Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Analyzing the new politics of "free" trade

In his editorial entitled "The Fair Trade Election", Harold Meyerson writes in the American Prospect that the midterm elections have "ushered in a new progressive center" on economic policy in general, and trade policy in particular, and I couldn't agree with him more.

Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Act in 1993, Meyerson notes, Democrats in the House of Representatives have been moving steadily away from a trade policy that "benefits globe-trotting corporations and investment funds while depressing wages here in the States." In other words, trade deals that contain no labor, environmental or human rights protections while at the same time ensuring intellectual property rights for huge corporations in the pharmaceutical industry (which donates hundreds of millions of dollars, employs thousands of Hill lobbyists and virtually write these trade laws) will be enforced. In contrast, Democrats in the Senate are more evenly divided on trade policy since 1992, recognizing the fact that legislation like NAFTA has killed millions of jobs and depressed workers' wages in both the US and Mexico, hurt the manufacturing sector in the states and the agricultural sector in Mexico, and allowed Mexico's economic elites to violate workers' basic labor rights, not to mention encouraged massive illegal immigration.

Meyerson argues: "Tuesday's election changed all that. Looking at the Democrats who picked up formerly Republican House seats, Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch tallies 27 who defeated (or replaced resigning) free-trade Republicans and who campaigned against the kind of trade deals that Congress has ratified [see the report here]. The fair-trade 27 insist instead on deals that stress labor rights and environmental standards. In North Carolina, Democrat Heath Shuler -- ostensibly one of the new conservative Democrats -- attacked his opponent, Republican Charles Taylor, for backing off his commitment to vote against the Central American Free Trade Agreement. "It's not right when Congress passes trade bills that send our jobs overseas," said one Shuler ad.

In the incoming Senate delegation, the contrast is even sharper. The Democratic pickups -- Missouri's Claire McCaskill, Montana's Jon Tester, Ohio's Sherrod Brown, Pennsylvania's Bob Casey, Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse, and Virginia's James Webb -- all unseated free-trade incumbents with campaigns that stressed the need to pay far greater attention to the downward leveling that globalization entails. Tester ran ads attacking trade agreements for putting "our jobs and the viability of family farms and ranches across Montana in jeopardy." Webb's Web site states, "We must reexamine our tax and trade policies and reinstitute notions of fairness."

Exit polling made clear that the fair-trade Democrats have tapped into a profound national anxiety. When asked whether life for the next generation would be better, worse or about the same as life today, 40 percent responded "worse," while just 30 percent answered "better." That's a stunning figure to emerge from what has historically been perhaps the most optimistic of nations.

This analysis provides a strong counterpoint to the conventional wisdom--as evidenced by Time Magazine's recent cover article--that the midterm elections reflected the America public's realignment to the political "center". If economic populism and demanding trade legislation that contain as many protections for workers as it they do for corporations, then long live "the center".

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