Meet the New Left: Small-Business Owners | The Nation


Meet the New Left: Small-Business Owners

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These opinions are confirmed by polling. On many left-right disputes, more small-business owners are standing with progressives. A poll by Lake Research for the ASBC, the Main Street Alliance and Small Business Majority, for instance, found that 90 percent of a random sample of small-business owners believe “big corporations use loopholes to avoid taxes that small businesses have to pay,” and three-fourths said their own businesses suffer because of it. An Oregon survey by the Main Street Alliance found that 79 percent of the respondents regard the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision as bad for small business. The same survey found that a constitutional amendment to establish that “corporations are not people and money is not speech” is favored by 72 percent. 

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William Greider
William Greider
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers...

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A Field Research survey in California and Oregon for Kaiser Permanente and Small Business Majority shows that a majority of small businesses ended up supporting Obama’s healthcare reform once they understood why it was good for them. And other surveys show that small businesses overwhelmingly endorse stronger regulation of Wall Street—no wonder, since they suffered severely when bankers stopped lending—and welcome the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And they strongly support (75 percent in favor) stricter regulations to protect people from cancer-causing chemicals in everyday products. 

A strong majority of small-business owners say they want more government spending for infrastructure projects, clean-energy investments and mortgage debt write-downs to revive housing. Contrary to GOP dogma, they see the essential economic problem as insufficient consumer demand, not excessive regulation or deficit spending. They support higher taxes on the wealthy. They want a repeal of the carried-interest tax break for hedge fund managers. They want an end to offshore tax loopholes for major investors and multinational corporations. 

“The traditional strategy [for liberal campaigns] has been to look at the larger corporate players and then beat up on them because they are so powerful,” says David Levine, the ASBC’s co-founder and CEO. “We want to add a business voice that, historically, has been missing. What we are trying to say to others is that, in order to build a more just and stable economy and society, we have to work with a set of businesses and business organizations, large and small, that actually have these values in mind. And they actually know what’s going to work for business.” 

“Most small-business people are really not very political,” explains John Arensmeyer, founder and CEO of Small Business Majority. “They see themselves as dealing with practical problems. But when you get closer to them, you find these guys are actively engaged with the same values as progressives, even if they don’t put it that way.” He adds that his group’s polling shows strong support for community banks and credit unions and is “off the charts” on mega-banks. “These people really hate the big banks,” he says. 

* * *

This clash in political values defines a David-and-Goliath contest. True, the ASBC is rapidly expanding its network of networks and partnering with state and local organizations. But it is inconceivable that the council could ever match the massive money and lobbying power of major corporations, the “too big to fail” banks, the US Chamber of Commerce or the NFIB. But small business has an asset those organizations will never have: credibility on Main Street. 

The ASBC claims to represent some 160,000 businesses, but that’s counting the memberships of its sixty or so strategic partners. In other words, it lacks the mass of the better-known organizations as well as their big money. ASBC co-founder David Brodwin explains why the standard tactics are unlikely to work. “The 100,000-signatures approach that many large grassroots groups use is not really optimal for someone who’s running a business,” he says. 

But don’t count little David out just yet. The ASBC’s great potential is reflected in the fact that small-business types around the country are creating political organizations and dissenting from the dysfunctional status quo. They are promoting a less destructive and wasteful economic system, as well as a society more equitable and respectful of the natural world. These people are inspired by indignation, but also by optimism—they have confidence in themselves and in American inventiveness. 

The proliferating groups allied with the ASBC are strongly influenced by green politics. The council has partnered, for instance, with nonprofits supporting new values and new businesses, including Local First Arizona, Local First Chicago, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, Practice Greenhealth, the National Latino Farmers & Ranchers Trade Association, Social Venture Network, the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives. Small Business Majority likewise has an overlapping network that includes the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce, the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce, the Virginia Asian Chamber of Commerce, the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the American Booksellers Association and more. This crowd of outsiders and independent players, as their names suggest, reflects the changing demographics of voters. 

David can prevail despite Goliath’s advantages, because the insurgents are addressing the country’s real disorders—facing facts that the conservative establishment denies and proposing solutions that cowardly politicians in both parties still evade.  

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