Primary Election Results Reflect Opposition to Free Trade, Challenging Elite Bipartisan Consensus

Posted March 16, 2016

MP3 Interview with Melinda St. Louis, international campaigns director with Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, conducted by Scott Harris


Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders upset win in Michigan’s March 8 primary, defied polls that predicted that he would lose to Hillary Clinton by 18 to 20 points. FiveThirty polling expert Nate Silver said Sander’s surprise win was “among the greatest polling errors in primary history."

With the steep loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs across America’s industrial heartland in recent decades, Sanders’ long history of opposition to free trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, resonated with many Democratic voters. Although Clinton recently came out in opposition to the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, or TPP, currently before Congress, the former secretary of state had supported the deal in remarks made in 2012, where she said the “TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements." In contrast, Bernie Sanders has consistently expressed the view that American workers should not be forced to compete against people in low-wage countries, such as China, Vietnam and Mexico.

While the Democratic party has long been divided on free trade issues, the majority of Republican politicians have reliably supported free trade deals. That’s why President Obama, who is pushing for passage of the TPP agreement is depending on GOP votes to win the day. Donald Trump’s opposition to free trade is another reason the billionaire real estate developer has attracted new voters to his campaign, defying Republican orthodoxy and angering the party’s establishment. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Melinda St. Louis, international campaigns director with Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, who examines the growing public opposition to free trade deals, which is now challenging the long-standing bipartisan elite consensus in support of free trade. (Rush transcript below.)

MELINDA ST. LOUIS: NAFTA, which was signed and came into force in 1994, we now have more than 20 years of experience of this experiment which was to create a so-called trade agreement, but to stuff it full of all these basically incentives for off-shoring of U.S. jobs in the name of "free trade." And what has happened is really a decimation of the U.S. manufacturing base in the era of NAFTA and other free trade agreements. One in four manufacturing jobs in the United States has been off-shored. That's five million jobs. That doesn't only affect the people who specifically lost their jobs when their plant closed and it shipped off to Mexico or even in to China,

but it actually created a downward pressure on all wages, because it undermined the ability of organized labor to bargain collectively when there's a threat a factory will leave; the service sector jobs that many people had to take after they lost these good manufacturing jobs – higher-paying manufacturing jobs – took pay cuts without benefits. And I think people in the heartland and all over, really, are feeling how what economists now agree that our U.S. trade policy has been a major contributing factor to the rise of income inequality in the United States.

People are hurting and I think that's what we're seeing in now in the context of the election.

BETWEEN THE LINES: In speaking about free trade as you've mentioned, there's an elite consensus in Washington D.C. that supports free trade. And you've got politicians of both parties supporting these free trade deals. What could you say about that elite consensus, and who are the primary beneficiaries of free trade when it comes to politicians, but maybe more importantly, the corporate elite that sponsor these politicians.

MELINDA ST. LOUIS: You know I mean, think it's one more example of unfortunately, the state of our democratic system where there is so much corporate money that is flowing into Washington. It's the big pharmaceutical company, the Wall Street firms that were able to sneak rules in the TPPP that undermine our ability to re-regulate after the crisis. And you see the drug company is expanding their monopolies, obviously the opposite of free trade. You see Hollywood trying to limit Internet freedom in the name of copyright. And you see tobacco companies trying to increase their tobacco trade, etc. And so those are the beneficiaries of this elite consensus, unfortunately at the expense of the rest of us.

BETWEEN THE LINES: We see the success of Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton and his staunch opposition of free trade deals. We also see a kind of ugly populism on the part of Donald Trump and his opposition to free trade, despite the fact that the Republican party has long stood in support of free trade. Are you optimistic that we will soon see a crumbling of the elite consensus that supports free trade deals?

MELINDA ST. LOUIS: Well, I certainly hope so and I think there are signs that it is happening. I think that there is an unprecedented coalition and campaign that is opposing the TPPP. I mean, we have been doing this work for years and we haven't seen this level of unity in terms of every trade union, environmental organizations, consumer groups, faith groups, women's groups, LGBT groups. Senior organizations that are really paying attention to this and are saying "No!"

So I think that's quite hopeful and I think that in some of the commentary that we've been seeing in the last few days, I think some of the economists are getting really worried that this elite consensus – there are some cracks there. In some ways, I think the level of opposition to this by some of the top candidates – before, I think that there were lip service paid because, again, they looked at the polling and they know people don't like this. But I think there are actually candidates now who are serious about not supporting this and the fact that that is resonating so much with the electorate, I think, you know it's a good time. It will take a lot of work because there's a lot of money as I mentioned behind pushing this agenda, and so we can't let up as a movement to make sure that we're educating people about this and holding our members of Congress' feet to the fire and really demand that they stand with their constituents on it.

For more information on Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, visit

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