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It must have given the earnest wonks at the Economic Policy Institute a bit of a start when Donald Trump touted their research in a speech courting white, working-class voters by criticizing NAFTA and U.S. trade policy with China.
“If he is so keen to help working people,” Mishel wrote, “why does he then steer the discussion back toward the traditional corporate agenda of tax cuts for corporations and the rich?” Progressives, who have long criticized trade deals that favor multinational corporations, suppress wages, accelerate outsourcing, and replace local democracy with unelected tribunals, shrink from keeping company with the racist, isolationist right.
This is equally true in Trump’s America and in Britain, now getting a divorce from the rest of Europe. Guardian columnist Gary Younge concurs with Mishel on the fraudulence of rightwing anti-globalism, and particularly the immigrant-bashing Brexit campaign.
“The very people who are slashing resources—the Tory right—and diverting what’s left to the wealthy are the ones rallying the poor by blaming migrants for the lack of resources,” Younge wrote. “Not content with urinating on our leg and telling us it’s raining, they have found someone to blame for the weather.”
Rightwing populists are making a lot of noise about the weather lately—that is, the lousy economic climate brought on by trade deals that favor corporations at the expense of labor. As a result, they are making inroads with an anxious working class.
“Progressives can’t afford to cede economic populism to the man who could prove to be the most effective white nationalist campaigner of our generation,” Tarso Luís Ramos, executive director of a watchdog group that monitors the right, Political Research Associates, told me in March, when I interviewed him about Donald Trump.
To get a progressive view on globalization, I spoke with Melinda St. Louis, international campaigns director for Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. St. Louis, who has spent her career working on fair trade, is optimistic about a global movement for economic justice.
“I don’t think we’re ceding talking points on this,” she says, citing the campaign to defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which she calls “kind of exciting.”
For years, both major parties pushed multinational corporations’ agenda in big trade deals. But not this year. Growing public ire over NAFTA, which has led to the closure of 57,000 U.S. factories and the loss of seven million jobs, has changed the political debate.
Although progressives did not succeed in getting the Democratic Party to renounce the TPP in its platform, Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of the Citizens Trade Campaign, praised language rejecting unfair trade deals and, in particular, the “investor-state dispute settlement system,” which is used by transnational corporations to undermine environmental, labor, and public health laws around the globe.
When Virginia governor, and longtime friend of Hillary Clinton, Terry McAuliffe told reporters that Clinton would ultimately drop her opposition to the TPP and support the deal with a few modifications, it set off a firestorm. McAuliffe walked back on his remark and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta tweeted that he was “flat wrong,” and that Clinton would continue to oppose the trade deal after the election.
“Now the candidates [Clinton and Trump] are fighting over who hates the TPP more,” St. Louis notes. “That is a prudent response since all of the trade unions, environmental groups, LGBT organizations, women, retirees—the entire progressive base is opposing TPP.”
“It’s not about trade or not trade, it’s about who writes the rules and who benefits,” she adds.
Human rights advocates see no reason to support the TPP, which makes it easier for Malaysia, known for engaging in human trafficking, to access U.S. markets. LGBT activists don’t like the way the deal rolls out the red carpet for Brunei, which is bad on LGBT rights.
Overall, the trouble with the TPP is that it “doesn’t learn the lessons of NAFTA,” St. Louis says. “It expands incentives for offshoring and creates more opportunities to challenge environmental and health and safety laws through secret tribunals.”
The public is increasingly unhappy with such deals.
St. Louis notes the TransCanada corporation’s recent Keystone claim against the United States under NAFTA’s rules. “Obama listened to activists, who pointed to the environmental and economic damage, and now we the taxpayers could be on the hook for $15 billion because of an unaccountable trade deal. Why on earth would we want to expand that through the TPP?”
Perhaps the biggest difference between left- and rightwing views of global trade is that, while rightwing populists blame immigrants and foreign workers, progressives are eager to make common cause with workers across borders.
“I worked in Central America during the Central America Free Trade Agreement negotiations, and the people in Central America said at the time, ‘This is going to decimate us,’” says St. Louis. “Sure enough, we’ve seen an increase in inequality and instability in the region since CAFTA passed.”
St. Louis speaks with feeling about “the brightest, most entrepreneurial people” leaving southern Mexico and Central America to make the dangerous trek north, not because they think the streets in the United States are paved with gold, but because there are no other opportunities for them.
“To see these families, in a place where family is so important, being broken up—parents sending money to their children, but not seeing them for fifteen years—it’s devastating,” she says.
Scapegoating these immigrants is particularly outrageous, she says, since economic and trade policies have been a major contributor to their plight. Take, for instance, the two million Mexican farmers who lost their livelihoods under NAFTA when U.S.-subsidized corn flooded the market at prices that were lower than the cost of production.
Despite the bad economic news and the ominous rightwing backlash, St. Louis is optimistic about the global movement for economic justice.
“When there is this level of overreach of corporate greed, people do mobilize and beat it back,” she says.
“A couple of years ago, it was unthinkable that the TPP would be a major issue in the presidential campaign,” she says. And there have been other victories. Massive opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas—a proposed NAFTA expansion—killed that plan. Likewise, citizen organizing helped kill the Multilateral Agreement on Investments.
Liberal economists, including Paul Krugman, Larry Summers, and Robert Reich, have moved away from their pro-NAFTA positions and begun to support the call for fair trade.
“There is a populist response from the left and the right,” says St. Louis. “Elites should pay attention.”
Around the world, political leaders cannot ignore the call for global economic justice.
Donald Trump notwithstanding, “This isn’t about Mexico winning and the United States losing,” St. Louis notes.
Workers in many countries know they are getting the short end of the stick. There are more billionaires in both Mexico and the United States since NAFTA passed—even as ordinary people struggle.
Most critically, people all over the world are united in confronting the ill effects of climate change—effects the TPP makes worse.
The TPP, in 6,000 pages of binding rules on trade, investment, and regulation between the United States and eleven Pacific Rim nations, makes no mention of the words “climate change,” the Sierra Club points out.
In its details, the deal would make climate change worse in a variety of ways. It would increase greenhouse gas emissions and undermine clean energy by allowing fossil fuel companies to challenge climate protections in trade tribunals. It would require the U.S. Department of Energy to approve all exports of liquefied natural gas—a boon to the fracking industry. It would speed up the shift of U.S. manufacturing to dirtier countries. And it actually rolls back language protecting the environment contained in other trade agreements since 2007.
In short, the TPP and similar deals are not only an economic threat but a threat to the future of the planet. The resistance movement against it is a good sign for all of us.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.