How Biden Can Transform America

The country thrived when its leaders broke up monopoly power. The president-elect won’t need Congress to do so again.

Joe Biden’s grand plan sure sounded right for the final weeks of the campaign. In this time of pandemic and economic upheaval, learn from the hard lessons of the Great Recession and spend big to “build back better.” Focus on jobs, clean energy, infrastructure, and expanding the Affordable Care Act. It was to be nothing less than a new New Deal. Or, as Vox put it in August, Biden is “self-styling as the next FDR.”

Well, Joe Biden did win big. But Democrats did not carry the Senate—and even if they are successful in the Georgia runoffs, their hold on that body will be too tenuous to deliver the trillions of dollars in spending Biden promised. The emerging consensus, as described by The New York Times, is that Biden cannot drive a series of expensive programs forward but must be content to “nibble at the edge of tax policies” and other micro measures while bracing for a sluggish recovery.

And that’s the optimistic take. From day one Biden will also have to parry the populist-tipped thrusts of Republican Senators Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton and other Trump-inspired contenders for 2024, and perhaps of Trump himself if he seeks to reclaim his crown. Biden might also find himself under assault from the left wing of his own party, sometimes wielding the same arguments as anti-corporate Republicans.

The prospect gets ugly fast. Former FCC Commissioner Reed Hundt and others have charged Barack Obama with “wasting” the financial collapse of 2008 by not pursuing deep structural fixes. Faced with an even graver set of challenges, Biden might never get a chance to prove that he’s capable of true reform. Instead, he faces two years as a hostage of the Senate, followed by two years of panic as the MAGA troops muster outside the White House gates.

But what if Biden instead chose to follow through with his promise to transform the nation, only using different tools than he envisioned in the campaign? The fact that he will enter the White House knowing that a Keynesian stimulus is off the table could prove key to his ultimate success if it inspired his team to find smarter ways to achieve its goals.

One set of tools offers the promise of true transformation, without the need for large sums of money or strong congressional support. This is the use of America’s vast suite of anti-monopoly laws already on the books to address the extreme and growing concentration of private power that has harmed the economic and political well-being of almost every American. An anti-monopoly agenda would enable Biden to frame, direct, and drive deep structural reforms tailored to deliver everything from better health care to better jobs to real solutions to the climate crisis, and to create opportunity and stimulate investment and innovation across the entire economy. Such an agenda would even offer ways to steer political debate in a more constructive and civil direction.

Rather than button himself into a beige cardigan next to the White House fire, President Biden can stride forth as a second Harry Truman, taking the fight to the thieves and bullies and demagogues while telling a story of America that explains who broke our nation, how they did it, and how we can fix it.

Fully understood and embraced, anti-monopolism offers Biden the opportunity to establish the foundations for a 21st-century political economy that is fair, just, safe, prosperous, and sustainable, and to do so on the cheap. Even better, anti-monopolism offers him the chance to establish a liberal political regime in America able to protect his achievements for decades to come.

The idea that monopolists pose some sort of threat to the public weal is now widely accepted. In the case of Google, Facebook, and Amazon, for instance, three of every four American voters favor some sort of breakup of the corporations.

Reaction against extreme concentration of wealth and power has in fact played a large and growing role in the nation’s politics for more than a decade. In 2008, Obama’s promise to fight farm monopolies proved key to his win in the Iowa caucus. When he then failed to deliver, and instead bailed out the biggest of banks, populist anger powered the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 and of Occupy Wall Street in 2011. That same anger was a key to Bernie Sanders’s shocking rise in 2016, and to Donald Trump’s even more shocking victory that November. And it played a big role in the Republicans’ strong showing in 2020, as Trump, aided by supporters like the Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, continued to paint Democrats as supercilious servants of financiers and data barons.

Since 2016, elements of the Democratic Party have made big advances in steering the raw anti-wealth and anti-elite anger in a constructive direction. Elizabeth Warren led the way in June 2016, delivering a speech in which she characterized the rise of monopoly as a fundamental threat to the economic well-being of Americans and to democracy. During the 2020 primaries, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders all built on Warren’s analysis of the fundamental role played by bad competition policy.

