What to make of the modern Democratic Party in the Biden era?
On the one hand, we have seen key progressive policy developments. Democrats appeared to shed the neoliberal policy framework that has proven so catastrophic for working families and have begun to embrace populist policies, like broad-based direct cash payments and mobilizing a robust government role in providing free COVID vaccines, masks, and tests.
This harkened back to a governing formula that helped Democrats maintain power for the better part of 50 years, and which led nearly 75 percent of Americans to proclaim trust in government by mid-century.
And yet, we know and feel that something about this Democratic Party makeover doesn’t feel quite right. What is it?
The problem is that Democrats’ approach to politics has yet to adjust to its evolving embrace of populist policies. Our politics is largely stuck in a cautious, corporate-friendly frame that too often projects weakness and deference to bureaucracy instead of muscularity and confident leadership.
On paper, Democrats offer much-needed policy prescriptions to tackle soaring drug prices, remediate the existential threats of climate change, and demand greater taxation of the wealthy and enforcement against tax cheats. In rhetoric and political action, though, Democrats have not animated those policies with corresponding fights against the corporate lobbyists and special interests who stand in their way. Whereas FDR proclaimed of his opponents, “I welcome their hatred,” the modern Democratic Party seems to intone, “Can’t we all just get along?”
It’s becoming clearer that, for some traditional Democrats, embracing the progressive populist direction—and the requisite political battles it entails—is like wearing an ill-fitting suit. Some have been happy to try out the clothes for a while and discard them at first chance; some wear it awkwardly; others are still not sure we ever should have put these particular clothes on at all.
There is an ongoing battle for the soul of the party.
The good news is that it’s still possible for Democrats to revive their populist core and put up a fight. The bad news is that Donald Trump’s brand of faux populism has a head start. Democrats need to come to terms with the fact that the question voters in the coming years will resolve is not whether they will embrace populism—the question is whose version of populism will triumph?
Both the political and policy weaknesses of the party can be ameliorated by focusing on the economic interests of the working peoples’ votes we most need. Three critical course corrections are needed: 1) stand proudly and visibly on the side of a broad diversity of working people; 2) demonstrate that Democrats are boldly taking on political and economic concentrations of corporate power that abuse and control both workers and smaller businesses; 3) wield government power with a fervent desire for both competence and disruption.
Voters Hold Democrats to a Different Standard
“The all-powerful tyrannical employer is all but gone.”
—David Lilienthal, New Deal labor lawyer and head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1952
In the 2016 election, Donald Trump bucked the rhetoric of the Republican Party elite on economic issues and won over voters without a college degree—a painful reversal for Democrats that also marked the widest gap in support among college graduates and those without a degree since 1980. Trump hit a 32-year high for a Republican among rank-and-file union voters, performing as well as Ronald Reagan did in his reelection campaign, while the non-voters who sat out the election were younger, less educated, and less affluent. His levels of support held in 2020 and even increased among working-class Hispanic voters and white women.
First, we acknowledge that some Democrats are understandably frustrated that working-class voters across racial and gender demographics could swing their support toward a Trumpian Republican Party.
A story from striking workers gives us one way to think about this shift.
Over the last year, many union workers have spoken with us from the picket lines. With courage and personal sacrifice, these hard-working people—at Amazon, Nabisco, Kaiser Permanente, Kellogg’s, Frito-Lay, and many others—finally said enough is enough, and stood up to the most powerful corporations in the country to demand higher wages and safer conditions for themselves and their fellow laborers.
When John Deere workers in Iowa went on strike, and soon thereafter rejected a contract proposal put forward by their union, we heard a huge amount of frustration directed toward union leadership. In fact, to our ears, there was more anger directed at UAW’s leaders than there was at John Deere’s corporate bosses. Why might that be?
Because from a worker’s perspective, John Deere’s corporate executives never cared about them in the first place—they care about profits, not people. And on the score of generating record profits, Deere was extremely competent. But Deere workers hold their labor union to a higher standard; they believe the union’s values and purpose is to fight for their interests. They expected more from the UAW’s leaders, who didn’t seem to stand up to Deere management. The penalty should be harsher, in these workers’ minds, for those who are too weak or compromised to live up to their stated values and play the role they’re supposed to.
You can see where this leads. Working people likewise hold the Democratic Party to a higher standard because it is supposed to be the party that stands with labor and holds corporations accountable. When Democrats don’t live up to their brand, the party looks weak, and the penalty from voters is harsher. Negligently leaving the mantle of economic populism up for grabs means that the advantage accrues to the Democrats’ opponents.
