One of the most insidious threats against American life is unchecked corporate consolidation and corporate concentration, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) argued Thursday at a conference organized by the Open Markets Institute and Village Capital.
“This is the question we need to be answering,” said Booker, who some suspect may be warming up for a potential presidential run in 2020. “Who has the right to compete in America? Is it just special interest groups and large consolidated corporations? Or is this a nation of freedom where everyone can compete?”
Booker’s parents, who operated a funeral home in a segregated community, were personally affected by the consolidation of corporate power. He said that had been the biggest contributor to the decline of black-owned small businesses over the years.
The trade group representing black funeral home directors that once represented his family’s business, Booker explained, has seen its membership decline by 40 percent over the last 20 years alone. And the same story could be told for black banks, black insurance companies, black retailers and so on.
“This history, this heritage we have of entrepreneurialism, is being crushed…the bedrock of communities, the drivers of economic opportunity, the multiplier effect with jobs and the like in so many towns is now disappearing,” Booker said. “It’s no coincidence that after the most sustained period of merger activity in American corporate history, entrepreneurship has reached a 40 year low.”
Brian Feldman made this same argument in a 2017 article for Washington Monthly, writing that “the decline of black-owned independent businesses traces to many causes, but a major one that has been little noted was the decline in the enforcement of anti-monopoly and fair trade laws beginning in the late 1970s.”
“Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, a few firms that in previous decades would never have been allowed to merge or grow so large came to dominate almost every sector of the economy,” he wrote.
Booker on Thursday also addressed how consolidation of power had affected the agricultural sector.
Nowadays, farmers rarely ever own and operate their own businesses; the majority are “contract growers” for massive, vertically integrated mulitnational corporations. Under this model, corporations like Tyson and Smithfield own the animals and farmers are paid to raise them on their property. The catch is farmers have to absorb all the costs and risks associated with the relationship and are forced to accept whatever cost the corporate integrator pays.
“Today, 71 percent of contract poultry growers who depend on the income from their poultry contracts live at or below the federal poverty level, often with massive amounts of debt,” Booker said. “For those folks, the notion that you can make a living running your own enterprise, your own farm, is merely an illusion.”
Democrats like Booker have been trying to translate that platform into real policy proposals, ostensibly to win over voters most affected by antitrust issues and agricultural consolidation. In August, after meeting with contract growers in the Midwest, Booker introduced a bill in the Senate aimed at targeting large-scale consolidation in the agriculture industry.
This approach of tackling corporate monopolies, Big Agriculture in particular, has proven to be successful messaging for other rural red state Democrats.
In Oklahoma, a so-called “right to farm” ballot initiative was defeated in 2016, the same election cycle Donald Trump won the presidency. Despite support from the deep-red GOP governor and every member of the all-GOP congressional delegation, corporate agriculture interests in Oklahoma failed.
Oklahoma went bigly for Trump *and* against factory farm deregulation. Why? Ask Humane Society's Joe Maxwell. https://t.co/Qvi8MB1GwP
— HSUS Farm Animals (@HSUSFarmAnimals) March 10, 2017
The campaign against the ballot initiative was led primarily by a coalition of animal welfare activists, environmental groups, Native American tribes and family farmers who were able to convey a message to rural Oklahoma that resonated and crossed party lines.
“Democrats don’t have to throw out their values,” Joe Maxwell, one of the architects behind the campaign, told HuffPost. “Democrats don’t even have to abandon their issues. It’s about how you frame it. It’s about connecting with people and showing them how your ideas fit with their values.”
Other Democrats like Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are putting anti-trust reform at the center of their campaigns. Warner is more focused on reining in Big Tech while Warren has attempted to wage war against monopolies at every major industry level for years.
Booker’s appeal to rural voters by breaking down the Big Agriculture monopolies gets at something Democrats tried to remedy after the 2016 election with their Better Deal platform, which was released last year. While “prevent[ing] big mergers that would harm consumers, workers, and competition” is one of the top bullet points on the plan, however, it’s anyone’s guess whether Democrats will actually follow through on this promise and make a concerted effort to win back the rural voters that were once their bread and butter.