Then, in early October, the Democratic-led antitrust subcommittee in the House issued a groundbreaking report that detailed how Google, Facebook, and Amazon exploit their power in ways that threaten America’s democracy and system of capitalism, and sketched how to use anti-monopoly law to break that power. Two weeks later, Democratic state attorneys general played a major role in prodding Bill Barr’s Justice Department into filing the first major antitrust suit against Google. Finally, in December, Democratic appointees on the Federal Trade Commission drove the FTC’s decision to sue to break up Facebook.

The Biden team has clearly paid close attention, and a detailed read of the campaign’s policy papers reveals an assortment of promises to break concentrations of power. The statements are simple and strong. Biden’s “Plan for Rural America” promises to “make sure farmers and producers have access to fair markets where they can compete and get fair prices for their products.” The campaign’s “Agenda to Boost America’s Small Businesses” sounds as folksy as Biden himself in its pledge to “combat corporate power, promote competition, and ensure markets work for everyone so that small businesses have a fair shot.”

Unfortunately, beyond these demonstrations of recognition, there’s little sign that the Biden team comprehends the systemic nature of America’s monopoly crisis, or the full suite of tools available to fix the problem. On the contrary, Biden thus far has left the shaping of anti-monopoly policy largely to the same people who failed to address the threat under Obama, and who generally continue to embrace the old Reagan-era doctrines that treat the concentration of private power as mostly benign. 

Part of the art of making campaign promises is to leave plans vague enough that everyone sees what they need to in order to support a particular candidate. But walking into the White House without a coherent, achievable vision is a recipe for failure.

To be sure, part of the art of making campaign promises is to leave plans vague enough that everyone sees what they need to in order to support a particular candidate. And in this case, it worked. Simply not being Donald Trump was good enough to give Biden comfortable margins in both the Electoral College and the popular vote.

But walking into the White House is different, and the lack of a coherent plan to address concentrated power poses two large and immediate challenges.

The first problem is that Biden’s team does not understand the array of tools available to fix many of the most pressing challenges we face today. Consider Biden’s “Plan to Rebuild U.S. Supply Chains,” which aims to address two grave dangers at one go—the shortages of masks and other protective gear that contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, and America’s growing dependency on China for industrial goods that are vital to U.S. national security.

There is a lot to admire in the document. In the pledge to address “anti-competitive practices,” we see a recognition that monopolists played a role in creating these problems. The plan also focuses on the right industries—semiconductors, telecom, and electricity grid technologies. And it has the right overarching aim. “The goal here is not pure self-sufficiency, but broad-based resilience.” 

But when it comes to fixing the problem, Biden’s team has little to offer. If we mean to force powerful, private, for-profit corporations to spend billions of dollars to build new factories to manufacture the goods we need, the smart use of tariffs, quotas, and anti-monopoly law is essential. Instead, we get a collection of grossly inadequate half measures, in the form of promises to “leverage” government purchasing, to tweak the tax code to “encourage” corporations to act better, and to publish a “Critical Supply Chain Review” once every four years.

Worse, Biden’s position paper takes no account of the fact that the Trump administration has already launched a supply chain war with China over the production of communications gear by the Chinese corporation Huawei. Given how dependent the United States has already become on China for many vital manufactured goods, the Biden team must be strategically prepared to wield all of America’s trade weapons on the first day, especially given that China could at any time reciprocate Trump’s use of industrial embargoes.

The second immediate problem is that a lack of an overarching plan to address corporate monopoly leaves others free to define Biden as a patsy of the powerful. And many Republicans are already doing exactly that, by attacking the president-elect for simply continuing Obama’s pro-bank and pro-Google agenda. Even before the Pennsylvania results had been called, for instance, Fox’s Tucker Carlson was gleefully labeling Biden a “corporate hologram” and warning that “Big Tech will have more than an ally in the White House; it will have a lackey.”

That’s probably not the decal Biden wants on his Corvette before he even drives past the green flag.

To grasp the full potential of anti-monopoly policy both to frame a fresh story of America and to fix many of our most pressing challenges, we have to first remind ourselves of how Americans, from the earliest days, understood the threat of concentrated private power and repeatedly mastered the problem. Look at U.S. history from 1776 to the election of Ronald Reagan and you’ll see two centuries in which the governing philosophy of American political economics centered on how to break or harness monopoly. 

