It's Now or Never

A Former SEC Attorney Weighs in on the State of the Union

It's Now or Never

Illustration by Sofie Praestgaard

It’s “Do or Die” time for the Dems — and likely for Democracy as well. The time is now, and we know what that means: The Biden/Harris ticket must win big next week. But how? Simple. Joe Biden must convince swing state business-focused voters that his party won’t wreck the economy, while assuring the base that such a message is not traitorous to progressive goals.

Needless to say, this is a tricky balancing act, and Democrats still seem to be struggling to authentically connect with Main Street business owners. Any strategy which merely placates owners and entrepreneurs is risky at best, and a recipe for disaster at worst.

In order to communicate a truly broad and inclusive mandate that fires up voters, Biden must explicitly declare that small businesses and job creators are important and pledge to actively listen, and respond, to their concerns; recognize that significant numbers of Americans, particularly Millennials and the GenZees behind them, are their own bosses; and demonstrate that workers’ and businesses’ self-interest argues for the party that will emphasize both growth and fairness.

If executed correctly, this approach will not further alienate the liberal base, but rather would be an expression of pragmatic empathy toward those Regular Joe and Jolene job creators whose typical passion is not to chase the almighty dollar at all costs, but simply to serve their customers, motivate their workers to be engaged and fulfilled, if not happy, and do well for themselves in the long run.

Workers will thus likely not fault the party for countenancing greed and selfishness. Why? Because selfishness is qualitatively different from self-interest. No less of a conservative oracle than Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, cautioned that the pursuit of self-interest is good “as long as [it] does not violate the laws of justice;” and warned in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that “one individual must never prefer himself so much even to any other individual, as to hurt or injure that other [individual], in order to benefit himself…”

All voters act in their own self-interest; it is obnoxious greed and selfishness which repels many of them. Joe Biden should be able to make this distinction.

Moreover, significant numbers of left-leaning workers are independent contractors, i.e., also their own bosses. The inexorable onslaught of IRS estimated tax deadlines is more than enough to remind 1099 workers that they are in business for themselves. In particular, many Millennials entered the job market in the throes of the Great Recession and are still slogging it out in the so-called “Hustle Culture,” or “Gig Economy” — all too often without benefits. The GenZees are often right alongside them in minimum wage jobs. Some of these folks may call themselves “Socialists,” but I seriously doubt that they want a party which will be hostile to business or will tank the economy.

Many Democrats act to serve others and the public interest. But self-interest is usually present as well. Indeed, many young voters would likely admit that one of the reasons they feel so strongly about environmental protections is to insure a healthy planet for themselves and their children.

Both parties have embraced government programs over the years. Fair or not, however, only Dems in past years have been labeled as “social engineers,” and stand accused today of constituting the “Deep State.” Swing-state voters will be concerned about this in November. The Biden campaign cannot afford to downplay this factor and, with view toward long-term governance, should not do so.

How to make the “value proposition” that Dems are the party of Growth and Fairness? They should move beyond the Minimum Wage and consider policies which will impel owners’ and workers’ interests to be more aligned.

If they don’t already have these on the menu, perhaps they should consider: reducing certain regulatory burdens on small business without jeopardizing workers’ health and safety, or the environment; incentivizing even-handed contractual protections for 1099 workers; exploring avenues to liberalize the “at-will” employment rule, and the “assignment of creators’ rights” provisions in employment contracts; being open-minded on long-term capital gains, recognizing that both older Main Street owners and younger Millennial and GenZee entrepreneurs should not be unduly taxed for the creation and building of “capital.”

Convergence sounds better than conflict, doesn’t it?

Standing up for victims and social justice, on the one hand, and recognizing the importance of small business and job-creators, on the other, need not be a binary quandary. In lyrical terms, think of it this way (to the tune of “Love and Marriage”):

Growth and Fairness
Growth and Fairness
Come together in a smart awareness:
That we’re stuck together---
We can’t have one without the… other!

Dems need to convince Main Street owners that they really “get it” — that they understand that all people engineer their own lives.

In 1835, De Tocqueville observed that “Americans… are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of self-interest rightly understood; they show… how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.”

Many Main Street business owners, nearly two centuries later, happily employ enlightened self-interest (often with a healthy dose of relatively pure altruism) to help their neighbors. However, they do not like paying unwarranted taxes, or suffering needless administrative drudgery. Their willingness to elect Biden, knowing full well that their taxes will likely increase, may very well depend upon their perception that they are being heard, and that Democrats understand that private enterprise must remain the primary driver of economic growth. But Biden must also demonstrate that, under his stewardship, government will be up to the job — being both effective and efficient.

At risk of their own peril, Democrats ignore the power of Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club breakfasts, not to mention the ferocity of right-wing media. The polls were famously wrong in 2016; they could be infamously wrong this time around. And Democrats should never underestimate the worldview of many conservative true believers: that almost anything is justified to undo what they see as the oppression of regulators and bureaucrats.

But my bet is the Main Street owners (and swing-state voters who voted GOP last time around) that buy into this worldview do so largely because of the effective messaging of right-wing media, including on AM radio, reinforced with pals over bacon and eggs. What they arguably want more than ideological purity is simply safety and security, certainty and stability.

If Biden can convince these Main Street owners that he and Kamala Harris can so deliver, while assuring the progressive base that fundamental fairness and justice will not be compromised, then the Democrats will succeed in building a broader coalition, and have a shot at long-term unity under sustainable, wise governance. To do this, they must prove a proposition consistent with what the sociologist Amitai Etzioni calls “mutuality” — that improving the lives of everyone is in everyone’s self-interest.

But if the Democrats can’t do that, and don’t win big this time, particularly given recent events, then they never will.

Dennis Stubblefield

, a former Enforcement attorney with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, teaches Securities Regulation, and Business Law: Lawyering and Ethics, as an Adjunct Professor of Law at Lewis & Clark Law School. He has been self-employed (filing scores of estimated tax payments) since 2003.

All contributions from Dennis Stubblefield

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