Corporate Dreams: Big Business in American Democracy from the Great Depression to the Great Recession

Corporate Dreams: Big Business in American Democracy from the Great Depression to the Great Recession

Corporate Dreams: Big Business in American Democracy from the Great Depression to the Great Recession

Corporate Dreams: Big Business in American Democracy from the Great Depression to the Great Recession


Public trust in corporations plummeted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when "Lehman Brothers" and "General Motors" became dirty words for many Americans. In Corporate Dreams, James Hoopes argues that Americans still place too much faith in corporations and, especially, in the idea of "values-based leadership" favored by most CEOs. The danger of corporations, he suggests, lies not just in their economic power, but also in how their confused and undemocratic values are infecting Americans' visions of good governance.

Corporate Dreams proposes that Americans need to radically rethink their relationships with big business and the government. Rather than buying into the corporate notion of "values-based leadership," we should view corporate leaders with the same healthy suspicion that our democratic political tradition teaches us to view our political leaders. Unfortunately, the trend is moving the other way. Corporate notions of leadership are invading our democratic political culture when it should be the reverse.

To diagnose the cause and find a cure for our toxic attachment to corporate models of leadership, Hoopes goes back to the root of the problem, offering a comprehensive history of corporate culture in America, from the Great Depression to today's Great Recession. Combining a historian's careful eye with an insider's perspective on the business world, this provocative volume tracks changes in government economic policy, changes in public attitudes toward big business, and changes in how corporate executives view themselves.

Whether examining the rise of Leadership Development programs or recounting JFK's Pyrrhic victory over U.S. Steel, Hoopes tells a compelling story of how America lost its way, ceding authority to the policies and values of corporate culture. But he also shows us how it's not too late to return to our democratic ideals--and that it's not too late to restore the American dream.


Lunching alone in a business restaurant in Shanghai, I received a conversational gambit from the waiter. I was different, she said, from her usual clientele of “corporate types,” a phrase she had probably learned from the corporate types themselves. They had, according to her, “cold hearts.” “They’re busy,” I answered, “and far from home. Many have warm hearts.” “No,” she said with unusual assertiveness for the waiter types I had met in China. “People with warm hearts work in restaurants and bars.”

Like the Shanghai waiter, we all define the moral world by antitheses such as warm hearts and cold hearts, corporate types and tavern types. Without evil, there would be no idea of good; without oppression, no freedom; without wrong, no right. Moral realists, unable to conceive of the elimination of evil, oppression, or cold hearts, aim instead to minimize them, to contain them, or to use them against themselves. the eighteenth-century American founders believed that liberty required authority. “If men were angels,” James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, “no government would be necessary.” Not an end to power but separation of power was the basis of American freedom.

Into this attempt to restrain power, this novo ordo seclorum or new order for the ages, as the founders called it, was soon to intrude the business corporation, bringing with it a new moral antinomy—corporate management versus the free market. the corporation created vast wealth and, with it, undemocratic managerial power to govern Americans at work. Second only to our democratic political system, the unelected power of business corporations is the modern world’s most important social innovation, and it gave rise to the mid-twentieth-century American Dream. Yet it did not do so on its own but rather because it was forced to do so by a democratic society. Getting the relation right between . . .

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