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.
Below the leadership level, however, something was changing. Democrats who took up trade issues began to win elections–lots of them. And these were not simplistic protectionists; they were savvy internationalists who could debate economists and trade representatives about what was wrong with NAFTA, CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which a GOP-controlled Congress had approved in 2005) and massive trade deficits.
Frustration with Bush’s wars and lawlessness may have energized the base. But anger at his trade policies expanded that base enough to win elections. If there was one constant in the many wins that shifted Congress to Democratic control in 2006 and to overwhelmingly Democratic control in ’08, it was the replacement of free traders with fair traders–which played out in more than seventy contests during those two election cycles. Even if some Democratic presidential candidates and strategists were reticent about taking up the theme that corporate-sponsored free trade was bad for workers, farmers, communities and the environment, Democrats who were defeating GOP representatives and senators “got it.” Indeed, after the 2006 election, thirty-nine freshman members signed a letter reminding party leaders, “Vital to our electoral successes was our ability to take a vocal stand against the Administration’s misguided trade agenda.”
By 2008, when polls revealed that almost 80 percent of Americans had qualms about the free-trade regimen’s impact on workers, it seemed as if Wellstone’s hope might finally be realized. As they battled for blue-collar votes, both leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination started speaking in Seattle tongues about the importance of “fair trade.” Barack Obama had the upper hand, as Hillary Clinton’s last name is associated with NAFTA. Speaking at a Wisconsin factory in February 2008, Obama distanced himself not just from Bush Republicans but from Clinton Democrats when he condemned “a Washington where decades of trade deals like NAFTA and China have been signed with plenty of protections for corporations and their profits, but none for our environment or our workers, who’ve seen factories shut their doors and millions of jobs disappear.” Unfortunately, by the time he secured the nomination, Obama was backtracking, telling Fortune that his anti-NAFTA rhetoric had been “overheated and amplified.” Once elected, Obama, always more of a cautious centrist on economics than his supporters hoped or his critics feared, took counsel from free-trade fabulists like Austan Goolsbee and Rahm Emanuel. With his appointments of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Trade Representative Ron Kirk, the new president quickly signaled that there would be no immediate change in Washington’s approach to trade or to the raft of issues associated with it.
To be sure, Obama understands globalization in ways that Bush did not, and he has taken some steps to beef up enforcement of trade provisions designed to protect American industries and workers. But when Obama pledged in November to fight for Congressional approval of a flawed accord with South Korea, fair traders were aghast. “The last thing we need to do when we’re looking at this double-digit unemployment is another bad trade deal,” said Representative Phil Hare, a 2006 winner and a leader of the House Trade Working Group.
Hare and Democrat Mike Michaud, along with Senator Sherrod Brown, have led efforts to move supporters of fair trade from the defensive position of opposing bad deals to the offensive one of promoting legislation like the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development, and Employment (TRADE) Act. That bill proposes a review of existing agreements and renegotiation of those that fail to establish a “floor of decency” strong enough to support fair treatment of workers, basic environmental standards, food safety protections and financial regulations that prevent dangerous speculation. So far, 128 House members have signed on, including a significant number of conservative Blue Dogs and centrist New Democrats. Unfortunately, the White House is less than enthusiastic about proposals that could redefine not just the trade debate but broader discussions about jobs and the economy. Equally unfortunate has been the tendency of some labor and environmental groups to cooperate with a friendly administration by softening their advocacy on trade. The result is a limbo where the need for new approaches is recognized but there is insufficient impetus to pursue them.
This frustrates Hare, a former textile union leader who has become an outspoken critic of the way trade agreements neglect labor rights in Latin America and Asia. “There’s still a disconnect in our party, especially at the top, when it comes to trade and issues related to it,” he says. “They think you have to choose between free trade and no trade. We’re not saying we don’t want trade. What we’re saying is, Don’t give us just any deal. Give us a good deal. Give us a good deal for workers in the United States and for workers in Colombia and Korea. Give us a good deal for the environment. Give us a good deal for human rights.”
Hare’s words highlight the way the lessons of Seattle have resonated in our politics. It’s still possible to find a knee-jerk protectionist in Congress, even in the Democratic caucus. But most Democrats who focus on trade–and even a few enlightened Republicans, like Walter Jones–understand what Wellstone understood. The trade fights of the future are not between US workers and Koreans; they are between a corporate agenda that encourages race-to-the-bottom profiteering and a popular vision of fair trade that respects workers, farmers, consumers and citizens in all countries. The electoral results of 2006 and ’08 tell us that Wellstone was right: Americans are ready and willing to support a politics that seeks to civilize the global economy. Now, if we could just get a Democratic president to work with a Democratic Congress to offer them that politics…