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The Old Left's new face in Congress

Friday, May 11, 2007 by Jeff

Anyone paying attention to the Democratic Party's new push for "A New Trade Policy for America?"

A couple of big shots in the party have been meeting privately with our Commander-In-Chief to hammer out an agreement that requires all future transnational trade agreements (e.g., those pending with Peru, Panama, Columbia, and South Korea) to include provisions that protect workers and the environment. (Here's a 1-pager outlining what those crazy left-wingers are pushing for). Well, it appears that Bush and Democratic leaders have tied the knot.

As the Center for American Progress (CAP) reports, the bipartisan compromise states:

Countries that sign trade agreements with the United States now must make fully enforceable commitments to respect the five basic international labor standards, as enshrined in the 1998 International Labor Organization Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work....

These five standards, if you're not versed in ILO policies, include rights to organize and bargain collectively, and prohibitions against child labor, forced labor, and workplace discrimination. That ain't half bad, that is if you can enforce compliance, something that has dogged the ILO for years. Why should we believe anything is going to change now? The article continues:

The compromise also calls for a new Strategic Worker Assistance and Training, or SWAT, initiative to deal more effectively with the negative impact of trade on the livelihoods of some Americans and their communities. Finally, it lays down important markers on areas of national concern that are substantially affected by global trade, such as environmental protection, port security, investor rights, government procurement, and developing countries’ access to life-saving medicines.

Finally! Someone's looking after investors. Whew! Ok, so there's nothing here about protecting women's rights, traditional cultures, sexual minorities, people of color, prisoners, political prisoners, prisoners of war, the mentally ill, seniors, the un- (or under-) employed, or preventing inequities that drive illegal immigration. Hell, maybe we should just be thankful that the workers of the world are finally on the road to meaningful recognition and that environmental protection is riding shotgun. Too much too quickly is probably just asking for trouble.

Trouble is exactly what Bush and his new Democratic bedfellows allies are facing with this new agreement.

In the Left corner we have David Sirota at TomPaine.com. He raises concerns that the U.S. won't be held to the very standards that it's imposing on other nations, that Dems had to agree to give up a substantial degree of Congressional oversight of future trade deals in order to seal the deal with Bush. Although, Sirota notes, there's no way to know for sure because the details of the deal have been kept suspiciously shrouded. Others, notably the Teamsters and the United Steel Workers, contend that these protections still don't address what free trade agreements are so good at, sending jobs oversees.

In the right corner we have Dan Ikenson of the Cato Institute. He worries that trade agreements now on the table may fall apart, and that the inability of poorer countries to meet the stricter requirements will lead to new sanctions and tariffs that will interfere with the smooth functioning of the market. Some of those precarious trade agreements have already been signed but would require those countries to agree to the new provisions. South Korea's chief negotiator delicately put it this way:

There is no change in our government's stance that there is no renegotiation on the Korea-U.S. FTA [free trade agreement].

It seems that The Middle is compromising the Right and Left right out of the picture. With respect to the stakeholders in this deal - labor and big business - Bush and the Democratic leadership clearly decided it would be better to ask forgiveness rather than permission.

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The dangers of trans-beltway organizing

Sunday, May 06, 2007 by Jeff

As Congress squares off on proposals to de-fund the war and bring the troops home, the NY Times reports that the antiwar movement is finding success by moving away from social movement strategies.

“The principle under which we’ve been operating is more like a political campaign,” Mr. Matzzie said....

The discussion at the retreat mirrored that of planning meetings for traditional political campaigns, with presentations on polling, strategy and field operations....

“The whole movement has updated themselves to be where campaign-style politics are generally,” said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic strategist. “They’re just incredibly savvy, tactically and politically. They know how to use the news cycle.”

Finally! Those idealistic do-gooders are beginning to wake up and realize that sit-ins, marches, and other acts of civil disobedience aren't getting them anywhere. Welcome to Washington, kids!

Wait...hang on a second. Maybe - now just bear with me for a second here - maybe its the Washington insiders who are warming up to social movement strategies?

Many of the major players in Americans Against Escalation in Iraq earned their stripes not from sit-ins, marches and other acts of civil disobedience but as Democratic operatives on Capitol Hill and in political campaigns. The sophisticated political operation they have built is a testament to how far the antiwar movement has come since the Vietnam era.

Cha-ching! But this is really nothing new. Social movements have long worked with political elites who sought to strengthen their own political capital with claims to be the voice of the people. Sociologists have argued that social movements gain political leverage when they throw their numbers and organizational weight behind one or the other political faction in a time of heightened political division (as we are seeing now, especially with election season in full swing).

It's probably more accurate to say that the antiwar movement and Democratic insiders are both taking steps toward the other. The result is a tenuous, trans-beltway coalition being pulled in two directions toward their respective fields, and we should not be surprised by disagreements over goals and tactics.

“There’s a dividing line between those groups who feel the most important thing is to be clear on bringing the troops home as soon as possible, and the groups that feel that unity within the Democratic Party is most important and the most important thing is for the Democrats to win the White House,” said Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of Code Pink, an antiwar group that is not part of the alliance. “So the groups who feel the most important thing is to win the White House would naturally be more inclined to listening to Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she says the only way we can get a vote through is if we water it down.”

Watering down issues has long been the province of large, bureaucratic organizations (like political parties) bent more on survival than achieving their stated goals. If Democratic Party survival - e.g., in the next election - remains tied to opposing the war, as it has within the last year, then we should see more trans-beltway organizing. However, as Democrats begin to stake their political territory in the presidential race we are likely to see greater divisions (more frequent, though not necessarily more pronounced) and an increasing diversity of proposals about how to best end the war. This doesn't bode well for their social movement pals.

Social movements, for their part, include a range of organizations that range from living room meetings of neighbors planning banner-hangs and mock funerals to massive non-profit organizations housed in DC making personal visits to congressional leaders. Movements aren't centrally coordinated so they are more likely to develop factions and break apart. Each organization's position vis-a-vis the political field shapes the nature and timing of its response (if any) to changes in that field. The longer the Dems drag out the antiwar debate and as the election draws nearer, social movements (and coalitions like Americans Against Escalation in Iraq) are likely to feel increasing pressures pulling them both into and out of electoral politics. The larger, bureaucratic organizations will tend to cozy up to the party while smaller, decentralized organizations will cling firmly to their strident rhetoric of ending the war immediately.

This same dynamic has led to the collapse of many a social movement, as "moderates" clamor to get inside the beltway while "radicals" are increasingly marginalized, repressed, and driven to failure. Is it inevitable? Can the antiwar coalition maintain momentum with support both inside and outside the beltway? This article by a Boston University historian about congressional opposition to the Vietnam War suggests that we've been here before and party politics, albeit "sophisticated" and "saavy," is at best a very slow process. Ten years before the end of that war, Congress was debating and passing legislation to stop funding it. So I ask you, should the antiwar movement be moving closer to electoral politics?

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Jeff A. Larson
Sociologist, Arizona.


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