Corporate Purpose in a Populist Era

33 Pages Posted: 27 Aug 2018 Last revised: 29 Mar 2019

See all articles by Stephen M. Bainbridge

Stephen M. Bainbridge

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law


In the wake of the 2016 US Presidential election and similar developments parts of Europe, commentators widely acknowledged the rise of populist movements on both the right and left of the political spectrum that both were deeply suspicious of big business. This development potentially has important implications for the law and practice of corporate purpose.

Left of center corporate social responsibility campaigners have long advocated the use of “boycotts, shareholder activism, negative publicity, and so on” to pressure corporate managers to act in ways those campaigners deem socially responsible. Right of center populists could use the same tactics to induce corporate directors to make decisions they favor. The question thus is whether they are likely to do so based on their historical track record.

Assuming for the sake of argument that right-of-center populists begin focusing on corporate purpose, the question arises whether modifying the shareholder wealth maximization norms so as to give managers more discretion to take the social effects of their decisions into account would lead to outcomes populists would view as desirable. Populists historically have viewed corporate directors and managers as elites opposed to the best interests of the people. Today, right of center populists find themselves increasingly at odds with an emergent class of social justice warrior CEOs, whose views on a variety of critical issues are increasingly closer to those of blue state elites than those of red state populists.

Keywords: populism, corporate purpose, corporate social responsibility

Suggested Citation

Bainbridge, Stephen Mark, Corporate Purpose in a Populist Era. UCLA School of Law, Law-Econ Research Paper No. 18-09, Available at SSRN: or

Stephen Mark Bainbridge (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

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