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What's So Great About Free Trade?
April 24, 2001
by Lydia Leftcoast

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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 children.

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.

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