Free Trade and the Democrats

Two comments from a thread on Matt Yglesias (edited to stand alone, more or less).

Matt is a standard knee-jerk free-trade Democrat. My points below are, first, that while free trade is not the only bad thing or even the worst thing to happen to labor in the last 23 years, it’s part of a larger anti-labor pattern; and second, that many of those hurt by free trade are part of the Democratic core, and that to remain viable as a party the Democrats have to take care of their constituents. If they were going to support free trade because it’s a good thing “on the average”, they should have extracted concessions to soften the blow. They knew this, they wanted to do this, and they failed. We’re living with the consequences, and the party is weakened.

An example of a concession: make education more accessible. Retrain Americans for well-paying jobs. But education is becoming less accessible, not more.

The degree of contempt that middle-class white Democrats feel for the Democratic core constituencies (“can’t pander to them!”) is really appalling.


Yes, it was very wise of the Democrats to hurt one of their major constituencies. It really strengthened the party for its future battles. Certainly it would be wrong if Democrats actually represented (“pandered to”) its constituents. And labor knows, deep down in its heart, that the Dems would have liked to have done some things to make the transition easier, retrain displaced workers, make education more accessible for their children, etc., and that it’s not the Dems fault that that part of the bargain wasn’t kept.

None of the statistics whizzes on Brad DeLong’s site ever gave a specific number on the “few” Americans who have been hurt by free trade, leading me to suspect that nobody cared much how many they were, and that nobody wanted to ask that question for fear of finding that the “few” were indeed far too many.

I think that part of the indifference here comes from a disdain for the kind of corny, tacky,people labor is thought to consist of. The Democrats seem to have become the smart yuppie party.

The unanimity about free trade is among media people, Democratic political pros, donors to the Democratic party, and rich Republicans. Not among voters, especially not Democratic voters. (Given the overwhelming free-trade buzz coming from the media, stated opinions about free trade are not necessarily well-informed, but support for free trade is only about 50% even so.) So the Democratic party leadership has got itself into a position where a significant proportion of its own constituents are enemies not to be trusted. That’s not a recipe for political strength, I don’t think.

Certainly the Democrats’ self-sacrifice was a noble one, though, as we move on our way toward the one-party state. Economically, averaging across the whole population, free trade may be as good as you said, but politically it was suicidal.

Talking to Democratic pros I’ve always met intense resistance to the idea of finding new support among those who seldom vote. Non-voters are most common among people near the poverty line — the people who used to be represented by Democrats, but who are now essentially unrepresented. But to recruit them you’d have to make an effort, spend money, and make a solid offer of some kind of concrete benefit. And within the neo-conservative / neoliberal consensus, you can’t do that.


Politics (as opposed to economics) is like an activity in which general-good lump benefits averaged out over the whole population are less significant than the particular outcomes impacting specific individuals and groups, since it’s individuals who vote and they’re often recruited as group members.

Economists and lumpen-utilitarians all condemn politics and essentially dream of a politics-free world, but politics can give a voice to minorities who would otherwise be steamrollered. In our present situation, small minorities who have large amounts of money are well represented indeed, whereas much, much larger minorities such as industrial labor have been abandoned. (Matt himself is completely deaf to the losers, if the utilitarian calculation comes out positive on the average).

Right now Matt and Brad DeLong are explaining that the bad things happening right now are not the result of free trade, but are for other reasons. Fine, but when the Dems joined the Republicans in a bipartisan free-trade policy, they should have gotten a quid pro quo on the “other reasons”. They failed to do so, and now we’re screwed. Free trade is only part of the long-term (since 1980) national anti-labor policy which the Democrats have been unable to resist. And the other aspects of this anti-labor policy affect everyone working for a paycheck, not just industrial labor.

When the party leadership has the degree of hostility to its core constituency (can’t pander to them!) that the Democrats do, it’s no surprise if the party is weak.