Tea Party

Why CEOs don't support the Tea Party

October 30, 2013: 2:27 PM ET

Two very important factions of the Republican Party -- the business lobby and the Tea Party -- have never been farther apart.

By Tory Newmyer, writer

United States Capitol West FacadeFORTUNE -- Last week I offered a new piece of information suggesting why business leaders and the Tea Party are having so much trouble getting along: They're coming from different places, literally. Only one Fortune 100 company is headquartered in a Congressional district represented by a Tea Party-affiliated Republican ("Why Big Business and House Republicans don't mix").

As noted, that data point alone is hardly conclusive. Close proximity shouldn't guarantee anything about a similarity of experience, much less outlook. It also couldn't hurt. Not to get all Charles Murray, but if more of the corporate chiefs posing as economic statesmen during the latest debt ceiling scare could have called on intransigent House Republicans as constituents, they would have stood a better chance of making their arguments connect.

The CEOs were already facing an uphill fight. Populist Republicans in Congress believe they draw strength from fighting for small businessmen and women as though they exist in an entirely separate economy. To the extent that means they think Main Street would be insulated from the effects of a federal default, the notion is dangerously wrong.

MORE: We need business leaders with some sense of shame

Yet in a very different sense, their constituents do live in an alternate reality. The Washington Post on Tuesday examined economic conditions in Tea Party strongholds and found in the districts of the 45 stoutest House Republican hardliners, the recovery is sputtering badly.

"On average, the economy in the districts those Republicans represent is significantly worse than it is in the nation at large," with median income last year 7 points below the national standard and unemployment nearly two points higher than nationwide.

A pair of charts (here and here) help tell the tale. Some will continue to insist the estrangement between the Tea Party and the Republican establishment is a fiction -- that the unholy axis of Koch money and an army of Congressional deregulators it purchased continues to serve as the organizing force behind the GOP. By this line, any talk of big business groups in Washington actually investing in more moderate challengers to Republican incumbents is just idle chatter. By the time the 2014 midterm elections heat up, corporate front groups will be plowing millions back into the reelection campaigns of the most stalwart debt ceiling deniers because the imperative of maintaining a Republican check on the Obama administration will trump the need to address the party's directional problems. The early indication suggests that's wrong. And while corporate execs and Republican ideologues may continue to share a stylistic penchant for self-defeating short-termism, the latest crisis appears to have been truly galvanizing for corporate interests when it comes to their policy priorities in Washington.

Meanwhile the dislocation that spawned the surge of conservative populism is only getting worse. Pain in these Tea Party districts may be particularly acute, but as we know broadly, corporate profits as a share of total economic activity are at record highs while wages are at record lows. No wonder then that economic elites are having trouble making themselves understood to the dispossessed -- and a self-appointed if misguided band of their political leadership -- as the chasm between them yawns.

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