The American Revolution itself was not merely a reaction against certain types of control—such as the British East India Company’s monopoly on commerce. It was also a positive vision of new forms of human liberty. The Declaration of Independence, after all, is about far more than the liberation of the nation. With its claim of absolute equality among men, it is also a declaration of independence of man from man.

To achieve this end, America’s founding generation created what would become the world’s most sophisticated set of institutions, laws, and policies to protect every (white, male) citizen from concentrated private power. While Americans for many decades did not even pretend to extend such protections and privileges to Black people, Native Americans, or women, their commitment to checking concentrations of both political and economic power was revolutionary. They did so first by distributing homesteads designed to enable a family of modest means to care for itself, and second by devising ways to protect those freeholders from private monopolists. In my new book, Liberty from All Masters, I call this legal and policy arrangement the “American System of Liberty.”

The Constitution was the centerpiece. Nowadays, we focus mainly on that document’s intricate system of checks and balances designed to break the power of the state. But the Framers also intended the Constitution to make it much harder for the financier and the landlord to concentrate dangerous amounts of private power. This was made clear in contemporary debates. After Thomas Jefferson called for the Bill of Rights to ban monopoly, for instance, James Madison assured him that the system of checks and balances would also prevent dangerous concentrations of private power. “Where the power, as with us, is in the many not in the few,” Madison wrote, “the danger cannot be very great that the few will be thus favored.”

This same vision of liberty also shaped how the founding generation framed some of the nation’s earliest and most far-reaching laws. This was especially true of the Northwest Ordinance of 1789, passed by the first Congress and signed into law by George Washington. Yes, the ordinance was in part an imperial document, a guide to settling the lands that now make up Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Even at the time, many understood that the plan would result in the displacement and death of many, if not most, of the Native Americans living there.

But the ordinance is also a radical vision for engineering a democratic society among the settlers. The document did so first by carving the lands into 160-acre plots and then by subsidizing their distribution to individual families. It protected those properties from being concentrated into a few immense estates by banning slavery, outlawing developers and speculators, and requiring parents to distribute the lands in equal portions to all of their children, both male and female. This was no libertarian utopia. On the contrary, the vision of state power distilled in the ordinance is of a people’s government actively working to build a good society, through public education, the creation of town-sized communities, and equal voting rights for both Black and white citizens. 

In the greatest triumph of the American system of liberty, beginning in 1861 almost a million citizens raised on these small farms organized themselves into armies and joined with freeborn and freed Black people to overthrow the slave power in the South. Little more than a decade after the Civil War, however, came one of the greatest tragedies in American history. Almost as soon as they completed the original promise of the Declaration of Independence by destroying slavery, America’s citizens found themselves threatened by monopolists armed with great piles of capital concentrated during the war. When financiers combined this capital with sophisticated techniques for leveraging the power of the new railroad and telegraph technologies, the result was a sudden and massive concentration of corporate power that led first to the overthrow of Reconstruction in the South and soon to the throttling of democracy throughout the nation.

The first thing Biden would get from fully embracing anti-monopolism is an easy-to-tell story of what went wrong in America, why it went wrong, and how we can fix it.

In the late 19th century, Americans managed to pass two foundational anti-monopoly laws: the Interstate Commerce Act, to outlaw most forms of discrimination in pricing and service by the railroads; and the Sherman Antitrust Act, to break the power of banker-controlled industrial cartels. Both, however, proved inadequate to the problem, and by the turn of the 20th century a small oligarchy centered around the banker J. P. Morgan had captured control of the heart of the U.S. economy. Or, as W. E. B. Du Bois described it in 1935 in Black Reconstruction, his foundational history of the United States, “it was a new rule of associated and federated monarchs of industry and finance wielding a vaster and more despotic power than European kings and nobles ever held.”

Theodore Roosevelt is often depicted as the first true “trustbuster,” and it was his Justice Department that—after being prodded by Ida Tarbell’s groundbreaking investigations into the corporation—used the Sherman Act to launch the breakup of Standard Oil. But Roosevelt himself repudiated the philosophy of trust-busting, believing that monopoly was natural, and the only practical option was to blend state and private power into a top-down command-and-control system of governance. One result was that he left the bankers largely free to concentrate further power, in what was widely called the “Money Trust.”

