Two months after we had marveled at the convergence of labor, farm, environmental and human rights activists outside the 1999 World Trade Organization ministerial in Seattle, Paul Wellstone and I were riding along the back roads of New Hampshire. The Minnesota senator was trying to get liberals excited about Bill Bradley’s 2000 Democratic presidential bid. “Do you wish you were running?” I asked Wellstone. It was a question we had danced around before. This time he surprised me by answering that yes, he did sort of wish he was in the running. “You know why?” he asked. “Because I’d like to get into those debates and just say, ‘Seattle!’
“A lot of what was captured in Seattle–the questions about the changing face of the global economy–is not going away. These are issues that are going to have to be addressed,” said Wellstone, who dared on that cold winter night almost a decade ago to imagine how the coalitions that challenged the corporate agenda in Seattle might develop into a transformational movement. “A hundred years ago, the challenge was to civilize the national economy. There were powerful interests working to maintain the status quo–as there are today. But a great populist and progressive movement sprang up, and that movement gave us anti-trust laws and safe food regulations, child labor laws, the forty-hour workweek and so many of the other policies we take for granted today. Now what you have is another transformation–a transition to a global economy. Now the demand is to civilize the global economy. And just as it was at the start of the last century, that demand is coming from the people. It’s only a matter of time before the political leaders have to respond.”
Wellstone was right on most counts. But the senator, whose 2002 death would rob progressives of a visionary elected leader, was getting ahead of himself. We have seen Seattle marchers elected to powerful positions. We have heard the calls sounded in Seattle for fair trade, corporate accountability, transparency in global deal-making and international solidarity incorporated into the rhetoric of Democratic presidential candidates. Yet we are far, far short of the transformation Wellstone imagined. So it is fair to ask the question uttered just three days after the Battle of Seattle by Sherrod Brown, a marcher who is now a senator: “What did the protesters at Seattle accomplish?”
In the immediate aftermath of the disruption of the WTO’s plans, it seemed as if much–perhaps even another world–was possible. President Clinton incorporated references to the battle into an unexpectedly reflective address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he told the assembled politicians, CEOs and trade experts that “trade can no longer be the private province of politicians, CEOs and trade experts.” But that message never really took hold in the 2000 presidential race, except to the extent that Green Party nominee Ralph Nader shouted about it from the sidelines. Once George W. Bush assumed the presidency–and especially after 9/11 intervened to make his narrow worldview dominant–it became even harder to introduce the concept that “another world is possible” into debates on trade, development, food and agriculture, and militarism.
Top Democrats were almost as disinclined as Republicans to break with the free-trade consensus. Dennis Kucinich might have bid for the Democratic nomination with a “Seattle!” message, but John Kerry did not take those themes into electoral combat with corporate Republicans.