Trump understood this, betting that disgruntled voters would react with interest if he projected some of the things they might like to hear. Not only did he attack Democrats from a populist position on issues like trade that have indisputably hurt working-class communities, but on the campaign trail and during his presidency, Trump also chastised mega-corporations like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Merck, Toyota, General Motors, Carrier, Nabisco, Amazon, Facebook, and many more. Some of this rhetoric resulted in changes; more often it was political theater that covered for mainstream pro-corporate Republican policies that would have made President Reagan proud. But for many hundreds of thousands of people who work at these corporate giants, think about what they heard. Make no mistake—they saw a President taking on their bosses for the first time.
Consider whether any powerful Democrat you know has been as vocal in taking on corporate power by name. The takeaway should be this: Democrats need to play the role that American voters expect them to play.
It’s simple. Democrats are understood to be the party of good government; Republicans are the party of big business. Democrats are the party of labor; Republicans are the party of corporate CEOs. Democrats believe in confronting corporate power to promote broad-based prosperity; Republicans believe in unregulated, winner-take-all markets. That’s the way it’s supposed to break down. But as we know all too well, that’s not the way it always is. We can’t blame voters if they get angry when they don’t see the Democratic Party embracing the values and policies they’re supposed to promote.
An Unrecognized Opportunity to Go on Offense
“As a small business owner, you know success is not without its challenges. Our greatest challenge has been not getting a fair opportunity to compete.”
—Ted Milner, President of Executive Temps
Democrats have ground to make up to limit the ability of populist attacks from the right to draw blood and win back a greater share of working people’s trust. But—as much as Trump cut into traditionally Democratic voting blocs of blue-collar workers without college degrees—they also have an opportunity to go on the offense to make gains among service workers, professionals, small business people, and farmers whose livelihoods are being destroyed by corporate power.
For a generation, “Third Way” or “New” Democrats, while they did not share the GOP’s open hostility to government, largely embraced the Republican approach to big business; namely, hands-off. And in doing so, Democrats across the board became far less engaged in how markets worked (and who they worked for). At the same time, conservatives built a powerful outside infrastructure to organize businesses large and small around tax and regulatory concerns in lock-step with the broader conservative and big business agenda.
But the severity of our corporate concentration crisis is creating new enemies of corporate power all across the business world, which is breaking down the traditional political alignment of small and larger businesses and offers a meaningful opportunity for Democrats. A revamp of Democrats’ political strategy around small businesses that exploits this growing divide could not only help build powerful new branches of support for the party, it could also show voters, who overwhelmingly trust and value small businesses, that Democrats do, too.
We’re going to need to build an architecture that purposefully and intentionally recruits small businesses. To do that, we’re going to need to speak the language of the anti-monopoly wing that exists in the business world. These are the kinds of stories we need to be ready to discuss at public townhalls: Amazon takes nearly a third of every sale that half a million American small and medium-sized businesses make through its Marketplace platform, drawing such a backlash that bipartisan legislation to curtail it has a reasonable chance of making it into law. Doordash, Grubhub, and UberEats demand a similar 30 percent cut from independent restaurants that operate on the thinnest of margins in good times, while Apple demands the same slice from app developers’ in-app sales. News publishers around the country are filing blockbuster cases against Facebook and Google, who likely colluded to steal advertising revenue from them. Independent pharmacies are joining forces with pharmacists employed by big chains like Walgreens and CVS to fight back against these two massive, vertically integrated behemoths. Cattle ranchers and dairy and chicken farmers are in a fight for their livelihoods against massive monopolies like JBS and Perdue, while independent grocers are organizing against dominant food retailers like Walmart and Albertsons and franchisees battle with 7-11.
With monopolization a systemic feature of the economy, the list goes on and on. And on top of large corporations directly abusing smaller businesses, they also successfully lobby for a far greater suite of tax and regulatory advantages that give them an even greater leg up over the little guys—a major discrepancy Democrats would do well to point out.
It is on this front—antitrust and competition policy—where President Biden blessed a no-holds-barred approach to taking on some of the world’s most powerful corporations, which is already winning plaudits from this diverse slice of the business community. The Federal Trade Commission, since July led by the anti-monopoly legal scholar Lina Khan, already has Big Tech, pharmaceutical corporations, and monopolistic employers in its sights, leading the Chamber of Commerce to declare “war” on Khan almost immediately after her confirmation. At the Department of Justice, her antitrust counterpart Jonathan Kanter is similarly inclined to lean hard into enforcement after decades of agency deference to corporate power. Unlike their predecessors, both have committed to deep engagement with both small business and labor as they set about to revive antitrust.
