Triumphantly, America's Left Betrays Itself (Again)


National Journal, April 1, 2000

Post-Reagan, post-Gingrich, post-McCain, post-everything, the American conservative movement is a wreck. Only the American progressive movement can save it. Conservatives, fear not. Help is on the way.

American conservatives have been blessed with a Left that has a peculiar genius for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Again and again progressives have conquered the moral high ground, only to charge right past it. Utopian socialists ended up making excuses for Stalinism. The civil rights movement began as a campaign for equality under the law, then morphed seamlessly into a campaign for racial preferences and bloodline quotas. A brave stand against the barbarisms of American justice turned into a reluctance to blame and punish criminals. Welfare began as a means to independence for the poor and became an end in itself. The defense of dissent and minority opinion turned into campus thought police and mandatory sensitivity training.

In all those cases, the Left made the same mistake. It lost its patience and took shortcuts. Each time, it betrayed its own best principles. Now it is doing so again.

Late last year, progressive activists took aim at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. By placing 40,000 protesters in the streets and hundreds of activists and lobbyists in the hallways, they helped create the aura of chaos in which the meeting collapsed. And they scored a political breakthrough when President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore endorsed their goal of using the WTO to establish labor standards in developing countries.

Last month, a second breakthrough. Cities, counties, and other litigants are laying siege to American gun manufacturers, as they had successfully done to tobacco companies. On March 17, Smith & Wesson, the largest of the manufacturers, surrendered, agreeing to a variety of restrictions sought by anti-gun activists. Progressives had been no match for the gun lobby in Congress, but they walloped it in the courts.

Both breakthroughs are tactical triumphs for progressives. But both triumphs are toxic: not just to gun companies or maquiladoras, but to the Left itself.

Ralph Nader, the most important American progressive of the post-World War II period, drew his strength from embracing democratic values, where so often the European Left had chosen corporatism and class warfare. Giant concentrations of wealth and private power were dangerous not because they oppressed a proletariat, but because they were unaccountable to the people. Here is a typical Naderism from his 1976 book Taming the Giant Corporation (written with Mark Green and Joel Seligman): "There is something profoundly undemocratic about a 'corporate state' run by only a few without the informed consent and participation of the many."

In America today, the most powerful challenge to democratic accountability comes not from the Christian Right or the WTO or "soft money." It comes from trial lawyers who join forces with government officials to sue industries and extract policy changes and taxes that the legislative process rejects. Wendell Gauthier, a leading anti-tobacco lawyer, told The Washington Post not long ago: "Where lobbying has gotten so intense and money has gotten so great that they can't legislate, I think legislatures need our help."

By helping the legislatures, the lawyers help themselves. The lawyers representing Florida, Mississippi, and Texas in the tobacco suits were awarded $8.2 billion in fees. That's billion, with a B. Not surprisingly, lawyers are now eager to be helpful on many, many other contentious issues of public policy.

Rather more surprising is that the progressive movement should be eager to help them help. True, anti-smoking and anti-gun groups had reason to be impatient with the legislative process (though, equally true, the momentum had shifted in their favor). Now, however, a peculiar thing has happened. Suddenly the American Left is on the side of fantastically wealthy private actors who are accountable to no one.

Who elected these lawyers to help legislatures? What will they do next, helpfully, with their billions? If lawyers file and finance lawsuits against an unpopular industry and then channel billions of dollars of booty back into government treasuries, while also channeling millions more into soft-money donations to political parties, how is that any less corrupting than when chemical companies make PAC contributions in exchange for tax breaks?

The most interesting question of all, perhaps, is this: If the Left ceases to be a counterweight to huge concentrations of unaccountable private wealth and power, of what earthly use is it? And what will remain of its credibility if its best friends are billionaire lawyers? Answers: none, and not much.

Meanwhile, in the past few years, more than 100 college campuses across the country have erupted in anti-sweatshop protests—the biggest wave of social activism on campuses since apartheid. In Seattle, the crusade for labor standards in poor countries reached full cry. Progressives say that the Third World is home to too many low-wage factory jobs ("sweatshops"), too many school-age children working 12-hour shifts, too much pollution. All unquestionably true.

But economic development takes time; the only way out of poverty is through it, by means of trade with wealthier countries. Without trade, the real-world choice for poor countries is between child labor and something worse.

In March, The Post asked a poor Brazilian peasant whether he felt exploited by the farm owner who employs his school-age children. "Just the opposite," he replied. "If my children didn't work with me, we would have to go hungry." In Honduras, labor unions oppose bans on child labor. "This country is not the United States," one labor organizer told The New York Times. "Very few Honduran mothers can afford the luxury of feeding children until they are 18 years old without putting them to work." In response to U.S complaints, noted The Times, members of the Honduran Maquiladora Association stopped hiring workers under 16. "But that does not mean the dismissed youngsters are returning to school," reported The Times. "On the contrary, management and labor agree that most of the children have instead sought new jobs outside the assembly sector that are lower paying and more physically demanding."

This is not to say that countries shouldn't have labor standards (or environmental standards). It is to say that for rich countries to decide what those standards should be, and then use access to their markets as a bludgeon, is to present poor countries with a choice: Raise your unemployment or we will do it for you.

Confronted with this sort of compassion, Third World leaders have reacted with a kind of raw anti-American anger not seen in the developing world since the 1970s. In January, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo announced icily that "forces from the extreme Left, the extreme Right, environmentalist groups, trade unions of developed countries, and some self-appointed representatives of civil society are gathering around a common endeavor: to save the people of developing countries from development." He added: "We should be very suspect of their motives."

A momentous change lurks in those words. For decades, Third Worlders have regarded progressives in the developed world as their natural allies. Not any more. Youssef Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian trade minister, demanded in Seattle to know "why, all of a sudden, when Third World labor has proved to be competitive, why do industrial countries start feeling concerned about our workers?" Nondiplomats were not as diplomatic. In the South China Morning Post, one writer called the Seattle activists "rich bullies … determined to maintain their lifestyle fetishes." In Salon, an Indian likened the protesters to Marie Antoinette, "saying let them have cake."

It is perfectly understandable for American unions to crusade against Third World "sweatshops"; that is where their members' interests lie. But the Left's credibility depends on its claim to speak for the poor, not necessarily for unionized American workers (who are privileged by global standards). Albeit with the best of intentions, progressives have made a choice. They have chosen a grand new crusade that pits them against the poor of the world.

For the Left, the short-term benefits of joining with trial lawyers and unions are spectacular. The long-term costs will be equally spectacular. When the Left puts itself on the wrong side of democracy vs. oligarchy, or rich vs. poor, it cuts off its moral oxygen. In a few years, discerning progressives will slap their foreheads and say, "What, exactly, were we thinking when we empowered a class of billionaire lawyers who took governing into their own hands and split the take with politicians? How did we manage to make sworn enemies of our natural constituency, the world's poor?" But by then it will be too late. The Right will be ascendant again.