The Washington Monthly has been writing about issues related to monopolies, corporate consolidation, and antitrust enforcement since at least 2001. If has often felt like a lonely quest. So it was with some considerable satisfaction that we looked in our daily issues of the Washington Post and New York Times yesterday and saw editorials by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer indicating that the Democratic Party is finally getting our message. (Democrats also held a press conference in rural Virginia to announce this new economic agenda, coined “A Better Deal.”) The party leaders wrote that the Democrats are going to “fight to allow regulators to break up big companies if they’re hurting consumers and to make it harder for companies to merge if it reduces competition,” and emphasized that they intend to start “cracking down on the monopolies and big corporate mergers that harm consumers, workers and competition.” The corresponding white paper also proposes the creation of “a 21st century ‘Trust Buster’ to stop abusive corporate conduct and the exploitation of market power where it already exists.”
Last October, Editor in Chief Paul Glastris put together a comprehensive recap of our magazine’s greatest hits on these issues. He noted that we ran articles starting in the first year of the younger Bush’s administration by Karen Kornbluh, Nicholas Thompson and John Podesta about how telecom monopolies were crushing competition in the broadband market. In 2004, we published a piece by CNN founder Ted Turner explaining how the broadcast and entertainment industries were rapidly consolidating, making it impossible for a younger generation of media entrepreneurs to get a foothold. Here are some of the other pieces that Glastris identified:
In 2010, New America’s Barry Lynn, author of the book Cornered, and Phil Longman published a seminal Monthly cover story revealing that virtually every industry sector, from banking to beer to eyeglasses, had become similarly controlled by one or a few big corporations and that this locking up of markets is a major, under appreciated cause of the long-term slowdown in job growth. Lynn and Longman also made clear that consolidation was not some natural occurrence but the result of a deliberate strategy by the Reagan administration to all but end antitrust enforcement, a policy the next four administrations, to varying degrees, continued.
Subsequent pieces in the Washington Monthly by Lynn, Longman and others connected with New America’s Open Markets program filled out the picture. They showed how strong antitrust enforcement beginning in the latter New Deal years set the stage for four decades of strong economic growth. They explained how monopolized markets threaten unions; how growing monopoly power has warped the airline and hospital sectors; and how U.S. entrepreneurship, once thought to be America’s great competitive advantage, has in fact been in decline due to consolidation. Finally, they demonstrated how consolidation is driving the growing regional inequality of America, with half a dozen big metro areas, mostly on the coasts, gobbling up all the income growth and corporate headquarters while smaller metro areas sink into relative decline despite their best efforts to compete.
More recently, we’ve run a piece on how conservatism can make itself great again by rediscovering its historic hatred of monopolies, another linking the decline in black business ownership to reduced enforcement of anti-monopoly and fair trade laws beginning in the late 1970s, and I had a piece in the latest issue of the magazine on How to Win Rural Voters Without Losing Liberal Values that emphasized the need to revigorate small-town America’s economic vitality by utilizing greater anti-monopoly regulation.
Maybe our sheer persistence has finally paid off, but other factors certainly contributed. Donald Trump’s shocking strength in rural and small-town America won him an Electoral College victory, indicating a level of stress in those communities not sufficiently recognized by the Democratic party leadership. And new post-election polling came out that validates what we’ve been saying, which is not only that these issues are of concern to the American people and that they understand them better than they are often given credit for, but that there is real political potential here. In a memo from Geoff Garin of Hart Associates Polling, some of these numbers were spelled out:
As Senate and House Democrats begin to roll out their new Better Deal Economic Agenda, a review of recent public opinion polling shows that the central themes and frames that are at the heart of this agenda match closely with the experiences, values, and priorities of American voters today. Moreover, the Democratic policies related to curbing excessive corporate power that are being highlighted in the first day of the rollout have real resonance with voters and are strongly supported by a significant majority of Americans.
For example, fully 79% of voters in Senate battleground states agree that, “the rules of the economy today are rigged against average Americans, and America’s working families need a better deal.” Eighty-five percent (85%) of those who voted for Hillary Clinton agree with this statement, but so do 74% of those who voted for Donald Trump (43% of whom strongly agree). Indeed, more voters in the battleground states agree with this critique of the economy than a critique that says “the problem with the economy today is a big government that spends too much, taxes too much, and puts too many burdens on businesses.”
What’s remarkable about these numbers is that the Republicans have been hammering on excessive government spending, regulation and taxation for decades and yet the American people largely reject that in favor of a rigged system explanation for their economic problems that neither party has been hitting with any consistency or sustained broad focus. To be sure, we’ve heard some rhetoric from candidates like John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders emphasized the rigged nature of the economy while focusing more on banks and billionaires than antitrust and antimonopoly policies. The message Sanders sent is possibly still fresh, but you can see that it has resonance:
Similarly, a large majority of battleground state voters respond favorably to a statement of the premise and direction that define the Better Deal Economic Agenda, transcending partisanship even when the statement is explicitly described as coming from Democrats:
”Too many families in America today feel that the rules of the economy are rigged against them. Special interests have a strangle-hold on Washington—from the super-rich spending unlimited amounts of secret money to influence our elections, to the huge loopholes in our tax code that help corporations avoid paying taxes. The basic bargain that hard-working men and women can keep a good job, make a decent living, and provide for their families is no longer attainable for too many people. But it does not have to be this way. If the government goes back to putting working families first, ahead of special interests, we can achieve a better deal for the American people that will raise their pay, lower their expenses, and prepare them for the future.”
In the red states of Indiana, Montana, Missouri, North Dakota, and West Virginia, 73% express a favorable reaction to this statement of Democratic economic thinking, as do a similar proportion of voters in the purple states of Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Support for this Democratic approach withstands Republican criticisms that it would lead to bigger government, higher taxes, and more interference with free enterprise—a contention that only three in 10 voters find to be convincing.
On the specific issue of too much corporate consolidation, you may be surprised to see how strongly it polls:
National polling also shows the breadth of concern about excessive corporate power and its impacts. By two to one (67% to 33%), for example, Americans believe it is a bigger problem that “huge corporations and billionaires are using their political power to reduce competition, keep wages low, and get special tax breaks” than that “government is imposing too many job-killing regulations on businesses and taxing people too much.” Indeed, 86% of voters agree that, “our economy is increasingly dominated by a small number of very large corporations,” and most voters believe this leads to consequences that often affect them personally. Fifty-seven percent (57%) say it is true that President Trump and Republicans, “are driving up prices for consumers by allowing a few huge corporations to dominate our government and economy.”
We often get pushback from liberal-minded people that Trump voters are out of reach, motivated more by fear and hatred than economic self-interest, and too unsophisticated to respond to wonkish talk about antitrust enforcement. But these polling results indicate that they understand and that they figured out the problem with corporate dominance of the marketplace long before Pelosi and Schumer did.
Whether the strength of our arguments finally broke through or the polling numbers were too clear to be ignored, the Democratic leadership has finally gotten our message. And that is vindication enough for us, at least for now.