The progressive movement is at a challenging but fascinating time in our country's history. Even when the Democrats had a newly-elected president who ran on a platform of big change, 60 votes in the Senate, a big margin of control in the House and the most progressive Speaker in history, we still had trouble getting big changes passed. We accomplished some important things, but not nearly as much or as progressively as we had hoped. Now, with a Republican House, only 53 Democratic senators, and a president who has signaled he wants to move more to the center, progressives have even less power than before.
There's one other factor that even this old-school, lefty populist needs to acknowledge at this moment in our political history: While most voters remain very angry at Wall Street, health insurance companies, big businesses that keep outsourcing jobs, and other corporate special interests, they also are very angry with a government that seems pretty dysfunctional. Swing voters in particular are generally tired of traditional political arguments, and just want political leaders who are going to be very pragmatic about actually delivering jobs and other tangible economic benefits. In this environment, progressives should not shy away from making populist arguments, but need to temper that populism with a pragmatic message about helping small businesses and manufacturers create more jobs.
Things can change rapidly in politics (just ask Hosni Mubarak), but in the foreseeable future, if we want to make any progress in the legislative or regulatory arena, progressives will need to frame their ideas in new ways and look for alliances that go beyond the usual suspects. I have even given a name to this strategy: entrepreneurial populism. The idea is to continue to take on Wall Street and the other big corporate interests that have sweetheart deals with the government, but to do it on behalf of middle-class homeowners and entrepreneurial small businesses.
Both Democratic base voters and working and middle-class swing voters are angry at the powers that be: a government that never seems to get things done on their behalf; Wall Street mega-bankers who crashed the economy, demanded a bailout, and never showed a moment of remorse; a media establishment more concerned with trivia and sensationalism than with anything really important; and big businesses that ship jobs overseas and have their lobbyists cut sweetheart deals with the government. But a purely angry message going after bankers and tax breaks for the wealthy only brings Democrats into a 45-45 tie with an angry anti-government message from the Republicans.
Americans right now are first and foremost very pragmatic, very focused on jobs and the things that will help them make it in tough times. However angry they are at the establishment, they want to be sure that politicians are focused on pragmatic policies that create more jobs and economic growth. Voters are looking for policies that help small-business entrepreneurs get investment capital and create more jobs; policies that help manufacturing companies, big or small, create jobs here in America; and policies that invest in the jobs of the future: infrastructure, R&D, green energy, and technology. The winning political formula is entrepreneurial populism: taking on the big Wall Street banks, the jobs outsourcers, and other powerful special interests on behalf of both the middle-class workers and the business innovators who want to create American jobs here and now. President Obama's investment agenda is a good start, but it needs to be bigger and bolder in terms of job creation, and it would be far more powerful if Obama were taking on wealthy special interests who are keeping things from moving forward.
I think progressives should be consciously looking for the kind of issue fights that put us in alliance with small, Main Street business, up and coming entrepreneurs and innovators, and American manufacturers whenever they are fighting the big Wall Street banks and other establishment special interests. A couple of examples come readily to mind.
The first is the credit/debit card swipe-fee issue, which I have been excited to be working on for several months with a combination of retail business interests and consumer groups. Check out this recent article by Larry Nannis, who is the chairman of the National Small Business Association.
I'm guessing there would be many things I would disagree with Nannis and the NSBA on, but I sure didn't find anything to argue with there. The fact is that these huge mega-banks, the six biggest of which control assets worth 64 percent of our country's GDP, are hoarding their money, not making the loans and investments that would help fuel more jobs and a broader economic recovery, and screwing over small businesspeople on things like swipe fees just as much as they are screwing over all those homeowners they are trying to foreclose on. This is exactly the kind of issue progressives ought to be championing.
Here's another one: Progressives should push hard for government contracting reform, forcing entrenched businesses that have been getting sweetheart deals at the government trough for a very long time to actually compete fairly with up and coming small-business innovators who might be able to do the work more efficiently. The Center for American Progress, U.S. PIRG, and other reform groups have estimated that the federal government could save enormous amounts of money ($100 billion annually or even more) simply by reforming the way they do government contracting. With more and more government services privatized, the amount of government contracting has been growing by leaps and bounds over the last couple of decades, and these contracts have been noted for the waste and corruption entailed in them. No-bid contracts, sweetheart deals, cost overruns, a lack of accountability for getting them done on time, easy to achieve bonus clauses written into most contracts, and special-interest language in appropriations bills favoring one firm over all others have generated enormous amounts of waste. By demanding reform of this process, progressives could burnish our credentials in terms of cutting waste in government as well as opening up contracting to more innovative and efficient firms.
There are many other issues where parts of the business community would be in common cause with progressives: solar and wind companies that need help to compete with big established energy companies; small businesses that can put people to work retrofitting schools and government infrastructure to save energy dollars; companies that want to bring high-speed broadband to rural areas that don't have it; and road and bridge building. Progressives should look for these alliances wherever we can, and build unlikely bedfellow coalitions on the issues that help our cause.
This kind of political outreach can help us in the fights we have with other parts of the business community. It was this kind of progressive-retailer coalition that won us a legislative victory against the banks on swipe fees, and elements of the business community have supported other components of progressive legislation over the past few years. Wherever we can forge these kinds of alliances without compromising our principles, we have the potential to win some victories.
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