In the campaign of 2016, Bernie Sanders offered a progressive critique of our economic/political system that resonated with a broad swath of the electorate. He articulated things that many of us had been thinking for a long time, and did it in a way that cut through the white noise of political discourse.
He did a lot of things right. There’s one thing he got wrong — well, let’s say he got it partly right — and as it turned out, that one thing may have made a crucial difference for Donald Trump.
Bernie’s analysis of trade and domestic job losses focused mainly on one element: international trade agreements.
He’s about one-fourth right. We’ll get to the other three-fourths in a bit.
His simplified message proved very powerful in his fight for the Democratic nomination, and was a core argument in his case against Hillary Clinton. But afterward, it became a potent weapon in the Trump arsenal. One could argue it won him the election, since his extremely narrow victories in Rust Belt states were due to economic anxiety focused on those evil trade deals.
The argument was a natural for Trump, because it aimed the anger at the government instead of the wealthy and large corporations. It was not them but the government, embodied in Hillary Clinton, that screwed up our economy by giving away the store to the likes of China and Mexico.
This idea crystallized in my mind after reading two articles on why the Northeast Kingdom went overwhelmingly for Trump. VTDigger’s Jasper Craven and Seven Days’ Mark Davis describe an economically depressed region desperate for change. (Of any kind except renewable energy, that is.) Both reporters note that the NEK went strongly for Barack Obama and reliably supports Bernie Sanders.
Which made me ponder: how on earth could the same folks vote for a Brooklyn socialist, a black Democrat, and a plutocrat? One common factor is anti-establishment feeling, expressed this year as fierce opposition to global trade.
Craven leans heavily on the thoughts of Chet Greenwood, an executive at the Ethan Allen furniture company and chair of the Orleans County Republican Committee. (He was also a Trump delegate to the Republican convention, although Craven doesn’t mention that.)
Greenwood asserted that “Trump would bring good jobs back to America by renegotiating the North America Free Trade Agreement.” And presumably canceling the dreaded Trans-Pacific Partnership, whose initials became synonymous with government perfidy.
Which, yeah, I hope he’s not holding his breath on that one. Redoing NAFTA would require the assent of the other nations involved. Plus, all Trump’s big-business friends have no interest in trade barriers of any sort.
And besides all that, rewriting or canceling the treaty will simply not bring back all those jobs. America’s working-class woes can be partly blamed on trade treaties, but there are other, equally (or more) powerful forces at work. To wit:
— Automation has made all businesses more efficient. They can do more with fewer workers, especially in manufacturing and other blue-collar sectors. They can also simplify the jobs, so workers are much more interchangeable. Those pre-robot jobs ain’t coming back, no matter what.
— The war on organized labor, conducted in full force since Ronald Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers, has dramatically reduced the bargaining power of workers.
Those two factors began to hit the working and middle classes long before NAFTA was a fever dream in, apparently, Hillary Clinton’s head. For instance, the auto industry took full advantage of automation, and aggressively moved operations to non-union areas of the US as well as other countries. This process started in the 1970s, and was in full force by the time NAFTA was enacted in 1994. The twin cudgels of automation and Southsourcing turned the United Auto Workers into a shadow of its former self before the first trade deal allowed the first job to cross into Mexico.
— American tax policy has actually rewarded offshoring and other corporate tactics that lower domestic employment.
And actually, in many areas of our economy, the dreaded trade agreements have had a positive impact. Many sectors have grown. But the rewards and the pain are not equally distributed; rural areas, the Rust Belt, and the manufacturing sector have been hit hardest.
The problem is not with the trade deals per se; it’s with our inadequate efforts to create new opportunities to those who’ve been negatively impacted.
Perhaps that’s a bridge too far for some readers to swallow. So let’s stick with this simple truth: Bernie Sanders oversimplified the problem of working- and middle-class stagnation by framing it largely as a function of giveaway trade deals. This focused the attention on the failings of the public sector instead of the predations of the rich and corporate.
That simplification turned the usually boring subject of trade policy into a hot-button issue, but also made it a bespoke weapon in the tiny hands of Donald Trump.