Like many unlikely marriages, the relationship between the Tea Party movement and Big Business is complicated. There's no question that corporate money, at least from the likes of billionaire David Koch, has bankrolled the movement via front groups such as Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity.
A new film called (Astro)Turf Wars explores how "corporate American is faking a grassroots revolution." Tea Party idol Glenn Beck has just embraced the U.S. Chamber of Commerce amid charges that it may be injecting foreign money into the midterm elections.
Yet the ideology of many Tea Partyers, to the extent it can be discerned, probably does not conform with mainstream corporate thinking. The movement may even be a threat to some vested business interests.
The misgivings of corporate types outside the Koch camp about the Tea Party phenomenon are becoming more apparent. As the Center for Responsive Politics points out, Tea Party-backed Republican Senatorial candidates are receiving most of their campaign contributions in small amounts from individuals rather than from the Chamber, business PACs and corporate executives. Business Week has just come out with a cover story headlined: WHY BUSINESS DOESN'T TRUST THE TEA PARTY.
The article dwells on the anxiety of many businesspeople about the erratic and loony aspects of the Tea Partyers. It notes that even in South Carolina the state chamber of commerce could not bring itself to endorse the Tea Party-backed candidate for governor, Nikki Haley.
Yet the potential for a major rift between Tea Partyers and Big Business is more than a matter of political style. Among the core principles espoused by all the Tea Party groups are fiscal responsibility and "free" markets. Although large corporations may talk a similar line, they often seek special benefits from government that undermine fiscal discipline and violate laissez-faire principles.
After all, it was the financial industry that created the necessity for and led the push for the TARP bailout that so enrages Tea Partyers. Big business also received many large government contracts and loan guarantees through the Recovery Act that is also vilified by the movement. Not to mention the fact that the big for-profit insurance companies and other players in the medical-industrial complex stand to make a lot of money from the non-single-payer health reform plan enacted by Congress.
For all the noise they are making, Tea Party candidates could not do much about these programs if they get elected. The real test will be whether right-wing insurgents decide to target the much wider range of pro-corporate tax and spending policies that permeate government at all levels.
Some corporate types are clearly worried about this. In September the Wall Street Journal reported that business leaders and lobbyists fear that Tea Party-backed Republican candidates would oppose "special tax breaks" that benefit various industries, ranging from agribusiness to NASCAR racetracks.
The potential for such a rupture in the unholy alliance between the Tea Party and corporations is one of the few bright spots in the otherwise gloomy political outlook. But rather than sitting back and waiting for this estrangement to happen on its own, we should be looking for opportunities to force the issue and perhaps even reach out to some of the more open-minded rank-and-file elements of the Tea Party world.
It would not be the first time that Left and Right tried to find common ground in opposing "corporate welfare." Something of the sort happened in the late 1990s when Ralph Nader and Republican House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (who is now running for governor of Ohio) led an effort to identify federal giveaways to business that people across the political spectrum agreed should be eliminated.
That effort ultimately collapsed, but the potential for cooperation is stronger than ever, given the unprecedented market bailouts of the past few years. And as I can attest from my work with Good Jobs First, the issue of runaway corporate subsidies is especially urgent at the state and local level.
It is popular on the Left to assume that the Tea Party movement is little more than a giant front group for corporate interests. Yet it is also possible that David Koch's money has created a monster that he and his henchmen will ultimately not be able to control.