Via Rod, I see that Michael Lind is warning that the Democrats are oblivious to the rise of economic populist sentiment in the country and that this might spell their political doom. It would be more accurate to say that the President has been oblivious to this, because he has tended to hew more to the establishment’s free trade, pro-globalization views. Congressional Democrats have been tapping into it for years, and it was an important part of their victories in 2006 and 2008. This is the point Sirota has been making. Huckabee flirted with the phrase “fair trade” and was attacked ferociously from almost every side of the conservative movement. There is a reason elected Midwestern Republicans are fast becoming as endangered as New England Republican officeholders, and much of it has to do with the fate of domestic manufacturing in these states. Even if it is true that only a third of jobs lost in this sector are the result of trade agreements, that is still an enormous number of jobs, and it has largely been the GOP, much more than the Democrats (whose leaders, it is true, are far from blameless), who have been singing hallelujah to the river god of “creative destruction” for the last twenty years. It has overwhelmingly been the Republicans in Congress who have been railing against the “Buy American” provisions in the stimulus, and it was their former presidential candidate who tried and miserably failed to introduce an alternative bill that had stripped out all of these provisions. At present, the provisions remain in the bill, but as I discuss in the new column in this issue there is still a danger that they will be stripped out before final passage. Obama has not shown signs yet that he will heed ideological calls for a veto of the bill if these provisions remain in place, but he has also hardly been a defender of the provisions. However, if the public is going to blame anyone for the removal of these provisions it is hard to see why they would not pin the blame on the party most of them already dislike, namely the GOP.
As a matter of electoral politics, it is insane that the GOP refuses to tap into economic populist sentiment, which is hardly limited only to working and middle-class voters after the last year, but this is a function of the structure of the party. Cultural populism, especially the empty posturing sort, is good for mobilizing voters and it does not for the most part threaten the status of GOP elites, because they tend not to be cultural elites. Directing the ire of your voters against academics, bureaucrats, journalists and entertainers is fairly easy when most of the targets are already on the other side. When your party exists primarily to serve the interests of corporations, it doesn’t matter to you what your voters think about trade policy, because your party is not going to support the trade policy that your voters want in any case. The GOP cannot capitalize on any unpopular moves that the administration makes in this area because they have strong disincentives to go down the populist road and most, with the exception of some House members such as Duncan Hunter, have zero credibility on this issue.
During the campaign, I was frequently amused to read arguments that claimed the election pitted an advocate of globalism against a defender of American exceptionalism. My question was always this: which one is which? In economic and immigration policy, no one was more of a globalist than McCain. Because of Democratic labor constituencies, Obama at least had to go through the motions of pretending that domestic industry and labor were important, but he was largely on board with most free trade agreements. As Lind’s piece suggests, the leadership of both parties is hostile or at least unresponsive to populist concerns, but it is the Democrats who have the opportunity to exploit rising anti-globalization sentiment in the country. The GOP had their chance in the ’90s and again when they controlled both Congress and the White House, and they blew it both times. Maybe they will have a third chance, but it seems improbable.
During the Republican primaries, Huckabee made some noises that caused a few people to think that he had Buchananite instincts (this was normally not a friendly observation), but actual Buchananites could see that his appeal to working and middle-class voters on trade and the economy was its own kind of pose. Just as national Republicans like to ham it up and pretend that they are just like culturally conservative, small-town folks, Huckabee put on an act that he would challenge free trade ideology, but this was purely symbolic economic populism that his critics mistook for the real thing. Huckabee caused most of the activists in the conservative movement to break out in hives; an actual protectionist candidate would send them screaming from the room. It is not just that there are huge obstacles to economic populism taking root in the GOP, but there is also the directly related problem that there just aren’t any viable candidates who can articulate these arguments with any credibility. Anyone who has wanted to make his way in Republican politics with any success has learned that free trade is one of the unquestionably good things that he must support, so even if some leading Republican were now to position himself opportunistically as a critic of NAFTA, the WTO or free trade generally it would be an exercise in posturing and would be seen as such.