From Seattle to the Campaign Trail
by John Nichols
October 16, 2003
“We’re supposed to think globally and act locally, right? Well, then it makes sense that we should start campaigning locally. The other side, the corporate side, runs candidates for every office from city council to president. We have to start doing the same thing if we’re going to change the political debate on globalization.”
-- Adam Benedetto, Green candidate for Dane County Sheriff, Wisconsin
When tens of thousands of activists marched into the streets of Seattle on November 30, 1999, to protest against the World Trade Organization’s policies, April Fairfield was in the thick of it. She had come, like other labor, farm, environmental, and human rights activists from around the world, with the intent of preventing the WTO from extending free-trade policies that had ravaged economies from India to her home state of North Dakota. With the WTO preparing to launch a new round of corporate-sponsored trade “liberalization”—focusing in particular on the agricultural economy that still defines the lives of her family, friends and neighbors in the farm country of America’s upper Midwest—Fairfield knew that on that day her place was in the streets. She recognized not just the value but also the necessity of raising banners and loud voices to stop programs that would devastate farm families not just in the U.S. but also around the world.
April Fairfield recognized something else as well. She understood that the energy, the excitement and the effectiveness of the 1999 protests in Seattle—which succeeded in delaying the start of the WTO’s Millennium Round of trade expansion—needed to be taken back home to places like her hometown of Eldridge, N.D. And she understood that one of the best ways to do that was by making globalization a political issue. So she went home and did just that.
Fairfield translated complex information about trade and globalization into the grassroots language of farmers and townsfolk in communities like Melville, Medina, Streeter and Spiritwood Lake. In her position as a policy analyst for the North Dakota Farmers Union, she gathered information from Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and other consumer and farm groups in the U.S. and abroad to produce “Free Trade Myths and Realities,” a booklet distributed to farmers statewide. She traveled the back roads of her sparsely populated state, talking about how corporate agribusiness was using trade policy to force farmers from Bangalore to Bismark to accept a top-down, bottom-line-uber-alles vision of agriculture; characterized by the introduction of genetically-modified seeds and intense pressure on rural families to abandon traditional farming practices that preserve the land.
In 2002, State Senator Terry Wanzek, the conservative Republican chairman of North Dakota’s Interim Agriculture Committee, refused to support a moratorium on the introduction of transgenic wheat by Monsanto, the agribusiness conglomerate that is in the forefront of the push to genetically modify the world’s food supply. That was the last straw for Fairfield, who announced she would challenge Wanzek and the corporations he represented. Fairfield ran as a candidate of North Dakota’s Democratic/Non-Partisan League Party—a hybrid of the Democrats and an old radical populist organization with a history of fighting for farmers and workers—in 2002, a year when Democrats generally ran ill-defined and ineffective campaigns. But there was nothing ill defined or ineffective about Fairfield’s campaign. Her determination to bring the globalization debate home to North Dakota turned the contest into one of the highest profile legislative races in the American Midwest. And it didn’t hurt that she brought the in-your-face, anti-corporate message of Seattle to the campaign trail. “Frankly, I don’t trust Monsanto to make decisions on behalf of our farmers and ranchers,” Fairfield bluntly declared.
The message worked. In a year when Democrats suffered serious setbacks in most of the U.S., April Fairfield beat a conservative Republican with a campaign that took the issues and the spirit of the movement against corporate globalization onto the campaign trail—and, in her case, into the legislature of state where she intends to foster an internationally-significant debate over the efforts of corporate agribusiness to introduce what have been referred to as “Frankenfoods.”
April Fairfield is not alone. She is part of a rising generation of candidates and elected officials who have, in recent years, forged a new politics that is informed by the ideas of India’s Vandana Shiva, France’s Jose Bove, South Africa’s Dennis Brutus, Canada’s Maude Barlow, Filipino activist Walden Bello and America’s Lori Wallach regarding the dangers posed by the current approach to market globalization—which makes the expansion of free trade and corporate power a priority over protecting workers, farmers, the environment, human rights and democracy itself. Recognizing that a movement to defend democracy must make use of democratic infrastructures, this new class of “electoral activists” has begun not just to seek elected positions but to use election campaigns as tools to educate, organize and challenge the rush toward a corporate model for globalization, that puts profit ahead of people. As we look toward the 2004 election in the United States, it is this link between the street and the voting station that offers the best argument for remaining engaged with an electoral process that often seems to be broken. Whether the linkage will be made in a serious way at the level of presidential politics remains to be seen—although Democrat Dennis Kucinch and several Green and Socialist contenders are making a sincere go of it, while Democrat Howard Dean is at least borrowing some of the catchphrases. One can distrust Dean and still recognize that the success of his aggressively populist candidacy—with its consistent emphasis on anti-war and anti-free trade rhetoric—signals a hunger for a very different politics than that offered by recent Democratic presidential candidates. Those who argue that the Democratic Party is changing have yet to make a convincing case. But there is reason to believe that, both within the Democratic fold and beyond it, a new approach to electoral politics could be developing.
