I am an entrepreneur, constantly working to advance my businesses and consistently supporting those seeking to grow theirs. In this current election cycle, political commentators describe with growing dismay the anger of the American electorate, and I am left wondering whether the pundits truly understand what is at the root of that anger.
Many blame issues of social values, race relations or income distribution. I‘ve got a different explanation.
For most of our history, political scientists have noted the importance of entrepreneurial opportunity to U.S. democracy, for an individual to positively affect his or her life through hard work. And the aspiration of self-determination through the sweat of one’s own brow sits at the heart of entrepreneurship.
Way back in 1835, Alexis De Tocqueville, a French social scientist writing about our U.S. political system, noted the essential relationship between our society’s support of an ideal of social progression and wealth gained through hard work rather than heredity. Americans didn’t want a guarantee of outcome. They wanted the freedom to try.
To this very day, we perceive our Americanness in the same way. The American ideal still means equality of opportunity and we laud those who achieve success through hard work and self-determination. Yet for many, the American Dream does not match their life experiences.
The business community — people who have built their lives through entrepreneurial characteristics — have a particular perspective on American society. Our success and failure reflect the broader sense of the American ideal. Now more than ever, we have a responsibility to reflect these truths.
Here’s why. Over the last 30 years our business culture has progressed by creating limits on personal advancement. Employees are no longer seen as individuals looking to evolve and reach personal goals; they are a productive asset with an associated cost. We use technology to replace human workers, or utilize it to erode an individual employee’s ability to provide creativity or autonomy to the task at hand. We adopt winner-takes-all business models through efficiency and financial engineering.
We do not talk about this disconnect, nor do the politicians who look to the entrepreneurial community for financial support.
American workers want to accomplish prosperity, and they want their lives to have meaning. We must continue to give all people a stake in the American Dream. If we don’t provide them with meaning and opportunity through business, they will find it elsewhere.
Conservatives and progressives alike support and value the American ideal. The chance to find our own frontiers binds us. Americans are not asking for handouts. They want opportunity to match their life experiences.
This is a time for successful entrepreneurs and business leaders to stand up and lead, to speak truth to power and realize that our success sets the tone for broader society. Winning is not enough… how we win and how we involve others along the way is essential. A failure to take this responsibility creates a vacuum for others to fill. It opens the door for angry voices to provide meaning through deflection and distraction, and for demagogues to spew frustration without resolution.
Americans aren’t socialists, but they are fiercely egalitarian. If every citizen could find satisfaction in his or her pursuit of professional success, they would be a lot less angry.
I understand why some Americans feel frustrated and helpless. I wonder whether our successful entrepreneurs will act to provide meaningful and constructive leadership before it is too late.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.