Republicans Are Using Antitrust Reform as a Trojan Horse to Attack Democracy

Over the past year, we have seen a tidal wave of support to address and rein in monopolies like we haven’t seen in decades. As companies like Amazon and Facebook have demonstrated the dangers of having too much power concentrated in one company — and as corporate consolidation has upended entire sectors of our economy, from farms to pharmacies — regulators and elected officials have taken unheard-of new steps to stop the spread of unchecked corporate power.

These past few weeks, the Biden administration and Congress have signaled strong support for greater antitrust action: the appointment of Google critic Jonathan Kanter to lead the Department of Justice’s antitrust division, the advancement of leading anti-monopoly scholar Lina Khan’s nomination to the Federal Trade Commission, a slate of House bills targeting Big Tech’s corporate power, and a strong executive order on competition from the Biden administration.

But as antitrust reforms have grown in popularity, they have found an unlikely set of backers: far right politicians like Senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley who, just months ago, openly supported a white nationalist insurrection and have voted time and again to cut taxes for corporations.

Some might be tempted to welcome their support — a sign, perhaps, of newfound bipartisanship under the Biden administration. It is a temptation we must resist at all costs.

Supporters like these won’t make it easier to win meaningful antitrust reforms that help us build a functional, multiracial democracy. By framing the antitrust fight as solely an economic populist one, they will doom the project altogether and could pave the way for a dangerous alliance between big business and government that will ease the path to power for white nationalists.

To understand why, we need to understand the history of anti-monopoly policy making.

The Incompatibility of Monopolies and Democracies

In the late 19th and early 20th century, a handful of megacorporations like Standard Oil and U.S. Steel rose to dominance, growing powerful enough to dictate terms to lawmakers. Their rise was accompanied by the erosion of worker and consumer protections, ruthless tactics to wipe out competitors and, unsurprisingly, massive economic and racial inequality.

Starting in the early 1900s, lawmakers increasingly began to push back and through a series of new laws and court decisions, broke up monopolies and placed some limits on their power. In Europe, by contrast, powerful monopolies were put into power and then co-governed with genocidal dictators in Germany, Spain and Italy. Fascist state power was propped up by corporate monopolies.

While the antitrust reforms of the early 20th century and a militant labor movement helped stave off corporate consolidation and unchecked power, in the 1970s, a bipartisan pro-business effort came together to eliminate guardrails that had prevented businesses from gaining too much power. It’s no surprise that decades later, monopoly powers are on the march again — and neoliberalism is bringing to power leaders with fascist tendencies like Donald Trump. Tim Wu, who is Biden’s special adviser on competition policy, noted these contrasts in the opening of his book, The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age: “Extreme economic concentration yields gross inequality and material suffering, feeding an appetite for nationalistic and extremist leadership.”

It would be naive to think that somehow, in the wake of Trump’s defeat, that democracy is safe and we can repair the harms done to our multiracial society. What is clear is that there is a rising strain among certain Republicans who are Trump’s strongest supporters and have taken up the populist mantle of antitrust — as though they hadn’t been corporate America’s allies in Congress for years.

We should not be fooled. When Senator Hawley and Senator Cruz call for breaking up corporate power, they are co-opting antitrust language to both punish “woke corporations” taking anti-racist stances, and to build up their base — especially people and communities facing unemployment, wage stagnation and disinvestment. They are not true believers in multiracial democracy — antitrust is merely a tool for them to play out a personal agenda against perceived tech bias against conservatives.

I’ve seen this strategy in action myself. Growing up in India in the early 1990s, I was witness to the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party that rules the country today. The party fused an economic program of national self-sufficiency and economic populism with Hindu nationalism and ruthless attacks on Muslims. As a child, my friends and I canvassed for the BJP, having been recruited by a neighbor with a few rupees and some candy. The election propaganda we distributed lured regular people in with the promises of a more prosperous future — what they left out was that their reforms were designed only for upper-caste Hindus in clear rejection of a secular democracy.

I didn’t understand that the result could only be the violent social, economic and political exclusion we see in India now.

This is the future that awaits us if we buy Hawley and Cruz’s snake-oil promises and normalize their economic policy platforms. Our dream of building a multiracial democracy will be destroyed as fascists and monopolists consolidate power.

There is a better way to do antitrust. Rather than submitting to the swan song of bipartisanship, we need to ground antitrust work within an explicitly anti-racist framework and show how monopolies disproportionately harm real people in Black and Brown communities. In their groundbreaking paper on race and monopoly, the group Liberation in a Generation noted the need to make antitrust work more accessible and intersectional: “These technical conversations cover up the human pain and the racism responsible for that pain, often purposely … this is one way that racism is removed from economic discussions and debates.”

At the Action Center on Race & the Economy (ACRE) where I work, we’ve targeted, with our Black and Brown partners, Amazon for blatantly profiteering off of communities of color. From sales of smart surveillance technologies — like Rekognition and Ring, that ramp up racial profiling of Black and Brown people, to data-sharing partnerships with 2,000 law enforcement agencies — Amazon entrenches its monopoly power through its surveillance empire. Monopoly power is what lets Amazon continue to get away with this racist business model, by insulating the company from both popular opinion and regulators.

In India, too, people are showing how unabated corporate power worsens systemic racism. Last year, for example, Indian farmers and their unions rose up to protest new farm bills from the BJP-led government that would have left them at the mercy of big agriculture corporations. Their uprising ripped the veneer of economic populism off of Hindu nationalism by showing how it impoverishes working people in the country.

What gives me hope in the face of Hawley’s rhetoric, and the dangers it presents, is activists and organizers in the United States, India and worldwide who are coming together and standing up to fight corporate monopolies and anti-democratic state power in a multiracial struggle.

Democratic lawmakers and regulators who are currently evaluating solutions to limit monopoly power, whether in Big Tech or other industries, need to be vocal that this work is happening to build up a multiracial democracy. They need to take their cues from these activists, especially those of color, and center anti-racism in their analysis and policies, rather than chasing the mirage of bipartisanship. This is the time to be having briefings and hearings on Capitol Hill that bring in the voices and solutions from activists, workers, farmers and small business owners, especially those of color. Without that, anti-monopoly will just be another tool that clears the path for white nationalists to win state power.