In these days of horrifically escalating bloodshed in Iraq (i.e. “civil war”), I hesitate before raising a completely different issue. I am gratified by the media attention that the Iraq issue is receiving, even if way too much respect is still paid to the ridiculous assertions of the Bush-Cheney Administration. (In case you missed Michael Moore’s recent and refreshing diatribe on the subject--which is as blunt and un-sugar coated as usual--here it is.) But, acting on the theory that blogs should sometimes try to raise awareness about lower profile issues, I decided to write anyway. Also, I was at a dinner the other night talking to a European academic who sneeringly referred to the resurgence of “populism” in both the U.S. and Europe, as if that was something bad. So I had to write something, didn’t I?
American Prospect columnist Harold Meyerson calls the recent U.S. Congressional election the "Fair Trade Election". He points out that even the widely cited example of how "conservative" the new Democrats in Congress are--Heath Shuler of North Carolina--campaigned strongly against so-called free trade agreements that hurt American workers. More broadly, the ever sharp David Sirota proclaims: "We the populists won." I can't quibble with Meyerson and Sirota in their election analysis, given the widespread resonance of the economic populist message by new Senate Democrats such as Jim Webb, Sherrod Brown, Bob Casey, and Jon Tester. And, moreover, like them I celebrate this development.
It is worth reflecting though, on what will happen if the Democrats don't deliver on trade issues. (By "deliver", I don't mean to imply that they can get past a Presidential veto, or be held responsible for that, but merely that they get economically populist legislation passed...thereby forcing Bush to decide one way or the other, and thus either see it enacted or show the American people what they would enact with a better President.) I'm sure that action on getting the U.S. military out of Iraq, which is being so widely covered in the media, is a crucial priority. But I also wonder if many American voters will grow disenchanted with the Democrats if they don’t enact an economically populist agenda too. Trade is an especially tricky part of economic populism, because bipartisan elite opinion in Washington, D.C. and other centers of power usually opposes the populist position of restricting “free trade”.
The powerful forces that are enriching capital while sending well-paying U.S. jobs overseas will be hard to overcome.--even if the Democrats manage to push through strong labor and environmental protections on future trade deals. The exploitation of cheap labor overseas is a major dynamic of global relations. It is quite possible that Democrats will have a hard time building a large enough consensus to radically change the economic prospects of working-class Americans.
More pointedly, I worry about the global trade issue as a big negative for the ’08 presidential candiday of Hillary Clinton. Because the Bill Clinton years, while economically more prosperous than more recent times, did see continuing erosion in manufacturing jobs, along with several major “free trade” details, most notably NAFTA, that he supported. While it is perhaps unfair that she would be held responsible for the policies of her husband (although on the other hand, she unquestionably benefits from the name recognition), it is the reality of the Clinton legacy in many working people’s minds, for better or worse. I predict that a Hillary Clinton candidacy would have to overcome quite a bit of that legacy to become credible as someone who would fight for working people. Maybe that’s why I support someone with a stronger populist streak, such as John Edwards.
Returning to my European colleague at dinner, one of the reasons he gave for finding fault with the resurgence of populism in Europe and America is how much he associates it with nativist rhetoric and xenophobia, blaming immigrants, etc. But isn’t that in part why we need to advance an economically populist Democratic agenda that focuses more on the evils of big business interests rather than taking it all out on the poor, hard-working non-citizens (either immigrant workers or workers overseas) who are simply trying their best to make a living in tough circumstances? I told him that I have more hope for the populist Democrats in the U.S. because they are trying to provide an alternative to the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric of the right-wing (strong Latino support for Democrats in ’06 seems to point out at least some success in holding together a working people’s coalition). Even in Europe, I don’t think populism is so bad. For some reason, my colleague doesn’t like France’s new presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, who has been derided by some as a “populist” (what’s wrong with that?) To me, she sounds like a great candidate. I am wondering if “populist” has different connotations in Europe and the U.S. (Okay, well maybe the economic elites everywhere all hate it!) In this time when the America is messing up so many things around the world, perhaps that’s one thing Americans can be proud of—our respect for the populist tradition?