Donald Trump once said that we would no longer “surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.” Globalism, free trade, internationalism—they are nothing and everything, shapeshifting boogeymen that have helped us in many ways and ruined us in so many others. For the time being, they are a lost cause. We liberals must reject the false song of globalism. Our path is simple: adopt economic populism.
Starting symbolically with NAFTA in the 1990s, governments began signing massive trade deals at an astonishing rate. These deals promised to raise up every American and person on earth; we wrapped the narrative of free trade in luxurious promises of growth and progress. But then the factories closed. Never mind that it was technology and automation, the new boogeymen, that were truly the cause. Small towns that once supported themselves were now stagnant. Their economic livelihood was pulled out from beneath them like tablecloth under silverware. When the first signs of cracks in the armor appeared, our leaders ignored them. We melded into the world, becoming ever more interdependent and globalized.
Instead of slamming the brakes on this false song, governments pushed the globalist agenda even harder. NAFTA, TPP, KORUS, all backed with false promises. China joined the WTO with our prodding and promptly took advantage of us. We relinquished our status as a manufacturing Mecca to be the gluttonous, debt-ridden consumers of today. Forget the fact that these deals meant cheaper products; does anyone care how cheap their goods are when they have no jobs? When their towns, once buzzing, now were empty blocks of small businesses with “For Sale” signs on them? Is it so wrong for middle America to be resentful of the fact that they no longer produce? Their lives have shifted (seemingly) overnight, and their work now is a phantasm that lives, if not in another country with someone making 1/10th of their salary, then in the moving gears of a machine.
We never heeded their warnings or reacted to their concerns. We focused on foreign wars, education reform, and bank bailouts, while our inability to see the domestic, micro effects of economic interdependence became our undoing. We never once considered the fallout, economic and political, of progress. Labor unions, once our only chance to slow down the disastrous effects of such economic interdependence, are in ruin; our side of the aisle did nothing. We gutted our safety nets just when we would need them most—it was, after all, a certain Democratic president in the 1990s that said “the era of big government is over.”
Now, with smug looks, all I hear are academics and the elites saying “This was going to happen anyway,” or “You can’t stop globalization and technological progress.” It is all “structural”, a necessity of “economic progress.” Are we so blind and elitist that we delude ourselves to the political consequences of these policies? Do we really think that telling millions of families in flyover country that their jobs were going to disappear no matter what is an adequate response? That is one of the fundamental splits in today’s America: a discord between our elites and the mass public. The former stands to gain immensely from globalization, and the latter gains only in that what they buy is cheaper. Cheaper goods are not economic livelihood. They are not all that matters—jobs do. Economic security matters. A decent life, not subject to the ebb and flow of a global economy, matters.
The failure of the American Left in 2016 was not due to the American people rejecting liberal policies—it was the consequence of continuing to preach the false song of globalism. We went full speed into an interdependent world without policies to help those who would feel the unequal effects of globalization. People began to resent globalism, slowly and gradually. It is too late now. We cannot carry the flag of globalism anymore. The idea is toxic—it is combined with feelings of lost sovereignty, political correctness, and economic stagnation. The longer we rally around that damned idea, the longer we lose.
The fight in today’s world is not between right-wing and left-wing policies. It is between populism and elitist globalism. The former benefits the many at the expense of the few; the latter, the few at the expense of the many. Brexit, Donald Trump, and Marine Le Pen are the first things people name when thinking of the rise of populism. This could easily make one think that populism is a right-wing phenomenon, but one can also think of examples on the left. Syriza in Greece and Podemos and Ciudadanos in Spain are center-left/far left populist parties. They have seized millions of votes because they are responding to the new reality of our world.
Bernie Sanders and his insurgent campaign nearly rid our Democratic Party of the globalist agenda that stains it, inspiring millions of young people and Americans all over the country to join the political revolution. Populism on both sides of the aisle has returned. When we, the left, adopt it—hope, American pride, and economic populism—we will win again. The left and Democrats can do it without the disgrace of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia so commonplace in right-wing populism. We must shed our corporatist, globalist skin and emerge a leaner, grassroots-oriented party. Do not fear populism—adopt it.
Adopting economic populism means slamming the brakes on globalization for now, until we have quelled the anger that surges through our citizenry. We must bite the bullet and do things that hurt temporarily, because it is the only way you show your people—now suspicious of your every move, concerned, rightfully, with their well-being—that you are on their side. The transition to an interdependent world is chaotic and painful, and we have done nothing to minimize it. Why else did Donald Trump win? Wasn’t he the only Republican that saw the growing anger? Meanwhile, on our side a corrupt, globalist, corporatist party leadership shut down our best chance to win the last election. Democratic leaders conspired against our chance to champion populism and once again picked up the flags that would lead to our ruin. We now know the result of that—a rotting carcass of a party without control of almost any governorships, almost any state legislatures, and the White House or Congress. If we win in 2018 and 2020, it is because Donald Trump was an incompetent champion of populism—not because people rejected populism. It is here to stay.
Once we have joined the populist movement and shown the people that we are truly on their side, we can begin again with a reformed view of globalization, scaled back, better marketed and better equipped to deal with the inevitable disruptions it will cause to the way of life of millions of people. Until that can happen, however, I urge us to embrace populism. We must reject massive trade deals and listen to concerns about our loss of sovereignty to massive governmental organizations. We should become a party that is for the people—all people.
There is nothing wrong with saying that your country comes first. Say it with me: America First. America the diverse, America the tolerant, America the free, America the compassionate—but America First. America must produce and America must provide for its own. That’s how we will win again as a new, populist left.
Podemos in Spain is an insurgent populist party. Podemos in Spanish means ‘we can’. But there is one word that better describes the choice of winning with populism or losing with globalism. I warn us all, if we want to win again, with debemos—simply, ‘we should’.
Figure 1 source: http://www.epi.org/publication/briefingpapers_bp147/
Featured image courtesy of Getty Images.