A messy, public brawl over a Google critic's ouster from a Washington think tank has exposed a fissure in Democratic Party politics. On one side there's a young and growing faction advocating new antimonopoly laws, and on the other a rival faction struggling to defend itself.
At issue is a decades-long relationship between Democrats and tech companies, with Democratic presidents signing off on deregulation and candidates embracing money and innovations from firms like Google and Facebook. Now, locked out of power and convinced that same coziness with large corporations cost them the presidency, Democrats are talking themselves into breaking with tech giants and becoming an antimonopoly party.
The argument had a breakthrough last week when it was reported that Barry Lynn, a monopoly critic and longtime scholar at the Google-funded New America Foundation, was leaving and taking his 10-person initiative with him.
Lynn, who has been critical of Google, had praised European regulators for hitting the company with a $2.7 billion antitrust fine. The foundation, which has received more than $21 million from Google, removed Lynn's comments from its website.
"A lot of people see this as a tipping point," Lynn said of his departure in an interview. "This is something that's upset people on both sides of the aisle."
Soon after, Lynn's project, Citizens Against Monopoly, launched with a website that asked people to protest "Google's unethical behavior" and pledged that "Google's attempt to shut us down will fail." New America's president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, pushed back, warning that Lynn was starting a family feud at a moment when Democrats could not afford it.
"Barry's new organization and campaign against Google is the opening salvo of one group of Democrats versus another group of Democrats in the run-up to the 2020 election," Slaughter wrote on Medium. "I personally think the country faces far greater challenges of racism, violence, a broken political system, and geographic and partisan divisions so great that we are losing any common sense of what we stand and strive for as a country."
The Democrats' anti-monopolists have been winning the argument inside the party. During the Obama years, they'd been routed, as Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, strongly supported the president, and the Federal Trade Commission abandoned an antitrust case against the company. Over the years, Schmidt gave $842,900 to Democrats, and less than half as much to Republicans.
"Google was Obama's Halliburton," said Luther Lowe, the vice president of public policy at Yelp.
A shift began when Democrats began to look for their next president. In October 2015, fending off a primary challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Hillary Clinton wrote an op-ed for the business site Quartz in which she promised to "take a page from Teddy Roosevelt" and "stop corporate concentration in any industry where it's unfairly limiting competition."
In June 2016, Lynn organized a conference where Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) argued the next president, which most assumed would be Clinton, could reverse the Obama administration's lax antitrust policy. Democrats needed to consider the long-term implications for consumers, for jobs and for wages, she suggested.
"How do we get more competition? And how do we do it without new legislation that would require cooperation from a Congress awash in campaign contributions and influence peddling?" Warren asked. "We can start with a president and an executive branch willing to once again enforce our laws in the way Congress originally intended them to be enforced."
Antitrust issues garnered almost no attention during the 2016 presidential campaign. In April, Hart Research Associates conducted polling, circulated among Democrats and think tanks, that found an enormous opening for antimonopoly politics. The polling, which surveyed 1,120 voters overall and 341 from the decisive Rust Belt states, found just a slim majority saying Democrats favored "average Americans" over "large corporations and banks."
Those corporations and banks were toxic. The polling found "corporate monopolies" viewed negatively by 66 percent of all voters, and 70 percent of Rust Belt voters. Just 21 percent of Rust Belt voters, however, favored "antitrust laws."
Congressional Democrats who saw that polling factored it into the "Better Deal," their economic agenda and attempt to rebrand the party. The plan, which was released July 24, spent four pages arguing for new antitrust laws, standards that would make mergers more difficult, and a "competition advocate" with the power to police issues.
"It was a really good start," Lynn said. "This is going to be a long process, and a long series of battles — not just inside the party, but intellectual battles."
But the minority party's policy sheet did not captivate readers like Lynn's spat with Google did. In two tweets, Warren called Lynn's ouster "troubling" and said the credibility of think tanks "is jeopardized when decisions are based on funder preferences." (Warren declined to comment further.)
"There was a growing awareness that corporate monopolies were a big problem," explained Zephyr Teachout, a two-time Democratic candidate in New York for governor and the U.S. House, who will chair Open Markets when it gets off the ground. "This really hit a nerve. It could have been a one-day story and disappeared by the end of the week. The same story five years ago wouldn't have had the same resonance. But the corporate concentration of power has gotten so much worse."
The Democrats' long detente with monopolies was good for fundraising, especially as more money from energy and banking companies slid toward Republicans. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a backer of tougher antimonopoly policies whose district includes Google's campus, said Democrats and tech companies needed to adjust to a new world.
"If you take a thoughtful position and are able to justify it intellectually, you won't lose support from tech leaders," Khanna said. "My experience has been that the community is pretty open to robust debate."