It was not until the election of 1912 that Americans figured out how to break the power of Wall Street, and in doing so they achieved nothing less than a second American revolution. Woodrow Wilson and his adviser, the later Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, drove a set of reforms through Congress that entirely restructured the American economy. These included the Clayton Antitrust Act (which clarified and strengthened the Sherman Act); the Federal Trade Commission Act (which created the Federal Trade Commission and vested it with vast anti-monopoly powers); the Federal Reserve Act (which established a publicly controlled central bank to wrest control of credit and the money supply from Wall Street financiers); a progressive income tax (to break up personal fortunes and distribute wealth more equitably); and the first breakup of AT&T. 

Wilson called his revolution the “New Freedom,” and 20 years later it served as the foundation for the New Deal. Although many historians depict the New Deal as devoted to centralization and bigness, right from the beginning Franklin D. Roosevelt focused on protecting independent farmers and businesses, while carefully limiting and dispersing the power of bankers and corporate bosses. In fact, even the notorious National Industrial Recovery Act was aimed largely at protecting smaller businesses, albeit through government-run cartels that the Supreme Court later held to be unconstitutional. Then, as the Great Depression persisted, Roosevelt doubled down in 1936 on the fight against the corporate and banking monopolists, in what is sometimes called the Second New Deal. “The struggle against private monopoly is a struggle for, and not against, American business,” Roosevelt said in October of that year. “It is a struggle to preserve individual enterprise and economic freedom.” Soon after reelection, Roosevelt boosted the number of antitrust lawyers at the Justice Department from 60 to more than 600.

Nowadays, we focus mainly on the Constitution’s intricate system of checks and balances on government power. But the Framers also intended to make it much harder for the financier and the landlord to concentrate dangerous amounts of private power.

Through the middle of the 20th century, Americans wielded traditional anti-monopoly principles to shape a highly sophisticated economic regime based on separating the economy into three distinct realms of policy. Each realm was governed by specific limits on the size and behavior of corporations, all carefully geared to achieve particular political and economic goals.

In the case of corporations that provide essential services and goods, the core rule was an absolute prohibition against discrimination in pricing and terms of service. The Interstate Commerce Act had applied this rule to railroads, and Congress later extended it to other transportation and communications networks, from trucks and airplanes to telegraphs and telephones. 

In the case of industrial firms engaged in applying science to manufacturing, the core rule was that there never be fewer than four corporations competing in any industry, be it the manufacturing of chemicals, metals, automobiles, or, later, semiconductors. In the case of farming, retail, and light manufacturing, the core rule was to protect the independent businessperson and farmer from Wall Street predators armed with chain stores and processing monopolies.

It worked. Wages soared, both because of greater unionization and because employees had more firms competing for their talent. Independent businesses and communities thrived, as the war on chain stores and big banks largely blocked the transfer of wealth to a few coastal cities. And Americans unleashed the greatest period of technological innovation in history.

This vision of independent citizens, and the system of small property ownership designed to achieve it, even proved one of the most important tools for overcoming Jim Crow laws and segregation. Not only did the anti-discrimination provisions in the Interstate Commerce Act provide a key tool for desegregating public transportation, but independent Black-owned businesses and farms also provided essential support in the fight to break white systems of control and extend full citizenship to all. That’s why in the 20th century some of the strongest supporters of anti-monopoly laws included W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thurgood Marshall, who was the last Supreme Court justice fully devoted to protecting these laws, which were so foundational to American democracy. 

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, one of his first targets was the American system of liberty. Reagan’s team did not target the hundreds of individual anti-monopoly laws Americans had passed over the course of generations. Instead, they proposed an entirely new philosophy of competition, to govern how we understand and use all existing anti-monopoly law. In place of anti-monopolism’s traditional goal of protecting democracy and the liberty of the citizen, the administration said the laws should instead promote the material “welfare” of the “consumer.” Out were traditional bright-line rules used to structure markets and control the actions of corporations in ways that promoted broad political goals, such as preserving opportunities for upward mobility and personal liberty. In their place, Reagan’s team erected a new system in which economists were to judge each individual consolidation of power based solely on whether it would result in more “efficiency” in the production of goods and services, no matter the larger effects on society. 

