However understandably it’s been overshadowed by the earthquake election of 2016, the demise of President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal (TPP) is a very big, indeed historic, deal. Think of it this way: Do you know how many times since 1950 that a trade agreement concluded by an American administration has been turned back by public opposition? Try “none.”
As a result, it’s vital that trade policy critics correctly understand the ingredients of this victory – if only because they’ll decisively influence the nature of alternative approaches able to pass public and legislative muster. And in this vein, it’s becoming apparent that left-of-center trade activists – who deserve most of the credit for organizing impressive campaigns of opposition to U.S. trade policy since the NAFTA fight of the early 1990s – have especially important lessons to learn. The biggest ones: first, that Donald Trump’s election as president delivered the coup de grace against TPP; and second, and that his fundamentally nationalist arguments made the trade critics’ movement genuinely, and victoriously, bipartisan.
Just to review the history briefly, in 1950, President Truman decided that his plans to create a global trade body with strong enforcement powers were going nowhere, and so the White House announced in December that legislation to approve the globally endorse International Trade Organization would not be put before Congress.
Over the following six and a half decades, Congress did formally or informally rebuff three presidential requests to renew the executive’s trade negotiating authority in conjunction with expedited “fast track” voting procedures. But when actual trade deals came before the House and Senate, all of them passed. Not even the financial crisis and Great Recession were able to generate winning coalitions against new trade agreements, as lawmakers approved deals with Colombia, Korea, and Panama in October, 2011, when the current (historically weak) recovery was still in a relatively early and not especially strong stage.
During all of these trade battles, left-of-center forces such as labor unions and environmental groups provided most of the opposition’s political and financial muscle, its lobbying strength on Capitol Hill, and its grass roots organizing. And considering how tremendously outspent these groups were by Big Business (including Wall Street), and how vigorously the national media tried to marginalize them, these groups performed heroically.
Both President-elect Trump and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton ran deeply divisive campaigns. And Mr. Trump’s displayed a clear penchant for assailing numerous liberal social and cultural sacred cows. So it wasn’t entirely surprising that trade critics on the left consistently tried to minimize the overlap between their positions on globalization and those of the GOP candidate. Much more surprising, and less defensible, is how this practice has continued and even intensified since the Trump victory.
The most egregious example seems to have come from Tobita Chow, who heads a Chicago-based political organization called The People’s Lobby and, more important, just wrote on the president-elect and trade for the nationally influential Campaign for America’s Future. According to Chow, although Mr. Trump opposed TPP, he “plans to pursue bilateral trade deals with a number of Asian countries, including with Vietnam, which is also part of the TPP. Expect Trump’s trade deals to be even more damaging for people in the US and abroad than the TPP would be.”
Working a different but related angle, Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach claims that although President Obama’s continuing push for the TPP “helped to elect Donald Trump…Trump himself did not derail the TPP – people power united across borders accomplished that first by delaying the TPP’s completion beyond its 2012 deadline and then by ensuring that a majority in Congress could never be built to implement the deal since it was signed 10 months ago.
“By declaring he will formally bury the zombie TPP, the president-elect is merely acknowledging the obvious: The deal died under the weight of its own terms and could not achieve sufficient support in Congress.“
If Chow is indeed speaking for much of the progressive community, then he’s vividly demonstrated that this faction has become just as oblivious to the concerns of working class Americans as the corporate-funded Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. Here’s why he has such a beef with the President-elect on trade. As he explains it, Mr. Trump’s fundamental mistake is basing his approach to trade
“on his nationalistic politics. Trump has promised to step in and stop competition across borders, and to defend ‘real Americans’ against the immigrants and foreigners whom are too often perceived as threats to their livelihood and their way of life. And in trade policy, Trump is a protectionist. The very name, ‘protectionism’, implies that jobs and investment in other countries are threats, and that we can and should ‘protect’ the American economy against these threats. A protectionist like Trump would have us believe that if we throw up trade barriers and stop investment in foreign countries and force goods to be made in the US, then we can ‘bring back’ jobs and factories from China and Mexico and return to the middle-class economy that flourished between WWII and the 1970s. This is what is captured in Trump’s slogan, ‘Make America Great Again.’”
Chow goes on to sound like a charter member of the nation’s offshoring lobby, or a Mainstream Media columnist, by insisting that
“[T]he slogan is a lie. You can’t ‘bring back’ jobs that don’t exist anymore. Manufacturing jobs are on the decline around the world–including in China. Economist Joseph Stiglitz sums it up: ‘Global employment in manufacturing is going down because productivity increases are exceeding increases in demand for manufactured products by a significant amount.’”
As I’ve written previously, countries much less important economically than the United States has long used their market power to influence multinational companies’ investment decisions and the contours of their supply chains to lure investment – and jobs – to their economies. Why does Chow believe that similar U.S. efforts are bound to fail?
I have other substantive issues with his arguments, but more important is Chow’s conclusion that what Americans should back instead is
“what is sometimes called progressive nationalism: an agenda to pursue a progressive agenda across borders to create a more just and sustainable global society. And since, as progressives, we understand that the labor movement is central to all our struggles, this means that a core goal of progressive internationalism must be to increase the power and status of workers internationally.”
Does he really believe that this will be a winning message in American politics for the foreseeable future? Is there any evidence that the working class that rallied behind Mr. Trump (including many union households) would respond favorably? And if so, what does Chow believe has changed over the last quarter century? After all, progressives have made these points at every opportunity during that period’s trade battles. They never galvanized enough voters to win.
Which brings us to the main weakness of Wallach’s case. She’s right about “people power united across borders” delaying TPP’s conclusion and ratification – and about the importance of buying such time. But ultimately the deal was signed by all the countries involved, and most prospective TPP members with reasonably democratic systems made clear that the U.S. Congress’ ratification was crucial to bringing the treaty across their own various finish lines. The reason was obvious: America’s market would have represented nearly two-thirds of the final free trade zone.
Now ask yourself about TPP’s fate had Clinton won her expected victory this year. Can anyone seriously doubt that she would have pushed for a few cosmetic changes and then worked with pro-TPP Republican Congressional leaders to win a final passage sometime early in her first term that mirrored President Obama’s fast track triumph last year? In fact, as Wallach repeatedly warned before Election Day, when Mr. Trump seemed dead and buried and Clinton seemed sure to win the White House, a TPP vote during a lame duck session of Congress was entirely possible.
Mr. Trump’s election was the event that finished off the treaty for good – both because of his own opposition and because of the shock effect of his upset victory, which revealed that a substantially transformed Republican party electorate wasn’t about to take its cues on trade anymore from the likes of offshoring lobby hired guns like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In other words, President-elect Trump’s successful conversion of a critical mass of Republicans into energized trade policy critics who actually voted their convictions was what turned the opposition led for so long by the progressives into a truly bipartisan – and therefore winning – movement.
As a result, progressives face a major choice. They can ensure a more lasting defeat for job- and growth-killing trade deals – and lay the foundations for realistic plans to promote greater prosperity outside the United States, too – by acknowledging the political and substantive merits of more nationalistic American trade policies. Or they can keep inveighing against the President-elect and his approach, or provide at best niggardly support, and boost the odds that a genuine revolution in the politics of trade in the United States fizzles out.