Many among this new breed of Democrats also embraced the corporate monopolists themselves, along with their partners on Wall Street, and competed with Republicans for campaign contributions from the biggest of the big. In the 1990s, this way of thinking and acting lay behind Bill Clinton’s decisions to unleash concentration in the banking, media, energy, and defense sectors, and to embrace a new approach to trade policy that largely opened the U.S. border to foreign monopolists, such as the Brazilian bankers who in recent years have taken over Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, Kraft, Heinz, and Burger King. (Late in his administration, Clinton partially corrected course by bringing a tough antitrust suit against Microsoft. The Obama White House followed a similar trajectory: early indifference followed in the last year by vigorous, if insufficient, attempts to take on power.)
The Democratic Party almost entirely failed to live up to its traditional promise to protect the independent farmer, shopkeeper, and businessperson. Instead, party leaders sat by quietly as Wall Street financiers armed with giant corporations expropriated the livelihoods of millions of American families.
Some in the Democratic Party, however, have finally awakened to America’s monopoly problem. Last June, Senator Elizabeth Warren delivered what was the most important anti-monopoly speech in America by a major political figure since Franklin Roosevelt. “Concentration,” Warren said, “threatens our markets, threatens our economy, and threatens our democracy.”
In July, reformers succeeded in writing strong anti-monopoly language into the Democratic Party platform, the first time since 1988. In September, Renata Hesse, then Obama’s acting assistant attorney general for antitrust, delivered a speech that went a long way toward overturning the Chicago School approach to antitrust.
But with the exception of Warren, most of today’s Democrats, to the extent that they even understand the threat posed by monopoly, still treat competition policy as one of many potential solutions to America’s problems, an arrow of roughly equal importance with all the other arrows in the quiver, rather than as a philosophy able to guide thoughts and actions in all corners of the political economy. Donald Trump has proved that economic populism is smart politics. If what he perfected was a version of dangerous populism, based on resentment, xenophobia, and paranoia, then anti-monopolism is smart populism—it directs anger not at immigrants or China, but at monopolists and the policies that empowered them.
An anti-monopoly stance would also provide a way for the Democrats to address their Electoral College problem. One of the by-products of monopolization is that business is becoming concentrated in a few cities, mainly along the coast. Consider St. Louis. In 1980, 22 Fortune 500 companies called the city home; today only nine are left. In 1979, per-capita income in the metro area was 89 percent as high as in New York; since then it has fallen to 77 percent. Even when St. Louisans launch smart companies—like Twitter and Square—they usually flee to the new metropoles.