This enthronement of efficiency as the ultimate goal of the U.S. political economy, and of economists as the main arbiters of power, marked the single most dramatic ideological reversal in American history, a true intellectual and political coup. And yet the event went all but unnoticed. This was partly because anti-monopoly enforcement had become so successfully routinized by the early 1980s that few Americans thought much about it. It was also because highly influential “progressive” thinkers such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Lester Thurow largely agreed with the underlying goal of Robert Bork and the other libertarian scholars who were advising Reagan. They too favored extreme concentration of corporate power, but, in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, they intended it to be under the day-to-day direction of the executive branch.

In the 1990s, under the sway of these and other thinkers, Bill Clinton’s administration would largely complete Reagan’s overthrow of the American system of liberty. It did so mainly by applying Reagan’s pro-monopoly efficiency philosophy to the regulatory structures designed to govern America’s defense, telecommunications, media, energy, and banking sectors, and to the regulation of international trade. In Clinton’s second term, however, the Justice Department grew concerned about concentration of power over the internet and launched one of the biggest antitrust cases in decades, against Microsoft. 

In the years since, the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations largely operated within the neoliberal intellectual and political framework. The one real exception was the last nine months of the Obama administration, which in April 2016 finally sounded an alarm about America’s monopoly crisis, albeit way too late in their time in office to have any real effect. The result has been a two-stage consolidation of power and control. 

The first stage saw the rise to dominance of corporations like Walmart, Koch Industries, Goldman Sachs, News Corp, Citibank, Tyson Foods, Monsanto, Boeing, and Pfizer. It also saw the dramatic empowerment of Beijing, as many of the monopolists who captured various U.S. markets then chose to sell the factories and technologies under their control to Chinese corporations.

The second stage of monopolization—dating to around the Lehman Brothers crash of 2008—has been driven by the rise of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and a few other digital monopolists. Not only have these corporations grown far bigger than the giants of the first stage, they also have succeeded in capturing direct control over the communications and commercial platforms on which everyone, including the dominant monopolists of 15 years ago, must do business. And they have exploited this choke hold to exercise increasingly direct authority over other people’s businesses and lives.

In recent years, many Democrats have embraced the mantra that “personnel is policy.” If there’s one lesson we should learn from the neoliberal overthrow of anti-monopolism a generation ago, it is that philosophy is policy. Ideology truly matters. Nowhere is this more true than in the American political economy, where the diffusion of neoliberal ideas into both parties resulted in a pyramiding of power and control that would have awed even J. P. Morgan in his prime, as well as a vast and growing series of political and economic disasters.

The Reagan administration’s enthronement of efficiency as the ultimate goal of the U.S. political economy marked the single most dramatic ideological reversal in U.S. history, a true intellectual and political coup. And yet the event went all but unnoticed.

Today just about every problem Americans face was either caused or made worse by the concentration of power that resulted from the overthrow of the American system of liberty. Monopolists have driven up the price of hospital beds and essential drugs while colluding food processing cartels drive up the cost of chicken, milk, and other staples. They have bankrupted millions of independent businesses and farms, and gutted the economies of small towns and midsize cities across America. Monopolists have undermined U.S. national security and subverted the communications systems on which our democracy depends.

That’s why it’s exactly here that Biden will find his one true opportunity. 

Few of the executive actions the Biden team lists as priorities—such as rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement—would get at the source of any of the domestic problems that enrage so many Americans across the political spectrum. On the other hand, as soon as the Biden team frees itself from Reagan’s consumer welfare philosophy, they will discover a complex system of institutions and laws they can put to immediate use to bend the American political economy back toward liberty, democracy, and prosperity, on the cheap.

On day one, President Biden will be able to strap himself into the cockpit of a governing machine purpose-built during the Wilson and Roosevelt administrations—and fortified by Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and even Richard Nixon—to break power, distribute opportunity, build community, protect security, and engage citizens in constructive activities. This system includes agencies with great untapped powers, like the FTC and the Department of Agriculture, which have far-reaching and long-neglected rule-making authority. And it includes strong anti-monopoly powers in just about every office of government, including the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department, the Federal Communications Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Defense Department, the Transportation Department, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, among many others.

What could Biden do if he made full use of the anti-monopoly powers the government holds? Consider, for a moment, how these tools could be applied to just a few of the problems that now threaten the American people and the United States.

