The Progressive Populist Moment Has Arrived

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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