What's So Great
About Free Trade?
April 24, 2001
by Lydia Leftcoast
I spent the entire 1980s cringing at nearly every official action of
Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior. Their policies on the environment,
social justice, and international relations went counter to the values
that I cherish, and I rooted for the few Democrats who consistently stood
up to the Republicans.
But I parted company with the Democrats on one issue, free trade. This
issue first came to my attention when Congressional Democrats joined Lee
Iaccoca in badgering Japan to open up its markets. "Okay," I thought,
"they're acting on behalf of the United Auto Workers, but why isn't anyone
pointing out that for all their whining, the Big Three auto makers are
importing Japanese cars to sell under their own brand names? Why isn't
anyone telling the American people the truth, namely that 1/3 of America's
trade deficit is due to American companies moving production overseas?"
But no, the Democratic Leadership Council, which has free trade on the
brain, has consistently touted NAFTA and GATT as the keys to peace and
prosperity. So what if blue collar workers lose their jobs as one company
after another moves production to countries that openly advertise their
lack of environmental and labor laws in the Wall Street Journal and the
New York Times? So what if multinational media conglomerates buy up all
the mainstream sources of information in the United States?
I'll tell you so what, Democrats. Votes. While the so-called "moderate"
Democrats have been acting like insecure Labrador Retrievers in their
eagerness to dance around and lick the cheeks of their major corporate
donors, American workers have been hurting. The days when one blue collar
worker could support a family of four comfortably are largely gone, and
the "new jobs" created by free trade have paid less than the ones that
were lost. The Democrats, at least the ones who are in the news most often,
have been on the side of the corporations. Meanwhile, the corporate media
have consistently told workers that their problems are the fault of "government
interference" and "high taxes."
Some working class voters, still reeling from the social changes of the
1960s and 1970s, have defected to the Republicans, gulled by their promise
of a return to the good old days of Father Knows Best and Donna Reed.
Others have simply stopped voting. They have no use for the Republicans,
whom they see as the party of the rich and sanctimonious, but to the Democrats,
they say, "What have you done for me lately?"
I was reminded of this problem this afternoon (April 21), when I attended
an anti-FTAA rally in Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon. When
I arrived, about thirty minutes after the beginning of the rally, the
crowd looked disappointingly small, but then something interesting happened.
The leafletters on the edge of the square were drawing in passersby, and
by the time I left, about an hour later, there were three times as many
people in attendance, perhaps a thousand or more. The demonstrators were
not just the pierced and tattooed youths who show up at all such demonstrations,
but also union members, elderly people, and very mainstream parents with
To me, the actual rally was not as amazing as what didn't happen.
I have gone to Pioneer Courthouse Square for a lot of rallies for various
causes, and there have always been counter-demonstrators: screaming anti-choice
activists, rabid Clinton haters, snarling libertarians, jingoistic militarists,
and other reactionary forces hoping to shout us down. This time, there
were *no* counter-demonstrators. There was no one insisting that our livelihoods,
environment, health and safety standards, financial stability, standard
of living, and national sovereignty must be sacrificed on the altar of
the almighty and implacable god, Free Trade. Even the religous right counts
many NAFTA victims among its members.
What this tells me, Congressional Democrats, is that "free trade" is
an out-and-out loser with the general public. (Remember them? They're
the people whose votes you have to win.) Right now, the Democratic "moderates"
are known mostly for advocating NAFTA and other free trade agreements
over the objections of their core constituencies. They mindlessly repeat
statistics about free trade creating jobs, when those of us outside the
Beltway know that the claim is only a half-truth.
Many of you Democrats, particularly those in the Progressive Caucus,
have always been against unrestrained free trade. The time has come for
you to embolden yourselves and let your opposition be known in every possible
medium and venue. As for the rest of you, the ones whose brains have been
laundered by corporate lobbyists, go home and talk to your constituents.
They'll tell you that you'd be much more attractive without that rotten
albatross of free trade hanging around your neck.