The next pandemic. Biden can’t do much to lessen the harms of COVID-19, given the Trump administration’s grotesque mismanagement of the crisis. But he can use anti-monopoly tools to make us much less vulnerable going forward, such as by breaking cartels that have cornered the markets for masks, drugs, and other medical supplies. 

Health care costs. Without control of the Senate, Biden won’t be able to complete the Affordable Care Act and achieve universal health coverage. But he can crack down on the hospital mergers that drive up prices and drive down service. He can also use antitrust and other competition policies to block drug company mergers, patent holdups, and other tactics that lead to higher prices, less innovation, and loss of capacity.

Falling real wages. Biden can’t decree a higher minimum wage. But he can use his appointments to the FTC to ensure that the commission uses it powers to stop corporations from imposing noncompete and no-poach agreements that keep workers from changing jobs. And by simply using the Justice Department, the FTC, and other agencies to block more mergers and bust up monopolies, he can increase the number of employers competing to hire each worker. 

Climate. Without the Senate, the Green New Deal is DOA. But Biden can immediately use anti-monopoly to break the power of giant hydrocarbon combines like Koch Industries and thereby reduce their political power and funding of climate denialism. He can also use anti-monopoly laws to crack down on utilities that block people and companies who invest in solar and wind from selling their power on the grid. 

The collapse of entrepreneurship and community. Biden, acting alone, can’t subsidize independent business. But he can use existing antitrust law to protect the upstart firms that have always been America’s prime source of new jobs and new ideas from the predations of Amazon, Google, Uber, and concentrated capital generally. In doing so, he will also restore America’s tradition of promoting opportunity through ownership of family businesses.

Stimulus. Without the Senate, Biden won’t get more than a fraction of the spending he has planned on to revive the economy. What he can do with vigorous enforcement of anti-monopoly laws is open up a flood of private investment. For years, giant reserves of capital have been building up because of the high barriers to entry created by cornered markets. Every market Biden opens to competition creates new opportunities to put more of that cash to productive use. 

Failing rural economies. Biden might not be able to deliver on his promise of providing loans to beginning farmers. But he can use tougher antitrust enforcement and the creation of true cooperatives to free farmers from having to pay monopoly prices for seed, fertilizer, and tractors. And he can rebuild competitive markets for their crops—and for the labor of food chain workers—by breaking the power of the slaughterhouse and food processing monopolists. 

International trade. Biden can’t rewrite any major international agreement on his own. But he can use anti-monopoly principles to guide how he enforces U.S. trade laws, and to ensure that no foreign nation ever be allowed to capture a choke hold over the manufacturing of any good or service vital to American security and well-being.

Arts and literature. Even if he wanted to, Biden wouldn’t be able to subsidize America’s writers and artists, who have found their business models entirely disrupted by the power of Google, Amazon, and other platform monopolies. But he can impose nondiscrimination rules on these corporations and strengthen copyright protections, so content creators can earn a fair market price for their work and never fear retaliation for speaking out against power. 

Disinformation and censorship. No president will ever be able to stop propagandists, social saboteurs, or just plain crazy folks from having their say. But Biden can also use these same nondiscrimination rules to force Google and Facebook to abandon the business models that reward them for spreading information specifically designed to divide and radicalize voters. And he can use anti-monopoly law to stop these corporations from diverting into their own vaults the advertising dollars that—for the past 250 years—have helped to support trustworthy local journalism.

Some members of Biden’s team will surely oppose such a robust anti-monopoly agenda. One reason is fear that doing so will make it hard to keep the votes of the independent and Republican voters who helped put Biden in the White House. Another fear is that taking on Facebook, Google, and Amazon will hurt fund-raising. In short, they will argue that strong anti-monopoly policy makes for bad politics.

But any close reading of U.S. history shows the exact opposite to be true. Anti-monopoly policy is smart politics, both today and over the long run. This is especially true now that the American people have woken up to the problem of concentrated power and are looking for someone to protect them. Surveys show that this is as true of independents and Republicans as it is of Democrats.

The first thing Biden would get from fully embracing anti-monopolism is an easy-to-tell story of what went wrong in America, why it went wrong, how we can fix it, and where we are going as a nation. Biden would also gain the ability to demonstrate that he understands the anger and hopelessness that so many Americans feel about the loss of their prosperity and independence and about the destruction of their families and communities.