Often rooted in domestic social and economic justice movements of the past, but with a fresh awareness of where the global battle lines are now drawn, this new model army of political candidates has been winning elections from the boroughs of rural Pennsylvania to the nation of Brazil, where the fall 2002 election of Workers Party leader Luiz Incio Lula da Silva to the presidency placed a veteran campaigner on globalization issues in a position to play a dramatic—perhaps even definitional—role in the debate over the creation of a hemispheric “Free Trade Area of the Americas.” Enthusiasm surrounding Lula’s victory was tempered somewhat by the softening of some of his old anti-corporate rhetoric during a long and difficult campaign that saw the labor leader seek to build coalitions with moderate political leaders. Yet, Lula celebrated his victory by declaring that he would make the hunger epidemic a central focus of his domestic and international policies. And Workers Party cadres have signaled a determination to fight and translate that radical promise into an approach where international trade negotiations can focus on the primacy of human needs over corporate greed. (On the ground in Brazil, Workers Party municipal governments in Porto Allegre and other cities are in the forefront of developing models for people-centered development and democratic renewal.)
The reality that a victory on Election Day may not necessarily bring immediate and dramatic policy shifts—in Brazil, or elsewhere—causes some to argue that electoral campaigns are a poor vehicle for anti-corporate globalization campaigning. But those who have taken the leap from the streets to the campaign trail argue that, win or lose, they are having an impact. “When you get inside, when you get a place at the table, that does not mean that you will win every debate or every vote. Initially, you may lose more than you win. But that doesn’t mean that you are failing,” argues Tony Benn, the veteran British parliamentarian who has devoted much of his energy in recent years to encouraging the growth anti-corporate globalization movements in his country and abroad. “Remember that, if you weren’t at the table, the debates on these issues would still go on. And it would be that much easier for the corporations to prevail. Corporate capital would prefer, always, that we did not bother to compete with them for political power. They know that when we enter the competition, that is where the transformation of politics begins.”
Campaigners against corporate globalization have not fully remade the politics of any country, yet. But, recognizing that electoral politics is not merely about winning one election, nor even one legislative vote, they are moving in country after country to turn democracy itself into a tool of creative resistance. They are shaking up conventional politics, influencing policy making, remaking moribund political parties and, as they communicate with one another through expanding organizations of progressive elected officials, they are building an international network of current and future leaders whose skepticism about the power and influence of multinational corporations parallels the doubts of those who march outside the meetings of the WTO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue and other multilateral organizations that seek to impose a global corporate agenda from Mombasa to Manitoba.
In so doing, they are making politics meaningful for a generation of activists that had rightly come to ask whether voting matters. “Electoral politics always evolves, as people who are involved with movements begin to work on campaigns and run for office. We saw this with the abolitionists in the 19th century, with women’s suffrage, with the labor movement, with the civil rights movement, with the anti-war movement, with the anti-nuclear movements that in Europe had a great deal to do with the rise of the Greens, and now with the anti-corporate movements that have been around for a long time in different forms but that came into their own in Seattle,” says Tom Hayden, the 1960s civil rights and anti-war agitator who went on to serve as a California state legislator. Hayden is an example of a veteran elected official whose political focus has been significantly sharpened by his association with the movement to counter corporate domination of policymaking. In Seattle, Hayden marched against the WTO; in Sacramento, he led the successful drive to create a special legislative committee to monitor the impact of free-trade agreements on California’s economy, the environment, health care and human rights concerns.
Hayden was one of the first elected officials in the U.S. to recognize that the undemocratic and unresponsive governing systems imposed as part of multilateral trade agreements would be used by corporations to limit the ability of local, state and even national officials to write laws and develop regulations regarding everything from wages and benefits for workers, to environmental protection—and even local and state sanctions against corporations doing business in countries that commit human right abuses. It is notable that a Massachusetts law, which was written in 1996 to pressure the government of Burma to ease the oppression of that land’s people—by barring state purchases from companies that do business in Burma—was initially challenged by Japan and the European Union before the WTO and later overturned by the U.S. courts after a suit was brought by USA ENGAGE, a corporate-sponsored group that promotes free trade.
