In the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and similar developments in parts of Europe, commentators widely acknowledged the rise of populist movements on both the right and left of the political spectrum that 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 to give managers more discretion to take the social effects of their decisions into account would lead to outcomes populists consider 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.

I. Introduction

II. Populists and the Corporation ... A. A Brief History of American Populism ... B. Populists Versus the Corporation ... C. Populist Regulatory Proposals

III. The Populists’ Regulatory Agenda ... A. Populists and Corporate Purpose ... B. Prospects for Legal Change

IV. Populists and Socially Responsible Corporate Elites ... A. The Changing Nature of Work, Investment, and Consumption ... B. Divergent Views ... C. The Probable Direction of Corporate Elite Social Activism

V. Conclusion