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Business and Progressives Allied: Politics and Pocketbooks

My organization, American Family Voices, hosted a summit in D.C. on Friday between forward-thinking business leaders and top leaders of the progressive movement in America. It is the beginning of a crucially important conversation in American politics that is long overdue, because for most businesses in America today, their best prospect at competing with huge corporations who cut insider deals to rig the rules in their favor is to have progressive economic policies win the day. And because, frankly, the progressive movement will not win substantive change in this country without strong and successful business leaders being on our side.

This was a fascinating and unprecedented meeting, as the participants were about 50/50 between business people and progressive movement leaders. I have been to plenty of progressive meetings where there were a few business people there scattered among hundreds of progressive movement activists; and I have been invited as a speaker to some business meetings where I was the only, or one of a very few, progressive movement leaders in the room. But at this summit, we had intentionally invited a real cross-section of the two sectors.

The dialogue was spirited and remarkably honest, as we had to get out of our comfort zones to address the challenging dynamics between the stakeholders. Activists are used to pushing hard, and that sometimes comes off as purist to businesses with bottom lines. These businesses want to be given opportunities to address and correct perceived problems before being targeted by activist campaigns. Further, business owners want to be engaged in the entire process of activism, not asked to be the face of an issue campaign after the fact: they want to have their perspectives and priorities on the issues involved valued from the very beginning.

There are challenges, albeit different ones, on both sides. Creating and building a successful business in America today is tough when your customers’ disposable income is dwindling and buying decisions are often made based on price. It’s even tougher when you are a small business competing against huge conglomerates that manipulate markets and governments to their advantage. It’s arguably just as challenging as the work of trying to build a political movement that can compete with Wall Street and the Koch brothers.

Working together to build long-term alliances is going to be challenging, but after hearing the dialogue on Friday, I have never been more convinced that this kind of long-term alliance is exactly what we need to move forward.

I have long thought that the conventional wisdom frame that progressives and business people are on the opposite side on policy debates is just wrong. There are some businesses that those of us in the progressive movement oppose on big issues — such as Koch Industries and the other big fossil fuel companies, the biggest financial speculators on Wall Street, Wal-Mart, the big food and agriculture giants.

But for the vast majority of small business people and up and coming entrepreneurs, on a great many issues, we are in fact on the same side — or at least should be. When I was growing up in Nebraska and doing my early political organizing in Iowa, I got to know a lot of great small business people who really cared about and were invested in their communities, but many of them were bought out by big national companies who did not have the same values or concerns, making their communities the poorer for it as they extracted the money out of those towns and rarely reinvested much back in. In those years, I also saw thousands of small town businesses closed down when Wal-Mart came to town, and thousands of family farmers lose their land when corporate ag, the big meat packers, and food processors flexed their muscles.

Later, after I came to D.C. and got involved in national politics, I saw the same pattern repeat itself time and time again: huge corporations were able to crush smaller, usually more ethically run businesses — usually because they were in bed with politicians who gave them special advantages when it came to legislation, regulation, legal enforcement, government contracts.

When the speculation of the Too-Big-to-Fail banks wrecked the economy and they got bailed out while hundreds of community banks — the ones who actually loan to Main Street businesses — went broke in 2008-9, it drove me crazy. When Koch Industries and other big oil companies worked to pass laws designed to drive small up-and-coming green energy companies out of business, it made me angry. And what I became more and more focused on was a fundamental idea: that the economic policies supported by the progressive movement I was a part of are the exact same policies that would help most businesses in this country.

Higher wages mean more disposable income for customers. Paid sick leave and decent health care benefits mean more stability in the workforce for most companies. Breaking up the biggest banks and fair rules for the financial industry would mean far more investment and better terms on loans for most small businesses. Better schools mean more productive workers.

Converting to a green economy and making adequate investments in infrastructure and R&D would mean the creation of thousands of new businesses and millions of new jobs, a lot of them high wage. Vigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws and prosecuting businesses that manipulate markets mean that honest businesses can better compete with big corporations who have an unfair advantage.

The federal and state tax, budget, regulatory, enforcement, and contracting policies that benefit a near-monopolistic company like Wal-Mart do not generally benefit local retailers; policies that help the financial speculators and manipulators on Wall Street benefit neither community banks nor the small businesses looking for start-up loans and lines of credit; and the lack of anti-trust enforcement that helps huge corporate conglomerates continue to gobble up smaller companies is the exact opposite of the policies new entrepreneurs need to compete with those corporations seeking to wipe out their competition.

Progressives should align themselves with small businesses and growing entrepreneurs, who want to compete with the corporations that are hurting our economy. We aren’t going to agree on every issue, but at the end of the day, we need this part of the business community to be vital and growing so that we have an economic and political alternative to Big Business.

And we need parts of the business community as political allies as well: at our conference, Damon Silvers from the AFL-CIO pointed out that progressive business leaders, the ones whose businesses needed customers who had more money to spend, helped FDR and the labor movement create the New Deal. Those policies lifted the economy out of the Great Depression and created 40 years of rising American prosperity. We need to forge the same kind of alliance with this generation’s forward-thinking business leaders.

It is good that there are more and more business people identifying themselves as progressives and working with political leaders to make the country better, but there is one more important part of this equation: the progressive movement must support progressive businesses. Without these businesses speaking out against corporate malfeasance and offering a progressive alternative in the market, we all lose, plain and simple.

If we don’t want our finance system to be dominated by Too-Big-to-Fail Wall Street banks and hedge funds, we have to bank with community bankers. If we don’t want Wal-Mart to dominate the retail sector and continue to drive down wages, we must buy from retailers who compete with them. If we don’t want the Koch brothers and Exxon to dominate the energy industry, we need to help solar and wind companies thrive.

As part of our core agenda, progressives must strongly support policies that help small business and new companies, both politically and with our pocketbooks. We can’t lessen income inequality, and we can’t change the top 1 percent orientation of our politics, without having a vital and growing high road business sector.

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