Free Trade Apologetics
An earlier version of this article was published by Dissent.
A compelling Senate primary runoff election took place Tuesday in Arkansas. Progressive candidate Bill Halter, the state's current lieutenant governor, narrowly lost to incumbent Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln, a confirmed member of the "Blue Dog" caucus. Lincoln angered core Democratic constituencies ranging from MoveOn to the AFL-CIO to the League of Conservation Voters with her opposition to any decent health care reform, refusal to support the Employee Free Choice Act, and alliances with Big Oil and King Coal. Ordinarily these groups might have been convinced to join a push to "keep the Senate Democratic" at all costs. Instead they took a firm stand against rightward drift in the party that made the contest an unexpectedly close one.
This primary contest also saw a flare-up in the debate about "free trade"—with Bill Clinton coming out to defend Lincoln's vote for NAFTA. It was something of an unexpected turn given Clinton's apologetic statements about corporate globalization earlier this year.
In early April, I wrote about Clinton expressing remorse over the "free trade" policies that he championed for Haiti during his time in the White House. He acknowledged that cheap rice imports from the United States destroyed local agriculture in Haiti and left people there unable to feed themselves in times of crisis—a tragic turn replicated in many other impoverished countries around the world. His prior stance, Clinton stated, was "a mistake." Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 10, he said, "I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else."
It seemed heartfelt at the time. So what was Clinton doing just a couple months later defending "free trade" policies again? And what does the Arkansas flip-flop tell us about the state of the globalization debate?
The first thing to note is that Clinton's earlier apology was quite honest in an important respect: He highlighted that corporate globalization produces both winners and losers. Prying open markets with Haiti, Clinton explained, "may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked" for the Haitian people. In other words, under the policy, agribusiness interests in a wealthy country benefited at the expense of ordinary people in the global South. It's hardly an uncommon outcome. But this type of pattern is rarely acknowledged by mainstream economists, who—owing to willful ignorance or to the ideological blinders of their profession—tend to remain oblivious to the ugly realities of politics.
When Clinton turned to defend Lincoln's NAFTA vote, he stated, "Blanche voted for [NAFTA] because she knew it would open up new markets for Arkansas rice and soy beans. And it did." It's not actually a contradictory argument. Instead, Clinton's stance inadvertently illustrates a point that critics of corporate globalization have made for years. The imposition of "free trade" has little to do with principled adherence to economic policies that have a demonstrated ability to "lift all boats." Instead, it has a lot to do with special interest pressure and the opportunistic pursuit of policies that serve the interests of a few well-connected and deep-pocketed groups, making life more difficult for many others.
Here's the second main lesson to be drawn from the situation: The need for Clinton to go back to Arkansas to defend Lincoln on NAFTA reflects an important shift within the Democratic Party on trade. Many high-profile Democrats spent the 1990s trying to reinforce their pro-corporate bona fides and cozy up to the center-right Democratic Leadership Council. They have since found that such behavior is rather unpopular with the Democratic base—and with voters in general—who have been consistently replacing "free trade" stalwarts with progressive "fair trade" advocates. Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch division has done a great job tracking this shift, issuing relevant reports after the 2006 and 2008 elections. In the latter case, they found the following:
From the presidency to both chambers of Congress and from traditionally "free trade" Oregon and Florida to Colorado and New Mexico, successful candidates in 2008 election races ran on a platform of fundamental overhaul of U.S. trade and globalization…with a net increase in Congress of 35 fair trade supporters…
More than 137 paid television ads calling for new trade policies and attacking supporters of trade pacts such as NAFTA and the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) were used by House and Senate candidates in 2008. This compares to roughly 25 ads in congressional races in 2006, when criticism of status-quo globalization and trade policy showed an exponential jump from all past election cycles.
Even Hillary Clinton, campaigning in the 2007–2008 presidential primaries, was compelled to reverse her previous support for the policies of her husband's administration and speak out against NAFTA's many flaws. Today, the great majority of Democratic candidates are not bragging about their votes in favor of NAFTA or other "free trade" deals. Rather, they are apologizing for them or struggling to dismiss them.
Regardless of the outcome of the Arkansas runoff, this is a positive development for working people in the United States and abroad.
Mark Engler is a writer based in New York City, an analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy.blog comments powered by Disqus