For much of the public, and even much of the small business community just trying to make payroll, they likely have no idea that the Biden Administration is set to embark on a series of transformative battles against the monopolies whose thumbs they’re under. But if Democrats are going to take on antitrust in a big way, the politics needs to match their policy ambitions.
Democrats lose out if they let a quiet bureaucratic rearguard action play out behind the scenes while the Chamber of Commerce launches public broadside after broadside. As powerful corporations from Amazon to 7-11 to Walgreens to Tyson squeeze and bully the small businesses in their orbits, Democrats can win new supporters by familiarizing themselves with abuses of monopolistic actors, calling out those abusers by name, and embracing the fruits of the labor of a new generation of fearless enforcers.
Economic Populism is the Path Forward
To improve Democrats’ political appeal and move in a policy direction that approximates the scale of the challenges we face, Democrats must re-consider both how they confront power and brandish power.
Think back to Trump’s derision of corporate giants. And now reflect upon the last time you heard Democratic leaders name and scold a large corporation’s bad behavior. In a press conference marking one year of his presidency, Joe Biden talked for more than an hour and a half without mentioning a single corporation by name, except to scold the empty political coverage of MSNBC and Fox News.
When the Biden Administration showed more gumption in deploying the bully pulpit against large meatpacking monopolies that have raised prices dramatically over the past year, it seemed to have an effect, as prices dropped for meat even as they continued to rise in similar sectors.
Democrats have no reason to shy away from fighting corporate monopolies by name to help make crystal clear who they are fighting for. Corporate giants have flexed their “pricing power” to make money hand over fist during the pandemic and outright price-gouge. They have used their excess profits to hike executive pay, buy up competitors, and jack up stock prices through stock buybacks and dividends. And they are more than happy to attack Democrats by name for supposedly causing inflation when their own corporate profiteering deserves a big part of the blame, something a majority of Americans agree with.
At the same time, this past year has seen more than 100,000 workers go on strike for better pay and working conditions. What a missed opportunity for so many Democrats to not go and stand on the picket lines with them. Workers were taking the lead with great courage and showing the way to confront abusive mega-corporations, but too often Democrats were either absent or tepid in support. And when we shrink back from the role expected of us to stand with working people, the penalty is harsher against us.
So you might be left to ask: What’s holding most Democrats back from calling out corporate power that unites John Deere workers with farmers whom Deere prevents from repairing their own equipment? That unites exploited Uber drivers with restaurateurs who are furious at voracious fees from delivery app platforms? That unites independent pharmacists fighting predatory middlemen with patients sick and tired of outrageous drug prices? For some, the answer is as simple as it looks. Coziness with corporate power is the most comfortable fit. But for others in the Democratic Party of good conscience, the problem is risk averseness—an unwillingness to take an action that might be perceived as outside of the norm.
Too many Democrats are afraid of shaking up the norms of wielding power. The argument against not doing something is because “that’s not the way it’s been done.” We don’t go to pickets with striking workers because no one’s done that recently. We don’t call out abuses of corporate power by name because it’s somehow deemed improper or uncouth. That’s not how it was done in the Clinton and Obama administrations. Confrontation with power is a time and resource suck. Well, it’s time to change that mentality, before it’s too late.
Think about how often you’ve heard Democrats defer to the wisdom of science, or the wisdom of economics, or the wisdom of a Senate parliamentarian. Wanting facts is important; but all too often, the rhetoric of “believing in science” or “listening to the economists” or deference to bureaucracy is code for deferring value-based judgment and leadership. It is a desire to be perceived as neutral or “fair-minded” that many voters see as weakness. And it is the acceptance of a status quo governance style which promises that nothing will fundamentally change.
This deference to bureaucracy is crippling economic progressivism due to the corporate and conservative ideological capture of many parts of government. Corporate influence can be seen in the drug approval process at the FDA, in economic assessments of the CBO, in lack of oversight by the FAA, the subservience of the U.S. Postal Service, the deference to a legislative filibuster, and so on. Everywhere you turn your head, the status quo has trended in the direction of compromising with corporate power or ceding to it.
In the years ahead, economic populists must take the wheel of the Democratic Party by promising to wield government power competently and disruptively for the benefit of working Americans. When we embrace economic populism with a steadfast desire to deliver for the working class, it will change how we recruit candidates, staff, and leaders. And it will change the direction of the party for the better.