After a surprisingly close election, and sweeping Congressional defeats across much of rural America, many observers are asking how the political left can pursue policies that address these profound holes in the Democratic Party’s electoral map.
In The Nation, Stacy Mitchell and Susan R. Holmberg suggest an answer: Return to the party’s New Deal roots and embrace an agenda that explicitly supports small businesses rather than large corporations.
“On September 5, 1955, the indomitable Walter Reuther, a towering figure in the labor movement and head of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), began his Labor Day message to Americans by commemorating all that unions had achieved, from higher wages to greater dignity on the job. Reuther, who’d been an architect of the sit-down strikes that unionized the auto industry and who became an important ally of Martin Luther King Jr., then turned to another subject: the conditions facing the nation’s small-business owners. “Big corporations are getting more and more of the market,” he lamented.
The CIO intended to fix this problem. Its legislative platform during these years called for easing the tax burden on small businesses, extending them more credit, and stepping up antitrust enforcement. In 1957 the labor federation, which by then had become the AFL-CIO, cheered a Supreme Court antitrust ruling that went against General Motors and DuPont. The decision, the federation reported, set a legal precedent that would help prevent small businesses from being “unmercifully squeezed.” That year, the AFL-CIO demanded a “thorough-going investigation into monopoly, and legislation to protect the legitimate interests of small business.”
Reuther’s support for small business was not some strange anomaly in left-wing politics. For much of the 20th century, labor was allied with small business in the fight for a fair economy. For decades starting in the 1930s, the Democratic Party counted small businesses as a core constituency, alongside organized workers, and made their welfare a central concern of its policy agenda. This fact surprises many today because it’s a history long ago abandoned. The shift came in the 1970s, when Democrats embraced the ascendancy of big corporations, reasoning that these large entities were more easily unionized and could deliver more for consumers. In turn, liberals began to see small businesses as not worth fighting for. They were, at best, irrelevant to the left’s vision and, at worst, an obstacle to it.
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