization that sold it. So many pages of Adbusters magazine are devoted to calling out corporations for such practices.

For me, in this time and place, it is time to retire the Corporate America flag.  I am not hip enough to fly a flag for the purposes of irony, so I will fly one flag, the American flag.

I hope that people who have adopted other flags will do the same. If there is one symbol of unification to get behind, it is our nation’s flag. May it never be desecrated by being employed as a weapon the way it had been on January 6th. May its message never be diminished to idolatry. It should never serve to divide, but should unite us and remind us of the values we share.