WASHINGTON — Drawing a page from turn-of-the-century populists, Democrats running for president are increasingly railing against monopoly power on the campaign trail, as candidates embrace policies aimed at breaking up conglomerates and cracking down on practices they say weaken competition.
The conversation touches on numerous areas of the economy: Wall Street, hospitals, drug companies and, increasingly, big tech. It’s a shift from prior elections, when questions about the scale of big business were often a niche issue behind other economic debates.
“Anti-trust had really been a dead language for 40 years on both the left and right,” said Sarah Miller, deputy director of the Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly think tank that’s co-hosting a 2020 candidate forum on the topic in Iowa on Saturday. “In 2020, we’re really seeing antitrust have a breakout moment.”
This week, agriculture was in the spotlight as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., put out a multipart plan to dismantle agricultural giants and prevent future mergers. Small farmers in the state, who contract with larger companies to buy supplies and sell crops and livestock, complain they’re getting squeezed as a handful of conglomerates dominate the market.
“To start, we must address consolidation in the agriculture sector, which is leaving family farmers with fewer choices, thinner margins and less independence,” Warren wrote in an op-ed on Medium.
Days later, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. wrote an op-ed of his own in The Des Moines Register that joined Warren in condemning a recently approved merger between Bayer and Monsanto.
Not to be outdone, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., railed against consolidation in the poultry industry this month. In August, he put out legislation that would block all mergers between large agricultural, food and beverage companies for an 18-month period.
“Who has the right to compete in America?” Booker asked in a speech to the Open Markets Institute last year. “Is it just a handful of special interests and large consolidated corporations? Or is it a nation of freedom where everybody can compete?
The political upside is clear in Iowa. On Saturday, Warren is attending the Heartland Forum event in Storm Lake with two other 2020 Democratic candidates, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, as well as Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, to discuss corporate concentration in rural America. The event is sponsored by Open Markets Action, HuffPost, The Storm Lake Times, and the Iowa Farmers Union.
But the latest proposals are also part of a larger trend in which Democrats look to distinguish themselves by taking aim at corporate practices they argue are anti-competitive.
The movement gained new prominence after the 2016 race as the party looked to prove its credibility with blue-collar voters. Senate Democrats made anti-monopoly policy a key part of their Better Deal package, a set of priorities to guide them through the next election cycle.
“Plenty of people who you would affiliate with the center of the Democratic Party started saying openly we needed a more vigorous antitrust policy,” Marshall Steinbaum, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute who researches the topic, told NBC News.