Corporations & American Democracy

A Conversation with Naomi Lamoreaux and William Novak

In 2012, we sat down with initiative co-leaders, Naomi Lamoreaux (Yale) and William Novak (University of Michigan Law School), to discuss the Corporations & American Democracy research initiative, a project that they are leading with the Tobin Project.

Tobin: Could you describe the Corporations & American Democracy initiative?

Professor Novak: This is a timely moment to reconsider the history of the corporation. There is a need for this kind of work. In Justice Stevens’s dissenting opinion in Citizens United, he does try to offer a history of the corporation, but it’s kind of a potted history of the corporation in American democracy that’s still at a very rudimentary level. This seemed to us to signal the need for a much more rigorous one-volume history of the corporation and its relationship to the American public, really looking at the relationship of the corporation to society as a whole, and to democracy. I think it’s a good example of the way in which putting ideas first and prodding people to think outside the box and outside their comfort zone can really create some new areas of intellectual exploration.

Tobin: What makes this project so important to you as a scholar?

Professor Lamoreaux: We’re all stunned by the Citizens United case and how it seems to have changed the way the political processes are operating. The primary season was really quite stunning with the role that Super PACs played. But at the same time that we’re all stunned by this, we’re all worried that the reaction is tending in wrong directions because people don’t know the history. People don’t really understand where this all comes from. So one of the things I’m particularly concerned with is there’s just a lot of talk out there— which is talk by media, by policymakers, there’s talk also by academics—which is just wrong. I feel like one of the things we need to do is get the right information out there so that people are not making decisions on the basis of sort of wrong information. We want to question the knee-jerk reaction to corporations and think about their place in American society. The corporate form is an important part of the story of American democracy, which often gets lost in this rhetorical battle. So I think the participants feel it’s all really important and people are very eager to participate in the project.