Whether you consider yourself a capitalist or socialist, there’s one thing that we can all agree on: monopolies are bad.
This is the spirit of an incredible speech given by David Dayen to the California Democratic Party convention. The future of liberalism is very much up for debate right now, as the Clintonian version was repudiated at the polls by a mutated howler monkey flinging his own feces in every direction. All the cracks in the 21st century Democratic coalition were revealed by the most embarrassing loss in the history of democracy (that may be too hyperbolic, former Attorney General John Ashcroft did lose to a dead guy for a Senate seat in Missouri).
So the question now becomes, what will liberalism look like post-Trump? Capitalism has never been less popular. In fact, a majority of millennials reject capitalism. This wave of high school students protesting in the wake of the Parkland shooting are literally calling “BS” on an entire generation of politics (the fact that they can’t say “bullshit” in response to their friends getting gunned down in school is a pretty depressing commentary on the state of American culture). The world is changing dramatically, and the Democrats are long-overdue for a truly liberal reckoning. The entire country moved right over the late 20th and early 21st centuries, to the point where the Democratic Party essentially became moderate Republicans. Both the Obama and Sanders insurgencies were an explicit message from the grassroots that the liberal party needs to become more liberal. But how?
It’s too early to launch a full-out assault on capitalism. The Democratic Socialists of America are building a movement that will be heard from at the national level at some point, but we’re not there yet. They still have to complete their incursion into local politics so they actually have implemented policies to campaign on. Any liberal message must play to this very large cohort of Americans who are skeptical of capitalism (at best), while respecting the ~60% of Americans who still have a positive view of capitalism. We can debate whether capitalism inherently creates monopolies (it does, the fact that we need anti-trust laws on the books is proof of this reality) while also decrying monopolistic tendencies. So enter David Dayen:
More and more economic benefits have flowed into fewer and fewer hands, and I’m not just talking about personal inequality of income and wealth, a rot of a few dominant established players in sector after sector. Four banks control about 60 percent of all assets. Four airlines control 80 percent of the routes. We have four cable and Internet companies, usually only one available in your area. Two companies sell 70% of the beer in America. One company makes 70% of the syringes. One company makes pretty much all the eyeglasses, and one company makes up all the plastic hangers. This week gun control activists contacted three rental car companies to demand they end their discount program for NRA members, and they all said they would be canceling it March 26. It seemed weirdly coincidental, until you realize the three companies—National, Enterprise, and Alamo—all have the same corporate parent. We have the illusion of choice, but the reality of a consolidated, captured economy, and this has had massive effects on innovation, entrepreneurship, wages, quality of service, fragility of these sectors to glitches or financial shocks, and ultimately, on liberty and democracy, on the ability of someone with a good idea to use their talents to get it produced and put into the marketplace.
Maybe you believe this isn’t a great situation but it’s avoidable, something we can deal with after stopping Trump and ending hate and all the other important issues out there. But I truly don’t believe we can retreat to a place where concentrated corporate power is somehow a secondary factor. You can’t escape it.
His last point is vital. A lot of Democrats have accepted unholy alliances with those they decried as pure evil during the last Republican administration simply because they oppose Trump. This is an unacceptably low bar for America’s only sane political party. The lesson of 2016 is that if you center your entire message on what you oppose and not what you support, you will lose. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton on policy. Why did she want to be president? I’m not sure, but we know why he did. Through all his racist bile, a consistent message emerged: immigration, D.C. corruption and international trade have hurt the American worker. Hillary’s central message was “you can’t seriously vote for this jerk, right?”
If the Democrats make the 2020 election about Trump, they may win, but they will be sowing the seeds for yet another loss in the near-future. Voters may say they’re not sick of capitalism yet, but they’re tired of the status quo. It’s time for America to discuss what capitalism means in the 21st century.
If you’re vehemently anti-socialism, will you/do you accept Medicaid? Social Security? The former is mildly socialist and the latter is inherently socialist. Hell, Social Security basically has it in its name. Socialism isn’t anything new to American politics, and some of the most popular government programs in this nation’s history have been either completely socialist or tinged with socialism. The fight over liberalism should be whether we will repeat the advances of the Great Society of the 1960s or the New Deal of the 1930s, not whether Clintonian capitalism can be adjusted to fit the realities of the digital age. Liberalism should be liberal, and the Clinton legacy is not.
