The Atlantic: Democrats Bet on a Populist Message to Win Back Congress

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

by Clare Foran | 6:00 AM ET

The party is promising “A Better Deal.” Will voters be convinced?

Six months after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Democrats in Congress are ready to adopt a populist economic agenda that blends ideas long entrenched in the liberal mainstream, like infrastructure investment, with promises that have not been a focus of the Democratic Party in recent years such as a pledge to rein in the power of corporate monopolies.

Locked out of power in Washington, Democrats lack the ability to implement the agenda, which will be sold to voters under the tagline “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future.” But party leaders plan to pitch it as a preview of what they would do if Democrats win back Congress. The economic platform is aimed at bridging ideological and demographic divides in the party, and Democrats hope it will have widespread appeal, in rural and urban areas, and with centrist, moderate, and progressive voters alike.

The agenda nevertheless showcases the influence of the Democratic Party’s populist-progressive wing. It diagnoses the problems facing America in terms that sound far more like Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton, arguing that prosperity and influence have become too concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few to the detriment of working-class Americans. One policy plank promises that Democrats will start “cracking down on corporate monopolies”—an ambition that prior to the 2016 presidential election would be far more likely to be championed by a progressive firebrand like Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has long warned of the dangers of market concentration, than most rank-and-file Democrats in Congress.

In the past, Democrats made confronting corporate monopolies central to their agenda. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt warned Congress in 1938 that “a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing.” In 1947, his Democratic successor President Harry Truman called for “restriction of monopoly and unfair business practices,” along with “the promotion of the free competitive system of private enterprise,” in a State of the Union address.

Twenty-first-century Democrats, however, have not made anti-monopoly policy a central pillar of the party’s agenda, and critics such as Matt Stoller have argued that the party’s decline is related to its reluctance to confront corporate consolidation. Stoller recently wrote in The New Republic: “Over the past four decades, the party has stood by as giant supermarket chains replaced local grocery stores and Too Big to Fail banks replaced local lenders. As monopolies broke up unions and drove down wages, Democrats increasingly came to rely on campaign contributions from the very corporations that were consolidating their control over the American economy.”

“A Better Deal” makes clear that congressional Democrats believe that in 2017 the party must deliver an unequivocal message opposing corporate monopolies. The agenda calls for blocking mergers that “harm consumers, workers, and competition,” regulatory scrutiny of completed mergers to maintain free-market competition, and the creation of what the agenda describes as “a 21st-century ‘Trust Buster’ to stop abusive corporate conduct and the exploitation of market power.”

“To fix the problem of corporate monopolies, it’s important to first start talking about the fact that the problem exists.”

Policy specifics matter for evaluating what these proposals might actually achieve, and for now Democrats are sketching out more of a broad vision than the nitty-gritty details. Whether that agenda will broadly appeal to voters, and whether the proposals in the new Democratic agenda would meaningfully rein in corporate monopolies, are separate questions. But Democrats believe that if they begin talking more forcefully about the need to check monopoly power, that could create a foundation for eventual action.

“To fix the problem of corporate monopolies, it’s important to first start talking about the fact that the problem exists,” Lillian Salerno, the Obama administration’s former deputy undersecretary of rural development who has argued that breaking up monopolies is necessary to restore economic prosperity to rural America, said in an interview last month.

“I think a lot of people want the Democratic party to stand firm on systemic economic issues, like promoting competition and curbing monopoly,” Salerno said, “but it’s hard to take corporate dollars and then go up against those same corporations. So if the party wants to fight monopolies, corporate concentration must be named as a problem, and then together we can get to work on really changing the system, which will require much more than talk.”

One of the most pressing challenges facing the Democratic Party is a lack of voter confidence that Democrats understand the problems facing Americans. In April, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that two-thirds of Americans believe the Democratic Party is out of touch with the concerns of most Americans, a larger percentage than said the same of the Republican Party or of President Trump.

When news of the Democratic agenda surfaced last week from Vox’s Jeff Stein, its slogan, which was reported to be “A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages” was widely mocked on social media as insufficiently aspirational and progressive, in part because some critics argued that an emphasis on “skills” unfairly suggested that workers should do more to help themselves, while others panned the slogan for its similarity to the tagline used by pizza chain Papa John’s. (The finalized slogan “A Better Deal: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future” is not the same as what was previously reported).

Promises to confront monopoly power are only one part of the wide-ranging platform the new Democratic agenda sets out. At the core of the agenda is a pledge that the party will create jobs, raise wages and income, while lowering the cost of living, for American workers and families.

“A Better Deal” is the product of months of meetings and deliberation between party leaders, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, other House and Senate Democrats, and policy experts representing the full spectrum of liberal ideology.

Stephanie Kelton, an economist and professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, who served as an economic policy advisor to the Sanders campaign, said in an interview that she was invited to take part in a brainstorming session on Capitol Hill with Senator Schumer when the agenda was still in development.

“I think it was significant that they reached out to me knowing that I had been an economic advisor to the Sanders campaign. They wanted to hear from that side, from someone who had been working closely with Senator Sanders, and I definitely think they understand that in order for the party to unify around a broad, ambitious, economic platform, they need to include everyone,” Kelton said.

Democrats plan to unveil more proposals under the banner of “A Better Deal” in the weeks to come. The focus on an economic agenda suggests, however, that the party believes that prioritizing jobs, income, and wages will prove more unifying for the party, and more attractive to the kind of coalition they want to attract, than so-called “identity politics” messages that seek to appeal to voters on the basis of race and gender.

The idea of “a better deal,” may sound like only an incremental improvement or a hazy promise. But holding out the possibility of “better jobs” and “better wages” are specific goals that have the potential to resonate widely. For that resonance to translate into electoral wins, Democrats may need to convince voters not only of the sincerity of their message, but that the policy ideas the party is now putting forward are realistic and workable, and would meaningfully improve their lives.