The politics of American free trade and how it shapes our elections

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While many are discussing the economic effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, few are talking about its political effects. To fully grasp the impact of this trade deal, we must understand how the original NAFTA negotiations influenced the 2016 election and, over time, helped sever trade policy from democratic intervention.

Activists knew in the early 1990s that NAFTA was primarily about democracy, not trade per se. For the last 25 years, trade has been a proxy for the decay of democratic institutions and practices, and an epicenter of the battles to preserve them. In the decades prior to 1993, international trade policy was a non-issue politically. North Americans did not discuss trade at the dinner table, and activists did not demonstrate against it. NAFTA changed all that.

{mosads}Trade captured all the tension and ambivalences about globalization, and NAFTA was its concrete manifestation. When negotiations began, activists, many of whom were working class and union members, realized that crucial issues were at stake beyond the narrowly economic. NAFTA would affect not only jobs, but also the environment, consumer goods, health, food, medicine, and human rights. They formed a trinational coalition to push for fair and ethical trade.

Initially, many activists and their organizations worked with legislators and both the Bush and Clinton administrations to try to improve NAFTA. They were able to mobilize and advocate in large part because they had significant, though by no means total, access to key government policymakers, and to information about the government’s negotiating positions and strategies. Trade officials sought the participation and comment of civil society organizations, primarily to gauge minimal conditions necessary for passage, and congressional hearings solicited public input.

Despite losing the NAFTA war, activists won significant battles. They increased the public consciousness on trade, mobilized new constituencies against it, and pressured negotiators to change their position by including labor and environmental protections in NAFTA. Their cultural reframing stuck. We cannot now uncouple trade from labor, the environment, and myriad other issues. This is how we think about trade today, and that framing diffused across the globe, with activists around the world adopting it and demanding labor and environmental protections in trade agreements that their governments negotiate.

Anti-NAFTA activists effectively politicized trade policy for the first time in history. No U.S. president since has been able to negotiate and get passed a free trade agreement of greater economic and political significance. Activists pushing back against NAFTA did not go unnoticed by the government. The NAFTA vote was close, and negotiators were forced to make concessions that they vowed from the beginning they would not make. In an effort to thwart opposition to trade policy after NAFTA, presidential administrations and their trade officials adjusted to the new politicization of trade by undermining transparency and public participation. They limited access to trade officials, conducted negotiations in secret and prevented dissemination of draft documents and positions, even among members of Congress.

The government’s clandestine trade policy approach reached its zenith under the Obama administration, which treated negotiation texts as classified information. The effect was to completely thwart the kind of opposition mounted during NAFTA’s negotiation and to make it nearly impossible for citizens to influence trade policy in meaningful ways. The lack of access by activists to information after NAFTA changed the strategies they have used to fight against trade agreements since. Rather than try to improve them, activists have largely tried to kill trade agreements whole cloth by electing and developing allies in Congress and the White House.

This strategy of electing anti-trade politicians backfired during the 2016 presidential election. Although unions and progressive organizations tried to rally support for Hillary Clinton, a small but significant number of working class voters, particularly those in key Midwestern states who had been left behind by trade, adopted a similar zero-sum strategy. They chose the anti-trade Republican candidate who promised to bring back their jobs and reinvigorate manufacturing, rather than the Democratic candidate who had supported free trade for most of her career and had helped negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. Others simply stayed home and refused to vote.

NAFTA killed jobs, but its effect on democracy was even more insidious. Now, one year on, the 2016 backlash against globalization makes it clear that our failure to preserve democratic processes and institutions carries not just significant economic consequences, but significant political fallout as well. A myopic focus on what is renegotiated in NAFTA rather than on how it is renegotiated misses its key lesson: All kinds of policies, from climate change and health care to immigrant and human rights, are vulnerable to democratic severing if we do not remain vigilant and active citizens.

Tamara Kay is associate professor of global affairs and sociology in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of “Trade Battles: Activism and the Politicization of International Trade Policy” and “NAFTA and the Politics of Labor Transnationalism.”

Tags Democracy economy Election Hillary Clinton Politics Trade United States

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