One of the biggest, most embarrassing divorces in the normally quiet world of Washington think tanks blew into the open earlier this month, when writer Barry Lynn and nine others defected from New America. Lynn said they were pushed out of the influential Democratic think tank after he wrote a post this summer criticizing Google, one of its key funders. Anne-Marie Slaughter, who heads the foundation, called the story reporting the news “false”—then wrote a long Medium post walking her charge back.
Whatever the final trigger for the split, its roots lay far deeper than this summer’s scuffle. The Google controversy marked the most public emergence of an intellectually combative group jostling for a role as the new economic brain of the Democratic Party.
Lynn’s group, called Open Markets, has spent six years arguing that the Democrats have become too comfortable with corporate money and power, and need to rally around a new principle: Breaking up monopolies. As the party remains locked in a struggle to reboot itself, unable to craft a unifying vision in the Trump era, Lynn and his group are trying to push it into a new fight against global corporate titans, targeting big companies like Google by name, and arguing that it’s time to use federal antitrust law to chip away at their influence. They see the fight as both a boon to democracy and a political framework that could excite voters in a new, more energized populist moment.
Slaughter acknowledged the goal in her Medium post, where she described the split from New America as “the opening salvo of one group of Democrats versus another group of Democrats in the run-up to the 2020 election.”
Lynn and his team weren’t exactly caught out by their separation from New America: By the time the Times story came out, they were ready with a whole new website, depicting Google as an evil octopus, with headshots of the whole team promising to take on corporate monopolies. They’re launching a new think tank, called the Open Markets Institute, which will have a staff of 20-25 people, including a group of lawyers planning to work with state attorneys general to push antitrust cases at the state level.
Lynn, a former journalist, has spent years building a public case that corporate monopoly is a growing threat, hiring like-minded thinkers and writers to advance the cause. The rest of his team has become increasingly high-profile, including Lina Khan, who earlier this year wrote an influential law-journal article attacking Amazon as the new shape of anticompetitive corporate behavior; Matt Stoller, a prolific Twitter warrior who communicates weekly with lawmakers like Ro Khanna, the Silicon-Valley based congressman. Zephyr Teachout, the New York law professor and darling of the progressive left, will chair the board of the Open Markets Institute.
Open war with a powerhouse like Google, risky as it sounds, is typical of Lynn’s team, which is making a name for itself going after the largest possible targets in the Democratic universe. Khan’s article spent 40,000 words targeting one of the biggest names in the Democrat-friendly tech industry. Stoller, who frequently trades barbs with leaders of the Democratic establishment, is known for frequent attacks on Obama himself, who he has called a “bad president” who is “ideologically averse to democracy” and whose policies “entrenched fraud and monopoly as the guiding principles in our commercial system.” At a time when Obama might be the only figure with some unifying power among Democrats, that amounts to something of a frontal attack on the very identity of the national party.
“[Barry has] been fearless and persistent in pushing these issues,” said Jonathan Kanter, an antitrust lawyer at Paul Weiss. “It’s hard to think of somebody more central to the discussion than Barry and Open Markets.”
Lynn and his team argue that the concentration of money and power in a small number of companies is a huge danger to our economy and politics, and Washington’s main weapon to combat it, antitrust law, has become rusty from lack of use. They want to revive the New Deal antitrust regime that prioritized competition and worried about the political power of large companies—a reform that would represent a reboot of antitrust thinking for the new tech age, and the kind of new political rallying point that Democrats have been looking for.
Politically, it’s novel territory: A populist philosophy that rejects both the technocratic approach of the Obama and Clinton administrations and the centralization at the heart of Sanders-style democratic socialism. Lynn and his team see themselves as essentially pro-competition and pro-business, creating new openings for smaller companies being boxed out by giants. At a time when the new Bernie-bro energy seems to be pulling the party toward its left fringe, they see this philosophy as offering a middle way, a populist agenda that can bring in independent—maybe even Republican—voters, appealing to a farmer in Des Moines, a small businessman in Dallas and a single mother in Detroit.
“I give them a lot of credit for being visionaries on this and driving it and speaking about it when they were voices in the wilderness,” said Andy Green, managing director for economic policy at the Center for American Progress, who supports stronger antitrust enforcement.
This new antitrust movement is gaining some real traction, with a recent wave of coverage in BuzzFeed, POLITICO, and elsewhere about how the tech giants are no longer sacred cows in D.C. The Democrats adopted stronger antitrust language in their platform in 2016, and more recently in their “Better Deal” agenda.
But for all the Democratic Party’s renewed interest in antitrust, it has still not adopted the more ambitious and controversial aspects of Open Markets’ broader political philosophy. Notably, none of the new plans target Amazon, Google, Facebook, and the other big tech firms that Open Markets believes are becoming the biggest threats to commercial freedom—but …read more
Read more here: Inside the new battle against Google