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Goliath review: Wall Street, Main Street … and Warren as McGovern 2.0?

Lloyd Green

Wall Street is scared. Elizabeth Warren has surged to the front of the Democratic pack and some of the party’s biggest donors are threatening to close their wallets or worse: donate to Donald Trump.

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Michael Bloomberg ponders jumping into a race against her. Mark Zuckerberg vows to “go to the mat” if President Warren attempts to bust up Facebook.

The Massachusetts senator’s plan to gut private health insurance is understandably unpopular. But her calls for higher taxes on the wealthy have met with some approval, her demand that big tech be broken up parallels sentiments expressed by several conservatives, and her criticism of the financial industry engenders pushback from big banks and their allies.

Into the fray jumps Matt Stoller, with a book subtitled The 100-Year War Between Monopoly and Democracy, in which Stoller traces the rise and decline of vigorous antitrust enforcement, attacks neoliberalism and gives pride of place to Wright Patman, the late Texas populist who chaired the House banking committee. Patman, a 24-term congressman, once asked Arthur Burns, the Fed chair appointed by Richard Nixon: “Can you give me any reason why you should not be in the penitentiary?”

Stoller strafes targets across political and ideological spectrums

Stoller, a former staffer to Bernie Sanders on the Senate budget committee and sometime Guardian contributor, is now a fellow at the Open Markets Institute, a George Soros-funded thinktank dedicated to challenging Silicon Valley’s titans. Stoller delivers a beat-down to Amazon, Google and Facebook as the new monopolists, arguing that concentrated economic power threatens democracy.

As he sees it, antitrust policy is a vehicle for “preserving democracy within the commercial sphere, by keeping markets open”. For New Deal populists like Patman and the former supreme court justice Louis Brandeis, “it was democracy or concentrated wealth – but not both”.

Stoller strafes targets across political and ideological spectrums. In 600-plus pages, he attacks John Kenneth Galbraith and Richard Hofstadter, mid-20th-century liberal academics and icons, for their approval of concentrated economic power.

Goliath turns its guns on the McGovern-Fraser Commission, formed by Democrats in the aftermath of their 1968 loss to Nixon. In particular, Stoller vents spleen on the late Frederick Dutton, Robert Kennedy’s campaign manager who set the template for the Democrats’ upstairs-downstairs playbook and was later a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia.

Specifically, Stoller blames Dutton’s efforts “to eject the white working class” from the party “in true Galbraithian form”. As Stoller sees it, the Democrats never fully recovered. By the numbers, Trump owes his election and the Republican party its survival to white working-class disaffection from what once was the party of FDR.

Goliath also does a deep-dive on the rise of what has become known as the Chicago School and market conservatism. Stoller recalls how Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan’s failed supreme court nominee and antitrust guru, played a key role in furnishing intellectual cover to those who opposed civil rights legislation.

In 1963, when Jim Crow was still in full force, Bork branded what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “legislation by which the morals of the majority are self-righteously imposed upon a minority”. Bork complained that the law “would force businessmen to ‘deal with and serve persons with whom they do not wish to associate’”. Imagine that.

Unfortunately, Goliath comes up short in addressing the intersection between culture and economics

Stoller’s shout-outs are eclectic. He comments favorably on proposals to restrain big tech by two conservatives, Doug Collins, the ranking Republican on the House judiciary committee, and Senator Josh Hawley, formerly attorney general of Missouri.

He also calls for the break-up of Amazon, Facebook and Google, to counter the threat he believes they pose to democracy. Like them or not, the three do own our most personal secrets. Our data is their property and profit.

Based on the 2016 election, Stoller may be on to something. Zuckerberg stood idly by as Cambridge Analytica pilfered the personal data of Facebook users. Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, calls Facebook an “alt-right collaborator”. It sure seems that way.

Not surprisingly, Facebook has seen its reputation crash. Worse, it is no longer cool. Younger Americans have fled to other social media platforms.

As for Amazon, it poses a greater challenge to Stoller and indeed to Trump. Consumers really like it. Jeff Bezos’s brainchild allows people to shop from the comfort of their homes, something chain stores, a Stoller bête noire, never did.

George McGovern speaks in New York in 1972. Photograph: Ron Galella/WireImage

Beyond that, Amazon helps keeps prices low and competitive. In an era of income stagnation outside the upper reaches of the wealth pyramid, Amazon has made a difference. To be sure, it has also been destructive, leaving mom-and-pop retail stores shuttered and vacant mall space aplenty.

Unfortunately, Goliath comes up short in addressing the intersection between culture and economics.

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In 1972, Senator George McGovern, the Democrats’ nominee, came to be known as the candidate of “amnesty, acid and abortion” – and was mowed down by an incumbent Nixon.

McGovern’s redistributive economics coupled with unvarnished social liberalism and foreign policy dovishness managed to alienate organized labor, a Democratic mainstay. Like Warren, McGovern took on a former vice-president, Hubert Humphrey – another Stoller hero. The South Dakota senator won a battle, but lost the war.

Taking a page out of McGovern’s playbook, Warren now seeks to impose a wealth tax as she veers left on culture and itches to stick it to the middle class. By the time 2020 is done, Warren may be known as McGovern 2.0. In so many ways.

Expect to hear more from Stoller as the campaign heats up. US manufacturing is in a Trump-tariff induced recession, retail sales are down and inequality grows. Although the president’s ballyhooed tax cuts delivered for the GOP donor base and the Fortune 500, for the rest, not so much.

As the scholar Barrington Moore Jr said: “No bourgeoisie, no democracy.”