Learning how to tell this story will prove surprisingly easy. The beauty of traditional American anti-monopolism is precisely that the language is not technical, and enforcement does not depend on phalanxes of specially trained economists or any of the other “experts” long ago pressed into the service of oligarchy. It is a language Biden himself already fully understands. After all, anti-monopoly is about giving everyone “a fair shot” and ensuring that everyone is treated with “dignity” and “respect.” It is about fighting cheats and crooks and evildoers.

Consider Biden’s speech on the Saturday when CNN finally called the race. “I’ve always believed we can define America in one word: possibilities. That in America everyone should be given an opportunity to go as far as their dreams and God-given ability will take them.” That is the essence of the original idea of America, the America the neoliberals broke when they unleashed the monopolists.

The Biden team will also find anti-monopoly policy to be a strategic weapon of great potency.

Biden can’t decree a higher minimum wage. But by using the Justice Department and other agencies to block more mergers and bust up monopolies, he can increase the numbers of employers competing to hire each worker.

Fully embrace anti-monopolism, and Biden will find himself able to unify the two wings of the Democratic Party. After all, anti-monopolism will allow him to begin to break down many of the economic and political structures that underlie inequality, the hydrocarbon economy, and even racism, while simultaneously creating opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors to build new businesses and create more and better jobs. 

Fully embrace anti-monopolism, and Biden can also begin to break the GOP’s choke hold on the Senate and the Electoral College. Strong anti-monopoly policy will, after all, empower Biden to deliver millions of rural Americans from the isolation and humiliation that drove so many of them to Trump in the first place. It will do so by breaking the grip of the agricultural, retail, and transportation monopolists who for 40 years have appropriated these people’s lands, looted their communities, and destroyed their families.

Fully embrace anti-monopolism, and Biden might even be able to begin to unify much of the American people as a whole against the common threat posed to our national and personal security by the monopolists and their allies in China.

An assertive anti-monopolism will even give Biden the ability to scatter the corporate and judicial reactions and reveal them as the empty threat they are. As Wilson did in 1913, Roosevelt did in the 1930s, Truman and Dwight Eisenhower did in the 1950s, Johnson did in the 1960s, and Gerald Ford did in the 1970s, Biden can use anti-monopolism to pit the great majority of American entrepreneurs and investors against the few who seek to engross all opportunity and all power. The burst of public and private legal cases, meanwhile, many making arguments that have not been heard in decades, will overwhelm the judiciary’s already weakening embrace of Reagan-era neoliberal thinking.

By contrast, if Biden fails to seize the initiative, he might be remembered as little more than a woebegone regent for Trump in his exile, in Elba by the Sea Florida. And Democrats should be absolutely honest about what a defensive, cautious, backward-looking, tortoise-like Biden administration will deliver, which might be something like the end of democracy in America and around the world.

Failure to use anti-monopolism to seize the initiative would leave Trump’s Republican Party free to use the same populist rhetoric to divide and scatter the Democratic Party in 2022 and 2024, while once again bringing the Koch-funded neoliberal wing of the GOP back into gawky alignment with Trump’s national populist wing. 

Even more dangerous, such a failure would leave Google, Facebook, and Amazon free to exploit their control over our communications and commercial systems to further separate each American into a perfectly isolated bubble of rage, bewilderment, and despair, in ways that might soon shatter forever the ability of either party to communicate coherently with America’s voters.

So we know the road we must take, and why. We even know what action we need to see on Inauguration Day to be sure we are heading in the right direction. 

The opportunity to found a new regime comes along only rarely in America, perhaps once a century. Yet that is exactly what Biden can do. By restoring the American system of liberty, Biden can be the president who connects the United States of the 21st century to the main line of American liberalism and enlightenment stretching back to the nation’s founding. In so doing, he can restore a true people’s democracy that is open, forward looking, wisely internationalist, and triumphant.

Will January 20, 2021, mark the dawn of the Age of Biden? That’s up to Joe to decide.

Donate Now to the Washington Monthly and your gift will be doubled

Barry C. Lynn

Barry C. Lynn is executive director of the Open Markets Institute and the author of the new book Liberty from All Masters: The New American Autocracy vs. the Will of the People.