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It's the Corporatists Versus the Populists

Trade bill: Forget about two ideologically different parties. When it comes to the big-money issues, they're on the same side.

May 24, 2000|MARC COOPER | Marc Cooper is a Los Angeles-based contributing editor to the Nation

There were the Teamsters and the "turtles," who met and mated at the WTO protests in Seattle last year. Now there's a new, even more freakish duo: the reactionaries and the reformers.

Just take a look at the news and the spectacle of conservative GOP Whip Tom "The Hammer" DeLay linking up with the man he vowed to oust from office, President Clinton, all in support of the White House push to extend permanent normal trade status to China. Also on board: the entirety of the right-wing GOP congressional leadership and a broad swath of liberal and moderate Democrats.

What's going on here? It's one of those rare freeze-frames that sharply reveal the authentic and deeply cynical nature of American politics. It reveals that the supposed divide between official liberals and conservatives is mostly an electoral ruse. The real gap in American politics is between corporatists--the overwhelming majority of legislators who respond to and defend the corporate special interests who underwrite their campaigns--and a small minority of populists who actually care what their citizen-constituents want.

Corporate America is investing multimillions in a lobbying push to pass the China deal through Congress. Visions not of democracy but of huge profits dance in the minds of the business lobby as they eye the cheap, government-repressed Chinese work force. Permanent trade status for China would remove the few remaining roadblocks preventing the full exploitation of that labor force by corporations now embarked in a global race to the bottom of the international wage market.

That's why those same business interests have poured millions into the pockets of liberals and conservatives alike. And that's why politicians usually at each others' throats over secondary issues like guns, abortions or school prayer find it so easy to hold hands and intone "Kumbaya" as they do the political bidding for their shared big-money backers.

Rather than two vigorously different major parties that offer fundamental alternatives, we have two corporate parties: a pro-life, pro-gun corporate party and a pro-choice, anti-gun corporate party. On the other side of this China issue, administration propaganda aside, is a citizens' coalition not of isolationist flat-Earth protectionists, but rather of labor, environmental and human rights advocates whose view is the one shared by an overwhelming majority of the American people. They argue that giving China a blank check on trade will lower living standards for both American and Chinese workers and simultaneously relieve the Beijing gerontocracy of any shard of international accountability. Yet while this citizen lobby has the backing of popular opinion, it has little money or clout compared to its corporate rivals.

Organized labor has stretched its resources in opposing the measure, but its efforts pale in contrast to the counter-pressure exerted by the deep-pockets Business Roundtable. Money talks. The people walk.

Consequently, on Capitol Hill, there is a beleaguered band of a few score of populists who dare to listen to and fight for the wishes and interests of the people they are elected to represent. They are mostly progressive Democrats, like the courageous Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, and a sprinkling of highly principled Republicans who resist--at a high price--the hammerings of DeLay and the rest of their leadership.

More important, these populists keep alive at least the faint memory of what a functioning democracy used to look like by rejecting the entreaties and threats of the big-money power brokers who have become our permanent and invisible government.

In this past few weeks, a lot of lip service has been paid to the notion of using trade to promote democracy in China. A nice idea. But as we watch DeLay/Clinton, Bush/Gore and the Business Roundtable glad-hand each other and chuckle over their agreement on China, we might be better served figuring out a way to, first, secure a whole lot more democracy here at home.

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