The 2016 election broke the left, and we have wrongly come to view the Clinton legacy through Hillary more than President Clinton. Her accomplishments are far more in line with the liberal ethos than the realities of eight years under Bill. He dramatically expanded the carceral state—being as responsible as anyone for the existence of the phrase “private prison”—removed two of the four planks of one of the most important financial laws enacted in the wake of the Great Depression, and turned the Democrats into a party beholden to Wall Street and other major corporate interests. There is a direct line between our present malaise and the legacy of the Clinton administration.
Private health care is a relic. Nearly two-thirds of liberals, 52% of Democrats/lean Democrats and 20% of moderate Republicans support single payer. America is evenly split on support for a fully government-run health care system. Poll after poll for 2018 places health care as one of—if not the—most important issue for Democratic voters. The current system is untenable, and the fact that pretty much every Democrat who wants to be president in 2020 signed on to Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill is proof of which way the winds are shifting. But as David Dayen highlighted, simply enacting this bill is not enough.
Do you think we need a single payer health care system in America? We do, and California ought to kick it off, pass a bill, and finish the job at the ballot as soon as possible, and those who Speaker Rendon is protecting from a tough vote ought to just get the hell out of the way. But if we don’t combine that with breaking up the unbelievably concentrated health care provider market, it won’t matter. We had 58 major mergers of hospitals and health care systems in the first six months of last year. Health insurers are merging with pharmacies and urgent care clinics. Amazon wants to sell drugs. There are two dialysis outpatient centers serving virtually everyone with kidney disease in America, and the main investor in one of them is Warren Buffett. It’s an endless race: team up with your rivals to get a leg up on negotiating with the people on the other end of the transaction. One end merges so the other end merges, and this concentration creep is great for bottom lines but terrible for patients, who face the highest prices for treatment anywhere in the world.
Some would say, if you nationalize the system, put the government in charge of the negotiation, that solves the problem. But the dirty truth we all know is that concentrated economic power begets concentrated political power. So when single payer meets single provider, we know what would happen behind the scenes so the provider protects its profits. You need to break up these concentrations of power first, before you can move forward and make progress on anything else.
The message for the Democrats is simple and obvious. Monopolies crowd out competition, creating higher prices and worse products, and pretty much everything that ails America can be traced back to this corrupt reality that both liberal democracy and socialism agree has no place in civil society. Our financial interests pay lackeys to tell us this is a radical belief (as exemplified by James Bennet, the editorial-page editor of the New York Times, equating a mercenary who has committed war crimes across the globe to Bernie Sanders, telling Vanity Fair “We publish dozens and dozens of op-eds a week. Look at them as a whole and you’ll see the breadth of voices there. Sure, Erik Prince wrote in our pages. You know who else has written in our pages? Bernie Sanders, and not just once).
The truth of the matter is that no “radical” action must be taken to address the core issue of what ails America. We just need to enforce the laws on the books, as David Dayen emphasized:
The good news is that we don’t have to change a single word in the law in order to do that. We have the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts, passed down to us from the last time we experienced a crisis of this magnitude in the 1890s, and they’re still on the books, ready to usher us out of this Second Gilded Age. Busting up monopolies is not an act of socialism, but of capitalism, out of a belief in competition as a great leveler, a way to boost worker power and consumer power and broad prosperity to all regions of the country. We don’t have a choice but to embark on this; it’s a generational challenge. But to do it, we need Democrats to be responsive and relevant to the public interest, to come back to those two words.
I believe people all across this country, no matter their political persuasion or even political engagement, understand intuitively that concentrated corporate power explains why America has gotten seriously and perhaps fatally off track. We have to make this a priority, indeed the priority. If you’re running for Congress, join the Congressional Antitrust Caucus, a new group formed to tackle this problem. If you’re an activist, pressure this party to foreground this fight. And no matter who you are, take a stand for liberty and justice. The country belongs to the people, not entities manufactured on paper and run for the benefit of investors. We are more than a nation of balance sheets, our value lies in more than just our Amazon account. We are the people who can beat the oligarchs and restore our democracy.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.