In many ways, today’s Republican Party faces greater ideological divisions within its ranks than do the Democrats. On immigration reform, on prison reform, on whether and how to focus on middle class incomes, on expanding Medicare, the GOP is divided. Even on the most basic questions of the role of government and of elected officials, the “blow it up” mantra of the Tea Party wing conflicts with the desire of both Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to actually govern. On most issues, for good or ill, the Democrats are basically united.
The one issue that splits the Democrats is now taking center stage: Trade. In 1992, part of Bill Clinton’s “new Democrat” approach was an openness to more liberal trade policies, in contrast to previous Democratic opposition such liberal trade policies. As the Clinton presidency played out, largely on the strength of increased productivity resulting from the internet and the proliferation of computer usages in conducting business, the economy boomed, and that boom masked the cleavage that was widening between America’s increasingly wealthy investor class and American workers. Trade was not the only reason the gap between the one percent and the rest of us grew, but it was a large part of it. And, despite all the happy talk about retraining workers, many low-skilled manufacturing jobs fled the country. Workers who once could support a family on a union-negotiated wage and benefits were now working in service industry jobs with no unions, lower wages, and few if any benefits.
The signature trade deal of the Clinton years, NAFTA, and its follow-up CAFTA, have had even more disastrous consequences for the other signatories of those pacts. Long-established patterns of economies built around rural farming were disrupted with an insufficiently growing manufacturing sector. The few labor protections included in the trade deals were largely unenforced by governments without the resources to guarantee adequate wages or working conditions. The increase in immigration from Central America and Mexico began, and as some countries like Honduras spiraled down into a virtually lawless socio-political environment, the increase in immigration became a wave. Gangs replaced traditional economic structures and violence became the norm, not the exception, in the streets of these already poor countries.
Now, President Obama is asking for enhanced, “fast-track” trade authority and ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new round of trade deals with countries in Asia. The details of the TPP are not public and one would think that the American people, and their representatives in Congress would refuse to pass fast-track authority to grease the skids for a deal they have not seen. But, powerful economic interests have been at work, bolstered by macro-economic theories that seem allergic to even acknowledging the human cost of their own equations. So long as GDP is on the rise, why ask pesky questions about the details.
It is time for the Democratic Party to cut itself loose from the insanity of liberal trade policies. Leading the charge is Senator Elizabeth Warren. She rightly points out that the large corporations which will likely benefit from the trade deals have been at the negotiating table all along. It is the average American who is in the dark. Additionally, passing TPP will result in the flight of what few manufacturing jobs were created in Central America to cheaper labor markets in Southeast Asia. This will result in more human suffering south of the U.S. border and yet more violence and yet more forced immigration. It is appalling that Mr. Obama is willing to acknowledge none of this.
Mr. Obama is not alone. To date, Hillary Rodham Clinton has not shown her hand on TPP. If she intends to be advised by the same team of economic advisors who shaped her husband’s policies and who also shaped Obama’s policies, we know where she will come down on the issue. Although he is not yet an announced candidate, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has voiced his opposition to both the trade deal and to “fast-track” authority. The worry is that there are enough Democrats in Congress, who will vote with all the Republicans, for a deal that will further enrich the already rich and further impoverish the already poor.
Progressive religious groups like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good have stepped up to the plate in opposing the TPP and fast-track. Organized labor never left the plate. But, Democratic strategists have increasingly given up on white working class voters, aiming their appeal at discrete parts of the left which are more concerned about issues relating to identity politics. Hence the “war on women” in 2012 and 2014. Hence the disproportionate amount of time spent discussing same sex marriage rather than any sex economic unfairness. Hence the fuzzy grasp of foreign policy on display for the past six years.
This is a critical moment for Democrats. Either they will follow Sen. Warren and Gov. O’Malley’s lead and return to their Rooseveltian roots as the party the chases money changers out of the temples of our democracy and defends the economic interests of the average American, or they will join their Republican friends in worshipping at the altar of the market. It should be an easy choice.