In keeping with their inability to enjoy moments of triumphs, Democrats have embarked on a soul-searching expedition as to why the party failed so poorly down the ballot even as it ousted President Donald Trump from office.
Into the mix of explanations, this week, comes one of the more dire and narrow-focused offerings: an argument that the party will never regain majority status in the Senate unless it starts taking on monopoly power; mainly, Big Ag.
In a memo obtained by The Daily Beast, officials at the Open Markets Institute, an upstart liberal economic think tank, argued that Democrats are doomed in rural communities until they begin to address the consolidation of power among agricultural businesses.
“Democrats have been lamenting the urban clustering of their supporters for decades, but, time and time again, they’ve neglected the key to recouping rural support: stopping agricultural, food processing, and retail monopolists,” the memo reads. ”Absent action now, the problem will only grow in the years ahead, making it that much harder to capture the Senate and to fix the fundamental problems in America’s economy and society.”
To a degree, the memo reads like other election post-mortems: an effort at shaping the narrative around a group’s key agenda items. Open Markets has been at the vanguard in warning about the concentration of power in numerous sectors and industries, not just agriculture.
But whereas other groups and think tanks have used broad brushes to describe why Republicans were able to win back House seats (when they were expected to lose them) and likely hold on to control of the Senate, Open Markets’ synopsis benefits from having an undeniable foundation. Trump and the GOP have had smashing success in rural America, even bettering their remarkable showing in 2016. According to an analysis done by Decision Desk HQ, voters in the least urban counties voted for Trump by a margin of 35 points this cycle, which was 3 percentage points higher than four years ago.
Indeed, the president’s ability to juice turnout in some of the least-populated counties nearly scored him a second term. And the inability of Democrats to win in rural states is threatening to confine the party to long-term minority status in the Senate.
Open Market’s prescription for this is to promote broader competition across a variety of industries—from meatpacking to dairy farms—and to enhance workplace safety laws. Through the Justice Department using its Antitrust Division to bring significant cases against agribusiness, the Federal Trade Commission issuing rules to help small food businesses access key markets, and Agriculture Department taking a variety of different actions, it says, Democrats could adopt a populist platform that appeals to minority voters (who often take on the menial farming jobs) and helps chisel away at the GOP’s advantage among rural white voters.
“Democrats are just really, really bad at math,” said Barry Lynn, founder of the Open Markets Institute. “You look at what the costs versus risk is. And it’s like: ‘Well if we come out as populist on these issues, what are we going to lose? Well, we might lose some [campaign] funding [from big Ag]. But not that much. The entire rural apparatus is designed to reinforce the Republican party right now. Very little goes into the Democratic hands. So you would be attacking their machine, weakening their machine, and pulling away their voters, and, on top of that, you’d be making the world a better place.”
Such an outcome is, undoubtedly, quite alluring for a party looking to unlock the Republican Party’s grip on the Senate. And those past elected Democrats who hailed from farm states say there is something to the notion that an anti-monopoly platform could play in these states.
“I think there is a feeling, economically, that they’re being ignored, that the policies of monopolization and the growth of large farms and big agriculture has an impact on people in rural America,” said Dan Glickman, a former Democratic representative from Kansas and Bill Clinton’s agriculture secretary.
But Glickman and others also argued that the problems for Democrats are more complicated than just a not-populist-enough economic message.
Trump certainly had his moments where he barked about the concentrations of power in the tech industry and Big Pharma. But his primary accomplishment for farmers was spending taxpayer funds to bail out those hurt by his trade wars. Instead, everything from guns, to religion, to gay rights, the issue of abortion, and cries of impending “socialism” drove rural voters towards him and the Republican Party, argued former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND). And while standing up to Big Ag may win Democrats some support among small family farmers, it would likely fall short for the very reason that Open Markets notes in its memo: those communities don’t exist in major numbers anymore.
“Small family farms were overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning in my state. A very big chunk of those went out of business and in my state those households were replaced by energy households, oil and gas because of fracking,” said Conrad. "If you had a different agricultural policy is that going to fundamentally change things? I think that's unlikely because the audience you'd be attracting is largely gone."
Open Markets isn’t Pollyannaish about the road ahead for Democrats in rural America. But it's not skeptical either about the possibilities. A populist posture, it argues, can be appealing in a variety of ways, such as targeting the hospital monopolies that have limited health-care access and driven up costs and targeting tech monopolies that have limited the availability of broadband. More to the point, the goal isn’t necessarily to win a majority of rural voters. It’s to limit the profuse amount of bleeding that’s been happening in recent cycles.
“You don’t want to underplay and say that [the cultural argument] is not salient at all here,” said Claire Kelloway, a reporter and researcher with the Open Markets Institute. “At the same time, winning in rural America is about shrinking the amount that is lost… I don't think anyone is saying we are going to make the entire United States blue. But the amount that Democrats have been losing by is shocking and increasing. We need to shrink those margins and that’s a combo of speaking to people and turning out those who have not been reached by the party.”