A Party of Entrepreneurs

The Democratic Party has come to increasingly embrace the notion of the “entrepreneur”—but is this really a good thing?

By Lily Geismer

Tagged Barack ObamaBernie SandersBill ClintonDemocratsentrepreneurshipHillary Clinton

Read more on how the Democratic Party has changed.

“The entrepreneurial spirit has always been at the heart of our Nation’s story,” Barack Obama pronounced in 2013, “entrepreneurs helped make our country what it is today.” Obama’s valorization of entrepreneurship reflects a rewriting of American history increasingly embraced by politicians especially in the Democratic Party. This trope, however, is less important for the version of history it offers. Instead, it represents the party’s larger reorientation toward the post-industrial high-tech sector and a new vision of work and economic growth, which has intensified since the 1990s.

Despite the now common declaration that this is “a nation of entrepreneurs,” throughout much of American history, politicians rarely invoked the term. When they did, it was to refer to figures such as John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, treating entrepreneurship not as a set of qualities that applied to all Americans but, rather, to a select and exceptional few. Beginning in the 1970s and the 1980s, fueled by larger restructuring of the American economy, “entrepreneurship” began to proliferate in periodicals and course catalogues at colleges and business schools across the country.  Politicians followed suit, with Ronald Reagan leading the charge. “Entrepreneurs have always been leaders in America,” he proclaimed, “They led the rebellion against excessive taxation and regulation. They and their offspring pushed back the frontier, transforming the wilderness into a land of plenty.” Reagan frequently celebrated entrepreneurs in both the past and present using terms and imagery that aligned with his larger political ideology.

During his presidency, Bill Clinton extended this celebration of entrepreneurship, but gave it a distinctly Democratic and liberal caste. Unlike Reagan, he emphasized the role government could play in stimulating entrepreneurial activity not just to create economic growth, but also to address issues such as racial discrimination, urban redevelopment and welfare reform. Clinton also broadened the definition of “entrepreneur.” “This whole country is basically built by entrepreneurs, whether they’re in Silicon Valley or young investment bankers in Manhattan or people running the street-vending operations out here for the tourists in Washington,” he declared in 1999.  “The genius of actually being able to have an idea and act on it…it’s the whole secret of America.”

The Democratic Party has redoubled this rhetoric and policy focus since Clinton left office. The emphasis compliments many of the values that have come to animate the party’s agenda including equality of opportunity, individual meritocracy, as well as education and knowledge as a means to advancement and personal empowerment. It also represents, and has nurtured, the party’s close ties to the tech industry. Throughout his presidency, Obama has celebrated the importance of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and beyond. He recently told Mark Zuckerberg and other tech entrepreneurs gathered at Stanford, “You’re the bridge, you’re the glue…who can help lead towards a more peaceful and more prosperous future that provides opportunity for everybody.”

Hillary Clinton has also promoted entrepreneurship as a core part of her values and vision of economic growth. The “Initiative on Technology & Innovation” her campaign has created treats “entrepreneurship and innovation” as “fundamental to our future economic growth” and seeks to encourage entrepreneurial activity in a variety of arenas. The most novel component would allow entrepreneurs to forgo paying their student loans for up to three years, “so they can get their ventures off the ground and help drive the innovation economy.” Connecting entrepreneurship to urban redevelopment, the plan provides additional forgiveness to those that locate their startups in “distressed communities” or launch “social enterprises that provide measurable social impact and benefit.” The 2016 Democratic Platform further fused the links between the party’s principles of equality of opportunity and entrepreneurship by promising to create entrepreneurial programs that would serve as “engines of opportunity for women, people of color, tribes, and people in rural America.”

While the party has embraced the promotion of entrepreneurship as a primary solution to inequality, this commitment has the potential to contradict, and even undermine, many other elements of the party’s progressive economic agenda, especially many of its far-reaching efforts to level the economic playing field. First, Democrats and their allies have adopted a broad definition of the entrepreneur that incorporates both Mark Zuckerberg, a millennial start-up creator, and a Latina bakery owner into a single occupational category. On the surface, this application appears democratizing. But, in reality, like Bill Clinton’s linking of the founder of a Silicon Valley startup to a DC street vendor, it obscures the material and class differences between these types of business operators and thereby helps thwart a broader language or politics of class-consciousness both within the party and beyond it.

Second, in promoting this vision, politicians overwhelmingly highlight success stories and rarely mention the high failure rate of startups, particularly when their founders confront other structural barriers. Instead, it celebrates the risks of starting a new venture. Politicians and policymakers also fail to mention that, by choosing to strike out on their own, individuals forgo many of the benefits and protections, as well as the sense of stability, that come with steady employment and a steady paycheck.

Third, this increasing focus on entrepreneurs embodies the party’s growing attention to forms of individual, rather than collective action, which has evolved over the past half-century. The tech sector has established a model of success that favors competition and many of its leading tycoons find organized labor antithetical to their commitment to merit- and knowledge-based achievement. In addition, many of the businesses that entrepreneurs start are in overwhelmingly non-unionized sectors. Not surprisingly, these ventures rarely provide the protections that come with union membership, not least of which is collective bargaining.

The promotion of entrepreneurship thereby symbolizes, and has perhaps contributed to, the weakening role and voice of organized labor within both the party and the nation. It is telling that none of the marquee speakers at the 2016 Democratic National Convention—including not only Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but also Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—made explicit reference to unions. Tim Kaine, the sole headliner to use the term “union member,” spoke of his father, thus reinforcing a nostalgic view of organized labor as part of the party’s past, rather than its present or future. Obama, Clinton and many other figures on the dais did, however, celebrate the importance of entrepreneurs. This shift in focus illustrates the redefinition of the average worker and average party member not as the dues-paying autoworker, but the innovative and individualist entrepreneur.

This redefinition of work and valorization of entrepreneurship could have important policy consequences. Perhaps Clinton’s “Technology & Innovation Initiative,” along with other policies, could minimize risk and provide a safety net for entrepreneurs and their employees. The increased attention paid to entrepreneurs of all stripes could increase the power of groups, like the Freelancers Union, and give them increased power and a seat at the table. In the meantime, however, we must remember that entrepreneurs have not been front and center in American society and Democratic Party politics for much of their history, and their new prominence illustrates larger transformations in the party, the economy, and the workforce. It is also important that we begin considering, more critically, what the real repercussions of these developments have been.

Read more about Barack ObamaBernie SandersBill ClintonDemocratsentrepreneurshipHillary Clinton

Lily Geismer is an assistant professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and the author of Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Trans­formation of the Democratic Party.

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