Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Populism in the US

A major theme of American left commentary on the US elections has been the revival of populism. Of course this has received little attention in Australia. A representative sample is in The Nation:
Despite relatively strong growth, manageable inflation, high corporate profits and a bullish stock market, real wages continue to stagnate, productivity gains continue to be captured by the wealthiest 1 percent, income inequality has continued to get worse...None of these trends are new, but over the past six years the problems have grown so noticeable that even the neoliberal economists who crafted the much-celebrated Clinton economic agenda have begun to focus on correcting the perversely inequitable distribution of the fruits of economic success…Aside from opposition to the war, the Democrats focused on attacking subsidies to Big Oil, blasting the corruption endemic to a system in which corporate special interests call the shots and advocating for "fair trade" over the so-called "free trade" agreements that benefit capital over labor. ...At the national level, cable pundits almost immediately focused on a handful of winning Democrats with conservative stances on social issues--Jon Tester's A rating from the NRA, Bob Casey's opposition to choice and, obsessively, former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler, who defeated incumbent Charles Taylor in North Carolina's 11th District while opposing abortion, gay rights and a guest-worker program for immigrants. But what the pundits didn't mention was the role in Shuler's victory of the district's opposition to "free trade" deals. The area's textile industry has been gutted by NAFTA, so when it came time to vote on CAFTA, Taylor was caught between his district, which wanted him to vote no, and the GOP House leadership, which wanted him to vote yes. So he skipped the vote altogether and CAFTA passed by one vote. During the campaign, Shuler hammered Taylor for "selling out American families," and he wasn't alone in using trade as a wedge issue. A post election analysis by Public Citizen found that campaigns cut twenty-five ads attacking free-trade deals, and that trade played a significant role in more than a dozen House races won by Democrats. In the entire election, Public Citizen noted, "no incumbent fair trader was beaten by a 'free trader.'""Democrats have coalesced in favor of trade policy reform over the past decade as President Bill Clinton's NAFTA, WTO and China trade deals not only failed to deliver the promised benefits but caused real damage," said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch division.
The evidence on public opinion largely backs this according to a Pew study that found that Republicans were more divided on economic policy than Democrats and that outsourcing is universally unpopular, although public opinion is more evenly divided on trade agreements.:
It all sounds very heart-warming, but what about the view of some on the left such as Doug Henwood that trade liberalisation came account for only a small portion of increasing inequality in the US? The challenge for the left will be getting people like Shuyler to vote for measures such as the Employee Free Choice Act
that would enable union recognition when a majority of employees have signed cards. It is only by these reforms that the base can be laid for a long-term shift to the left. What are the lessons for Australia?


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