America First, Bernie Sanders, Democrats, Elizabeth Warren, free trade agreements, globalism, Im-Politic, Immigration, labor unions, nationalism, New Balance, offshoring, Populism, progressives, third world, Trade, Trump, white working class, working class
Tiny groups of individuals shouldn’t be mistaken for entire movements, or even significant factions of movements. Therefore, I don’t want to make too much of those Trump haters who burned their New Balance sneakers and/or slammed the company on social media because it stated that the election as president of a strong trade policy critic would be good for manufacturers seeking to make most of their products in the United States, like itself.
At the same time, the backlash against New Balance sheds lots of light on serious problems in the ranks of American progressivism that contributed to Trump’s triumph and that will need to be solved if the Left end of the country’s political spectrum is to win working class loyalties and convincingly claim populist chops.
Let me start with a little story (one of my father’s favorite phrases!). Back in the late-1990s, when President Clinton had requested new trade negotiating authority from Congress, I attended a meeting at AFL-CIO headquarters of activists seeking to block his ambitions. Early at the session, we agreed that we should explain to legislators and the public what kinds of trade policies we favored, not simply what we opposed, and someone (not me) suggested something along these lines as a unifying theme:
“The main purpose of U.S. trade policy should be to promote healthy growth for the American economy and higher living standards for the majority of the American people.”
That didn’t seem terribly controversial to me. But several hands immediately rose in protest. A representative of the Maryknoll Sisters made clear the objection. Why, she asked, were we ignoring the well-being of the rest of the world?
To his credit, the American labor leader who was running the meeting tried to argue that, however much he sympathized with her point, it was axiomatic that the first obligation of the U.S. government was to promote and defend the interests of the American people. But he didn’t make the argument very emphatically, and many of the others around the table – who came from left-of-center organizations – were even more conflicted. I tried to shore up the first speaker, but quickly realized I was in the greatly outnumbered and spent the rest of the session listening.
I don’t remember what the final version said, and doubt it was ever made public, but the phrasing of that opening point was definitely watered down. On my way out, some folks who worked for labor union offices outside the Beltway came over to me and asked, as they were shaking their heads, “What the heck was that all about?” I replied, “You’ve just learned a valuable lesson about American liberals. Many don’t believe that American workers’ interests should come first.”
They’d actually gotten many such lessons throughout the 1990s. As the first Bush administration and especially the Clinton administration turned U.S. trade policy into an exercise in offshoring, not domestic growth, their progressive critics decided that the best way to resist was to spotlight the harm this new strategy would inflict on workers and peasants in the developing world as well as in the United States. In fact, the third world and its grievances turned into a prime focus of those who famously protested the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.
This approach made some tactical sense, as many liberals in Congress clearly were not constitutionally inclined to buy an America First trade policy. But although there are any number of ways in which U.S. trade policies could be changed to create more situations of mutual benefit between rich and poor countries (see this recent article for an example), the progressive stance also reflected a refusal to recognize that many hard choices have confronted – and still confront – the nation on trade.
In public policy trying to please everyone tends to wind up pleasing no one. So substantively, this wishful thinking was a formula for confusion at best. Politically, the impact was far worse: The progressives wound up muddying and therefore weakening the message trade critics were trying to send to the public.
Small wonder that even though the critics won some procedural trade fights during the 2000s, even after the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, President Obama managed to secure Congressional passage of three new free trade agreements. Not until a major politician forthrightly vowed to prioritize American interests in trade policy making did the powerful globalization status quo meet its match – and then some.
Based on their initial post-election statements, it seems that progressive leaders realize that rejecting the option of working with Mr. Trump on trade policy would be the height of folly. That is, it seems that they’re implicitly rejecting the notion that the President-elect is so odious that a company that employs American workers despite powerful pressures to offshore should be condemned not for endorsing the whole of his candidacy, but simply for noting that his election would likely aid those efforts. Therefore, big changes on the trade front seem inevitable above and beyond the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.
Yet even the progressives’ leaders still face a towering obstacle in their own quest to regain the votes of the millions of working class voters – probably like many of those New Balance workers – who deserted their party’s standard bearer last Tuesday night. They have no chance of succeeding if they continue describing all forms of common sense immigration policies as bigoted. And for those of you who think that I’m just talking about the white working class, keep in mind that the phrase “union household” also describes this constituency.
In other words, during the 2016 elections, progressives in part tried to convince Main Street America that they would gain from a massive increase in the nation’s supply of unskilled labor through both amnesty and the powerful magnet effect it would generate. And at the same time, if these working class voters worried about the resulting downward pressure on wages, along with the effects on the nation’s cohesion of surging bilingualism and its security of newcomers from the culturally medieval Middle East, they were condemned by the Left as nativists, racists, and even worse.
The pointed references to Mr. Trump’s alleged xenophobia by both Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (earlier in the campaign) show that their faction of American politics has much to learn on this score. Until they understand that real U.S. populists can’t be globalists in this day and age, they’re likely to continue wandering the political wilderness.