The vote in Great Britain to exit from the European Union and the support that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump received in the U.S. presidential primaries all reflect a strong belief among voters that corporations and the economic elites have rigged our economies and governments to work in their favor. Workers and average citizens struggle to make ends meet while the rich get much richer. Corporate welfare is maintained while the safety net for individuals is shredded. “Trade” treaties expand corporate power while workers see their jobs shipped overseas.
These are examples of how our economy and government regulation of it are rigged in favor of large corporations and wealthy individuals. Close relationships between corporate executives and government officials (both elected and appointed) result in policies that favor large corporations and wealthy individuals. This is “crony capitalism.” There is self-dealing and collusion between the private sector and the public sector that sometimes rises to the level of outright conspiracy and corruption.
In 1964, just 29% of U.S. voters thought government was “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves,” according to the American National Election Studies survey. Today, almost 80% of Americans think so.
A study published in the fall of 2014 by Princeton professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern professor Benjamin Page confirms the reality of this sentiment. They examined 1,799 public policy issues to determine the relative influence on them of economic elites, business groups, and average citizens. They found that the influence of the economic elites and business groups almost entirely overwhelmed that of average American citizens.
Their conclusion was that “The preferences of average Americans appear to have only a minuscule, … non-significant impact upon public policy.” On the other hand, wealthy individuals and big business strongly influence policy. 
There are many, many examples of how large corporations and the wealthy influence public policies to their advantage. One is that they have gotten our government officials to essentially stop enforcing anti-monopoly (aka anti-trust) laws. As a result, corporations have gotten bigger and bigger and have much more power, both market power (including over prices) and political power (including over regulations, tax laws, and trade).
Therefore, our democracy looks more and more like a plutocracy, oligarchy, or corporatocracy as the political power and influence of the economic elites grows. Our founders’ vision for our democratic republic was quite different. They wanted economic as well as political power dispersed as widely as possible. Jefferson and Madison, in particular, greatly distrusted concentrated power, both private and public. Furthermore, they envisioned a government that structured markets to promote the common good, not private interests.
The fight against companies exercising monopoly power has a long history in America. The Boston Tea Party was a rebellion against the effective monopoly on tea granted to the British East India Company by the British King. The Populist Movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s revived this anti-monopoly sentiment. It fought against the efforts of large corporations to monopolize commerce and natural resources through the power of concentrated wealth (i.e., capital). President Teddy Roosevelt and later President Woodrow Wilson (guided by future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis) implemented strong anti-trust, anti-monopoly laws. Preventing the development of monopolies was, for them, less about achieving economic efficiency and low prices for consumers than it was about protecting political equality and democratic governance. 
The goals of anti-trust laws and their enforcement were both to limit corporations’ political power and to ensure that they were small enough that the competition of the market place would provide effective control of corporate behavior. Thus, the need for government intervention in the economy, which can be complicated and have unintended consequences, could be avoided.
Strong enforcement of anti-trust laws continued into the 1960s. In 1962, for example, the merger of two shoe companies was blocked by anti-trust laws because it would have given a single company 2% of the national market. This is in stark contrast to today’s economy where a few large corporations control many national markets and where effective monopolies exist in some local markets.
By the late 1970s, policy makers from both parties supported greatly relaxed enforcement of anti-trust laws under a revised set of economic goals based on a theory of efficiency through deregulation, free markets, and economies of scale. This has allowed unprecedented corporate growth and with it the growth of corporate power in our markets and political system.
In my next post, I’ll share some examples of how monopolistic corporate power affects some of the goods and services we all use, such as Internet service, banking, air travel, food, and health insurance.
 Reich, R., 6/19/16, “A Big Idea for Hillary,” (http://robertreich.org/post/146169929945)
 Lynn, B.C., & Longman, P., Summer 2016, “Populism with a brain,” Washington Monthly (http://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/junejulyaug-2016/populism-with-a-brain/)