Washington Monthly: The Democrats Confront Monopoly
Taking on corporate concentration has gone from a fringe idea to a key plank of the party’s strategy. Here’s how that happened—and why it matters.
On a Monday afternoon in late July, a group of leading Democratic members of Congress, including Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Elizabeth Warren, gathered in small-town Berryville, Virginia, to pitch the Democrats’ “Better Deal” economic agenda.
The party’s strategy for 2018 had been a topic of obsession since the day after the 2016 election. The Democrats were finally being forced to confront a fundamental weakness: the perception, as the comedian Lewis Black once put it, that while the Republicans are the party of bad ideas, the Democrats are the party of no ideas. Shortly after the election, Schumer had admitted on national television that one reason for Hillary Clinton’s loss had been the lack of a “strong, bold economic message.” In Berryville, he told the crowd, “Too many Americans don’t know what we stand for. Not after today.”
Sort of. The agenda’s tedious branding—the subtitle was “Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future”—drew mostly derision, not least for its resemblance to the Papa John’s motto: “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.” A New Yorker humor piece listed “rejected slogans,” including “Not Perfect, But Also Not Trump.”
The problem went beyond the name. If the Better Deal was treated like an overstuffed grab bag of policies designed to placate the entire Democratic caucus, that’s because it was one. Much early coverage focused on a proposed tax credit for job training, the exact kind of centrist technocracy so many liberals were afraid of—“reminiscent of what Bill Clinton was selling in the 1990s,” as Michelle Cottle put it in the Atlantic.
The Democrats’ problem, then, isn’t that no one knows what they stand for on the economy. It’s that everyone knows what they stand for: higher taxes, more spending on social welfare, and a stream of opaque, nibble-around-the-edges government programs. Hillary Clinton may as well have said she had binders full of ideas.
Many commentators did, however, notice one element of the Better Deal that was quite new—and potentially transformative. If you got past the bland subheading “Lower the costs of living for families,” you would have found something very different from what anyone was selling in the 1990s: a section on “Cracking Down on Corporate Monopolies and the Abuse of Economic and Political Power.”
This anti-monopoly plank—which Schumer and Pelosi emphasized in op-eds in the New York Times and the Washington Post, respectively—reflected a growing awareness that the economy has become dangerously concentrated. In sector after sector, from retail to beer to eyeglasses, the market is controlled by a small handful of giant companies. And mounting evidence suggests that corporate consolidation is behind some of the economy’s deepest problems: income inequality, declining innovation, and the exodus of wealth and jobs from the heartland toward the coasts.