Abstract: Reviving the Voice of Business: Employers' Associations in Economic Crisis, 1970-1975

Benjamin C. Waterhouse


During the 1970s, a collaborative network of business leaders—organized through key employers' associations and business-oriented policy institutes—mobilized in response to a sense of besiegement by "anti-business" cultural and political forces. Groups like the National Association of Manufacturing and the Chamber of Commerce rededicated themselves to broad-based political activism, but they first had to confront persistent tensions—present throughout the business community—over normative questions about business's social and economic roles. Drawing on the archives of these employers' associations, this paper traces the motivations for business mobilization and the importance of schisms over social responsibility between those who stressed business's ability to respond to consumer and environmentalist demands and those who defined corporate responsibility solely in terms of profit and job creation. I argue that the clash between these "accommodationist" and "antagonistic" visions was fundamental to employers' associations' ability to mobilize their members and to bring business leaders themselves into the political process. Ultimately, the more confrontational—and more ideological—interpretation prevailed at the top levels of leadership, shaping the nature of business's political activism. This triumph paved the way for deeper links between business groups and other conservative movements, greatly aiding their effectiveness by the late 1970s.