Jurisprudence

Elizabeth Warren Is the Perfect Antitrust Crusader for 2020

Elizabeth Warren; Teddy Roosevelt
Elizabeth Warren; Teddy Roosevelt.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Zach Gibson/Getty Images and National Archives at College Park.

Elizabeth Warren began the new year by announcing her bid for the presidency in 2020, making her the earliest prominent Democrat to enter the primary field. While Warren is generally well-known for her ambitious progressive policy proposals, there is one particular area where she could truly revolutionize federal policy and American life: monopoly enforcement. Warren has indicated that she will make a top priority of reversing the tide of big corporate mergers and dangerous conduct that she believes threatens American markets, people, and democracy.

There’s plenty of evidence that her approach is the right one. Economists now say powerful companies wield monopoly power in myriad industries, from airlines to cowboy boots. That power has suppressed wages, raised prices, and left much of the economy controlled by just a few, often bad, actors.

Warren and other critics have laid blame at the feet of America’s twin antitrust enforcers, the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, which have permitted major mergers across the economy and have generally abandoned enforcement of the anti-monopoly statutes. That blame goes far beyond the current Trump administration and includes Republican and Democratic administrations from Reagan to Obama. The senior senator from Massachusetts has given every indication that she understands this trend and would upend it. In an interview with the Nation in February, when asked whether she believed the Trump administration had failed to enforce antitrust laws, Warren acknowledged that this wasn’t specifically a Trump-caused woe. “The Justice Department has not taken this problem seriously for a long time now,” she said.

In recent years, there has been a bit of a reckoning in some antitrust circles. Even some Obama-era officials have now admitted that the paradigm in which they judged mergers and corporate dominance failed to track the country’s growing monopoly problem. Over the next year, Warren will be the chief messenger and arbiter of the need for reform. It’s a role she’s played for years.

Warren has proven that, among Democrats, she is perhaps singularly capable of wielding power against monopolistic or otherwise corrupt corporations. She spearheaded the creation of a new, aggressive consumer-protection watchdog that went after crooked lenders. Former Wells Fargo head John Stumpf never recovered from Warren’s brutal public lashing over the fraud his bank inflicted on its customers—then Warren called on the Fed to continue punishing the bank until it fired its current CEO, Tim Sloan. While that hasn’t happened, Wells Fargo last month agreed to pay $575 million to all 50 states and the District of Columbia to settle the states’ lawsuits over the fraud—lawsuits that quoted Warren’s lambasting of the company and its executives.

Warren has brought the same focus to the problem of monopolies as she did to problematic lenders. Last winter, at a conference hosted by antitrust activist shop Open Markets Institute, Warren diagnosed monopoly power and unchecked corporate concentration as principal contributors to rampant economic inequality. She said that to fix the system, the antitrust agencies needed to use the tools the law has already provided to police the economy. “It is time to demand that antitrust enforcers pick up those tools, dust them off, and start enforcing the law again,” she said at the time. In the past, Warren has held up Thurman Arnold, the head of the DOJ’s antitrust division under FDR who brought more antitrust lawsuits in his five years than all of the previous DOJ officials combined, as one of the last great exemplars of antitrust enforcement.

Warren’s words at that conference cut through the often impenetrable jargon of those in the antitrust community. Instead, she spoke in the clear, pointed language of an effective communicator. Her message: Monopolies hurt the public and the republic alike; the job of policing that power must be taken seriously.

Six months earlier, at another event on the topic, Warren explicitly singled out technology titans Google, Apple, and Amazon as deserving government scrutiny for their actions. In the speech, she outlined allegations that each company had abused its power, shutting out rivals and limiting choices for consumers. She also cited a who’s who of American trustbusters—Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and of course Arnold—as her philosophical models.

Dropping names like those sent a clear message that Warren sees antitrust law as those luminaries did—a tool with which to constrain and, if needed, dismantle unchecked corporate power. Now, when she hits the campaign trail in her quest for the presidency, her calls for a crackdown on monopolies will hopefully help inspire specific action.

If Warren can find her way to the White House, and the Democrats retain the House and make gains in the Senate, a deep examination of the antitrust laws and the agencies that enforce them will become a core policy priority. With the incoming Democratic majority already promising close oversight of the agencies and scrutiny of the law as it exists, a President Warren could sign into law the first major revision to the country’s anti-monopoly statute in more than 40 years.

There are miles to go before that happens. If she can navigate what should be a crowded Democratic primary field and take down a sitting, albeit unpopular president, Americans will quickly learn what a true enforcer of antitrust laws is able to accomplish.