Election 2004

The Progressive Populist Moment Has Arrived

The Democratic presidential candidates have adopted the broad goals of the peace and justice movements, becoming anti-war and pro-fair trade in the course of the primaries.
The Democratic presidential candidates have adopted the broad goals of the peace and justice movements, becoming anti-war and pro-fair trade in the course of the primaries.

It's been a remarkable shift after the past decade of Democratic catering to corporate interests and conservative voters,  Only one year ago, candidates John Kerry, John Edwards and Richard Gephardt had voted for the Iraq war resolution, and Gephardt alone, among the leading contenders, opposed pro-corporate trade agreements like NAFTA.

When Howard Dean's populist candidacy demonstrated the strength of Democratic anti-war sentiment, Kerry and Edwards changed course and opposed the Bush Administration's $87 billion war authorization. With Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton and Carol Mosely-Braun already anti-war, that isolated Gephardt as the last hawk until his defeat in Iowa.

But Gephardt's once-lonely advocacy of "fair trade, not free trade" -- the position of the AFL-CIO and the Citizens Trade Campaign -- caught fire in the Iowa primaries where activists like former Congress member Jim Jontz of national Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) were generating daily pressure at the caucus level.

Not only Iowans but voters across multiple primary states were outraged by millions of manufacturing job losses which they blamed on trade agreements which the Democrats had promoted just a decade before. On the 10th anniversary of NAFTA, the proponents were embarrassingly silent. No one wanted to admit that eccentric billionaire Ross Perot was more right than wrong in 1994. Now Democratic voters in states like South Carolina, Missouri, Arizona and Wisconsin overwhelmingly preferred candidates critical of the Democrats' own trade agreements. Even key Democratic insiders, like Mickey Kantor who wrote the Clinton Administration's pro-investor rules of trade, were admitting that it was now "correct to challenge some of the rules." (NYT,  Jan. 31, 2004)

The climactic moment in the re-birth of a populist Democratic Party came on the eve of the Wisconsin primary. John Kerry reversed his previous course to declare that "I will not sign a trade agreement like the Central American Trade Agreement or the Free Trade of the Americas Act that does not now embrace enforceable labor and environment standards."

Howard Dean said "We've globalized the rights of big corporations to do business anywhere in the world. We did not globalize human rights, labor rights and environmental rights, and we need to do that."

John Edwards added to the chorus: "These environmental and labor standards in the text of the agreement, not in a side agreement, in the text of the agreement that can be enforced, really matter."

And Dennis Kucinich couldn't help saying, "I'm the only one up here so far who's been willing to say that I'll cancel NAFTA and the WTO."

The candidates' language was straight from the streets to the candidates' mouths. They could have been written by Lori Wallach or John Sweeney. There were no spoilers on hand to observe that the Democrats had embraced the Ralph Nader message four years too late. As for Nader, he apparently was too busy plotting another possible campaign to notice that his most compelling platform had been coopted.

Cynics on the left are correct to suspect these Democratic campaign-trail conversions. No candidate, after all, has proposed specific revisions to protect workers rights and the environment. Kerry has offered a 120-day review period that will undoubtedly be dive-bombed by corporate lobbyists. No one is certain how to create enforceable labor and environmental protections without torpedoing the essential rationale for the trade agreements, which was to protect investors seeking cheap labor and freedom from government regulations. Token reform won't end sweatshops. The current agreements cannot be fine-tuned by tacking on cosmetic language. But real reform may lead to the collapse of the WTO and NAFTA. An unpredictable re-negotiation of the American empire is underway. The challenge begun in the Democratic primaries creates a space for debate on how to achieve a more democratic and sustainable global order, something like imagining a New Deal for the world.  

Another thorny question is whether Kerry, Edwards or Dean genuinely favor ending the occupation of Iraq, or whether their policies are conditional on a favorable outcome for American prestige and interests. Despite opposing the war, all these candidates can be expected to keep tens of thousands of US troops in Iraq. All (except the outsider Kucinich) are vulnerable to the familiar accusation that they will "cut and run." While they attack Halliburton contracts, none of them so far have questioned Washington's promotion of its handpicked government for the WTO, or the legalized stripping of Iraqis' control of their economy or natural resources. What, one wonders, would enforceable workers' rights look like in Paul Bremer's Iraq?

Only the peace movement can continue pressuring the candidates for clarity and accountability. Only the peace and justice movement can campaign for an alternative to the military and corporate empire envisioned in trade agreements, Pentagon strategic plans, and the extremist dreams of The Weekly Standard. The current presidential candidates only want to reform the American empire, not end it.  They, along with the Democratic policy elites, favor "muscular internationalism." Only a social movement can pressure to end the occupation outright and, more important, define a long-term post-Empire paradigm for America and argue the case for its benefits. Candidates cannot carry the burdens of movements, just as movements cannot expect magical cures from politicians.

The good news is that the Democratic candidates have been ratifying a consciousness that Americans were deceived into invading Iraq, that the war itself is a many-sided blight on America's future, that Iraqi elections must be held quickly under international auspices, and that we need an exit strategy from quagmire.

None of these questions should muddle the fact that American politics is being realigned swiftly and unexpectedly in a progressive direction. On war and peace, jobs and trade, civil rights and civil liberties, and the environment, the Democratic Party is being shaped more by its own insurgent constituencies on the ground than by its internal leadership, consultants and pollsters, fundraising professionals, revolving-door law firms and their clientele.

Such a realignment was envisioned in the Port Huron Statement of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) when human hope was in the air 40 years ago. The early SDS strategy was that independent social movements (civil rights, students, peace and labor) could shape a progressive political majority, force white Southern conservatives from the party, and spark a new governing coalition in the tradition of the New Deal. Assassinations and the war in Vietnam ended those hopes. But now the same fault lines have appeared in American democracy once again, and those whose ideals were forged in the 1960s may have one last chance to, so to speak, accomplish their mission.

Tom Hayden writes on social movements and politics for AlterNet. He is an adjunct professor at Occidental College, a former California state senator, a six-time delegate to Democratic conventions, and a four-decade activist.
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