New study finds skepticism of corporations across ideological lines

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Traders, Specialists and Floor Officials gather around the trading post where Lehman Brothers stock is traded on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as the market opens Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2008. Stock prices rose early Wednesday, staging a partial rebound from a steep sell-off after investors grew encouraged that Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. is close to a deal to sell a majority stake in its investment management business and bring in much-needed capital. (AP Photo/David Karp)
Photograph by David Karp — AP

When it comes to the way Americans view large corporations, there’s a lot more consensus than disagreement—even across ideological lines. In fact, while liberals are usually portrayed as corporate skeptics and conservatives as Corporate America’s cheerleaders, a new study by an independent non-profit called Just Capital found that this black-and-white characterization simply isn’t true. According to Just Capital’s surveys, which involved more than 40,000 participants, the majority of Americans, including groups ranging from very liberal to very conservative, felt that the largest corporations in the country are “going in the wrong direction.” (See our story on the origins of Just Capital, which was confounded by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones II, Arianna Huffington and Deepak Chopra here.)

Just Capital’s research broke down Americans’ sentiment toward corporations by political leanings and found that the majority of almost every political grouping—very liberal, somewhat liberal, moderate, somewhat conservative and very conservative—agreed that corporations were becoming worse instead of better. Moderates were the least skeptical, with 50% saying corporations were heading in the wrong direction, compared to 55% of those in the somewhat and very liberal groups. Only 28% of all respondents said that corporations were headed in a good direction.

Just Capital’s executive director Martin Whittaker says that the widespread skepticism can be explained by a “feeling of vulnerability” that is pervasive across all groups. “We know people share a general mistrust of big corporations—though not small businesses—and they feel that companies are too focused on meeting the needs of the shareholders…corporations have become distanced from wider society and no longer prioritize things that matter to them.”

But while the study found a rare point of agreement across political differences, socioeconomic perspectives were not quite so unified. More Americans making over $200,000 per year reported that corporate America was “headed in the right direction” than the other groups, at 48%, and the percentage of people holding that sentiment decreased in each group lower in socioeconomic status. Among the group making less than $25,000 per year, only 20% reported optimism about big businesses. Similarly, while 48% of those in the lowest income bracket said that businesses had become “less just” over the past decade, only 28% of those in the highest bracket agreed. But despite these differences, even the top income bracket never reported a majority positive opinion of the direction of business.

Age, like socioeconomic status, affected respondents’ feeling of corporations’ justness in a gradient. While millennials were almost evenly split between saying corporations had become more just, less just, or they didn’t know, half of golden agers said business had become less just. Only 21% believed it had become better. Much of that could likely be attributed to nostalgia. “People may feel that companies treated people better 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago, and certainly when you look at data around the middle class and stagnation in income levels, there’s every reason to think there might be some truth to that,” Whittaker says. Plus, millennials might be more inclined to think of companies like Apple and Google that cultivate their brands to feel approachable and honest.

Besides a general skepticism toward corporations, many Americans across the political spectrum also reported a lack of trust in corporations. Only 41% of all Americans said they trust corporations “somewhat” or “a great deal.” Very conservative Americans stood out for their greatest amount of trust, with 50% of very conservative respondents saying they trusted corporations–one percentage point short of a majority.

For more on the Just Capital survey, read our story here.


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