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WTO Dissent in the Streets, but Not in the Legislature

Where did all the dissent over the WTO come from? It certainly didn't come from our elected officials, since our Winner Take All political system doesn't allow representatives to express carefully nuanced positions or vocal opposition to controversial issues like free trade.
 
 
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As the clouds of tear gas dispersed over the streets of Seattle, one couldn' t help but wonder where all this dissent over the World Trade Organization came from. Certainly in booming economic times we have not heard much vocal opposition in our state and federal legislatures.In fact, no matter which political party has been at the helm, Democrats or Republicans, the U.S. government and corporations have been the world's primary boosters for globalization and the World Trade Organization. Unfortunately, the heat of debate usually has reduced the complexities of the issue to simplistic slogans and sound bites.While the nostrums of free trade, consumer choice and technological innovation have become the mantra of the times, our politics seem to be running headlong in the opposite direction -- toward less choice and less quality information. Campaigns have become increasingly negative, and legislative races increasingly noncompetitive. Third party efforts have had little chance of success.But what else should we expect from our Winner Take All system? Winner Take All elections are contested in one-on-one races where 51 percent wins everything and 49 percent wins nothing. This guarantees a two-party system where each side campaigns and governs by blaming the other side.In the carnivorous climate of Winner Take All, positions that question the promised land of globalization get chewed up. Even carefully nuanced positions expressing doubt or seeking compromise get chewed up. So do third parties like a Labor, Reform or Green Party that might offer voters a different kind of choice than the doo-wop chorus of the Democrats and Republicans.Without the presence of a political party whose candidates are explicitly pro-worker, the American labor movement has had little choice but to support the Democrats. This has left the Democratic Party under the leadership of Bill Clinton free to drift as far to the right as they dare. The mantle of speaking for the little guy in recent years has mostly fallen to the likes of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, with Democrats Dick Gephardt and David Bonior occasionally voicing opposition to their party leader, President Clinton.There has been some agitation for a Labor Party, but nascent efforts have not been promising, due to the toxic soil of Winner Take All. There have been over a thousand third parties in our 200 your history, but nearly all have quickly fallen into the dust bin of history because Winner Take All is so notoriously hostile to the success of third party efforts.Yet third parties are the laboratory for new ideas. Without them, controversial issues are mostly left on the political sidelines. Fresh ideas about globalization get strangled in the crib by Winner Take All's two-party duopoly.Instead, candidates feel compelled to campaign on safe issues, substituting simplistic slogans for complex issues that have been determined by polling and focus groups. The goal is to hone your campaign message to one that attracts swing voters, and then repeat that message like a mindless advertisement jingle.Thus, the Winner Take All dynamic contributes little to our understanding of complex issues like globalization and its impact on American workers or the environment. Fostering understanding and debate of issues related to globalization is simply not the way you win elections today when faced with the Winner Take All conundrum.And the major media, which is seemingly stuck on political coverage of the "horse race" aspect of campaigns, routinely ignore candidates who are judged unelectable, even if they are raising good ideas and issues -- like the downsides of globalization.Consequently, when fervent opposition to the World Trade Organization erupts in the streets, it looks as if it's coming from out of nowhere. But it's not. It's just that such a point of view so rarely wins representation in our Legislatures or is reported by the media.The story in Europe is quite different. There, instead of Winner Take All, they use forms of proportional representation that allow points of view and political parties from across the political spectrum to win representation. The European labor and environmental movements have used this effectively to build strong Social Democrat and Green Parties that have articulated an agenda questioning globalization and related issues like genetically modified foods and secrecy of the World Trade Organization.When President Clinton addressed the delegates of the World Trade Organization, he stated that the perspective espoused by the protesters should be listened to and included in their deliberations. If he is sincere, then he should consider a change of electoral rules in the U.S. that will allow that perspective to win representation in our legislatures.Try to imagine what our politics would look like if our legislatures mirrored the full range of opinions that exist in our society, not only on globalization, but a whole range of issues including health care, Social Security, education and more.Instead, with Winner Take all, we get simplistic sound bites and polarized politics. And national policy suffers as a result.Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He is co-author of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press 1999).