Democracy Journal: End Monopoly Power

July 14, 2020 Anti-Monopoly Policies & Enforcement

In May, as the pandemic was killing around 2,000 Americans a day, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Department of Justice, in partnership with a group of state attorneys general, was preparing to file an antitrust suit against Google. New York Attorney General Leticia James is investigating Facebook, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is investigating Amazon, and the House Judiciary Committee is engaged in the most serious corporate investigation in decades, a deep dive into the power of all four digital behemoths. This is the same committee that oversaw a starkly divided impeachment effort, and yet liberal Democrats Representatives David Cicilline and Pramila Jayapal have teamed up with Freedom Caucus members, Congressmen Ken Buck and Matt Gaetz, to demand Amazon’s Jeff Bezos testify.

For all the nightmarish can-this-really-be-happening state of alternate reality that the Trump era has represented, the bipartisan effort to confront corporate power—targeted at four corporations that have enjoyed enormous popularity both among many Washington elites and families all across the country—would have been similarly impossible to imagine as recently as 18 months ago.

Over this time, progressives have begun to understand that the darlings of innovation, the social connectors, the adorable organizers of the world’s information, the two-day delivery Everything Store are, under their slick PR, relentless and dangerous monopolists. Google and Facebook have, among many other affronts, not just to Silicon Valley’s dynamism but to democracy itself, rolled up the market for digital advertising, wiping out the business model for trustworthy sources of news and replacing it with toxic clickbait. Amazon’s Marketplace leverages a classic middleman approach, extorting and abusing businesses that sell on its platform, competing against them using massive and unfair advantages, and then using the steady stream of spoils to finance monopolization in new markets.

For 40 years, mainstream progressives have largely ignored or augmented corporate power as part of our governing agenda. But confronting and addressing corporate power, especially in the form of monopolistic control of markets, is central to whether and how quickly our society can become more just, equitable, and secure. Now, with the pandemic guaranteeing the need for an overt and aggressive government role in structuring the economy for a long time to come, and with America at a clear political inflection point, progressives must look beyond the tech platforms to acknowledge the systemic nature of monopolization in the economy and have the courage to change course. While reinvigorating antitrust is key, it is only one part of what must be a much more holistic reorientation of government’s relationship to corporate power. It’s time to get specific about exactly what that means.