The governing platform that the Democratic Party unveiled on Monday is, as lawmakers described, a set of policy prescriptions tailor-made for the age of Donald Trump.
But its fundamental core is rooted in advocacy work that began years before the real-estate tycoon descended down the escalator of his midtown Manhattan hotel to announce his White House ambitions.
Barry Lynn, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C., could reasonably be described as the intellectual godfather of much of the new material that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) proposed on a hot summer’s day in Berryville, Virginia.
For years, Lynn has been warning about the pernicious effect monopolies have on all facets of American life: from the food one eats, to the financial system one uses, to the forms of communications on which one depends. And for years, his work has been restricted to the usual confines of advocacy and academia, fleshed out in white papers and articles—or, as one top Senate aide put it, “relegated to nerd world.”
On Monday, that changed. Schumer and Pelosi, flanked by lieutenants from their respective chambers, outlined an agenda that put heavy emphasis on cracking down on corporate monopolies. The topic occupies the first four pages of a 10-page document and includes placing new standards on the consolidation of corporate power, giving new tools to regulators to confirm and review mergers, and creating a new consumer competition advocate to tackle “anti-competitive behavior.”
Lynn, who estimates that he has been working on this stuff for 15 years, called the new agenda “fantastic.” He just wants Democrats to go even further.
“It is definitely a partial embrace of our work, which we have been pushing this rock up this hill for a long time,” he told The Daily Beast. “It is a great step forward. But it is just a step.”
Getting that first step, though, has not been easy. And to understand why it took so long is to understand the Democrats’ current identity crisis.
For years, mainstream politicians of both parties exhibited what could charitably be called neglect of antitrust issues.
There was a widespread belief that mega mergers created efficiencies in industry, that they were ultimately good for consumers, even if they restricted choice. When that belief was disrupted, it often was with respect to singular industries, such as when more people began to realize that big banks might not be such a sound idea in 2008 and 2009.
Lynn and Co. kept plugging away, warning about the radical concentrations of corporate power. And during the 2016 campaign, they began to make inroads.
The rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the Democratic primary gave voice to much of their platform. In addition, they worked with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign on hers. In October 2015, Clinton put out a little-noticed but highly important op-ed with Quartz that laid out specific concerns about the consolidation of corporate power, and not just in the financial sector. Airlines, drug companies, health insurers, and broadband providers all came under scrutiny.
Clinton incorporated much of those concerns into specific policy. But like the rest of the 2016 campaign, that was subsumed by Trump, Russian meddling, email etiquette, and FBI Director James Comey. The unexpected election results seemed to cast it to history’s dustbin.
But the opposite happened. The Democratic Party leadership set out to understand why it was that Trump did so well in blue-collar communities. And what they discovered was that his talk of wealth concentration and trade imbalances that prioritized corporate power over worker interests resonated mightily.
They didn’t copy the Trump playbook per se, since many Democrats had already been preaching these policy prescripts. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), for example, had given a speech in front of Lynn’s New America Foundation on the topic before the election.
But party leadership began to fully appreciate its allure. And much to the delight of those who have been arguing for this approach, they began conscripting it.
“I’ll tell you, this is a big deal, this is a really big deal,” Zephyr Teachout, an associate professor of law at Fordham University and erstwhile New York gubernatorial candidate, said in a phone interview with The Daily Beast. “This is the first time since the election where I have really felt that Democrats are ready to make a real shift, and this is very exciting.”
Teachout has long pushed the Democratic Party to go after mergers like those involving Monsanto and AT&T, arguing that they represent the very battles that “people around the country are hungry for.” That donors might be alienated in the process doesn’t distract from the need to do so, she argues.
“I believe that Democratic leaders have realized you can please donors all you want and you’re still going to lose elections,” she said.
Teachout drew a comparison between the current moment and the Tea Party rallies in 2009, during which the renegade fringe of the Republican Party rallied voters around anger with the banking industry and what was depicted as government intrusion into private enterprise.
Democrats were caught flat-footed then, owning a bailout that began under the previous president and defending a mass infusion of taxpayer stimulus that was necessitated by the recession.
But the Obama administration also was late to push back on the culture of corporate mergers, critics say. President Obama’s main directives against them, such as suits to prevent Anthem’s merger with Cigna or Humana, came at the end of his administration.
And as CNN reported in April 2016, the Federal Trade Commission and the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice under Obama openly opposed a combined 150 mergers compared to 292 during the Clinton administration.
Ever idiosyncratic, Trump seemed to relish these fights, promising, for instance, to prevent the AT&T merger with Time Warner. Whether he will follow through as president is another matter entirely. Industry officials expect just the opposite.
Now Democrats are seeing an opening. “Folks have been telling policy makers that they feel that corporate actors get a better deal than they do, and they’ve got a point,” said Jared Bernstein, the former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.
“I think there’s a well-developed analysis that I associate with [Elizabeth] Warren in particular about disproportionate power in the economy,” Bernstein continued. “That is true and resonant with many voters. I think it’s smart for the Democrats to associate with that message especially.”
For Lynn, it is the fruition of a decade-plus of often painstaking policy work and advocacy. But the party could stand to be even bolder, he argued, noting that while Democratic lawmakers have waged specific battles, nothing in the larger agenda goes after the major Silicon Valley titans who have consolidated much of the information age infrastructure under their purviews.
“They have broken out of the strict frame where we have been for the past 25 years and said that monopoly does harm the worker and small business and communities,” he said. “That’s a huge thing. They are partway there. They have moved out of where they were intellectually. But they haven’t finished the journey.”