Massachusetts state Rep. Byron Rushing, a veteran civil rights campaigner who sponsored the Burma law and led efforts to defend it, notes its similarities to1980s city and state laws that used the purchasing power of universities, cities and states to force U.S. corporations to stop doing business in South Africa. Campaigns to pass and implement selective-purchasing laws were a critical component of the anti-apartheid movement, and the use of trade policy to undermine the ability of activists to get local governments to impose sanctions on repressive governments today is a prime concern of present and former elected officials who have become outspoken foes of neoliberal schemes to eliminate ALL barriers to trade. “Just imagine if, when anti-apartheid campaigners finally got sanctions laws passed, the corporations had been able to say: ‘Oh, we’re sorry, but this law that you have passed represents an illegal restriction on trade.’ Can you imagine how that would have been used to block the anti-apartheid movement?” argues Hayden. “And that’s just the beginning. They are already using NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) to pressure Mexico, Canada and the U.S. to abandon environmental protections. This is a real and immediate threat to the sovereignty of local governments and to democracy.”
Ultimately, however, most people in local, regional and national government are not even aware that the laws they pass could be overridden by the secret “dispute resolution” panels of global trade organizations. In a few countries, however, the process of increasing awareness has sped up dramatically, as anti-corporate globalization campaigners have begun to rewrite the agendas of traditional political parties or, in many cases, to create new parties.
The need to create new parties developed as parties that were historically rooted in the working-class majority of individual countries, and that in many cases had traditions of international solidarity, abandoned their values to embrace the free-market utopianism of the post-Cold War era. The American Democratic Party, the British Labour Party, the Canadian Liberal Party, the social democratic parties of Germany, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand, as well as India’s Congress Party, all came to embrace with varying degrees of intensity what German leftist Gregor Gysi accurately describes as an “unhistoric” politics in which “social justice and ecological sustainability are strangers.” Leaders of traditional left-of-center parties, from America’s Bill Clinton to Britain’s Tony Blair, met the challenges of globalization by capitulating to the demands of corporate capital at virtually every turn. Blair’s cynical “Third Way,” with its celebration of deregulation of business, privatization of public services and unquestioning support for corporate free-trade initiatives, became the model for a betrayal of values and political logic that either encouraged disengagement or, in some instances, caused voters to look to the right for “solutions” to economic and social crises that were not being addressed by mainstream parties of the center and center-left.
“The old-line parties have abandoned the playing field. They have stopped fighting for social and economic justice, choosing instead to seek the favor of the corporations the people want them to be battling,” says Svend Robinson, a member of the Canadian parliament who is one of the most outspoken leaders of that country’s New Democratic Party.
Robinson makes an important point. Since the 1960s, a rainbow of new political parties, some of them Green, some of them red, some of them more traditionally socialist, and some of them exciting combinations of environmental, economic, feminist, civil rights and anti-corporate tendencies, have developed around the world. This development accelerated after the end of the Cold War, especially in northern Europe, Latin America and New Zealand and Australia, as traditional social democratic parties failed to counter threats to public services, workers rights and civil society posed by the growing influence of corporations and their neoliberal agenda of privatization, deregulation and free trade.
Some of the most sophisticated work in this regard has taken place in Scandinavia, where so-called “Third Left” parties have built broad red-green coalitions that link the “old Left” socialist critique still advanced by many trade union activists, to the “new Left” green, feminist and anti-imperialist critiques of younger activists. Pulling the message together is a shared determination to assert humane and civic values as a political alternative to the dehumanizing and anti-civic values promoted by corporate power at home and market-driven globalization. The Swedish Left Party, which recently won 30 seats in that country’s parliament and hundreds of position in local government, the Norwegian Socialist Left Party, which won 23 parliamentary seats in the last election, and the Finnish Left Alliance, which holds 20 parliamentary seats and won a place in that country’s governing coalition in 1999 national elections, have all taken a lead in defining this alternative vision, with detailed platform statements that can be read as manifestos for the electoral wing of the anti-corporate globalization movement.
The Swedish Left Party’s platform serves as a model for addressing globalization issues on both international and domestic levels. Titled “For a World In Solidarity,” it warns that, “Parliamentary democracy, freedom and human rights are today limited by the way in which economic power is distributed in Sweden and in the world at large. Powerful conglomerates and owners of capital put pressure on governments and nations... Capitalism has always ignored national borders. In our time, it has evolved into a connected global system and the world has been sub-divided into supra-national big-power blocks competing with each other for new markets. Growing global injustice presents a constant threat to world peace.”
To counter that threat, the Left Party and other “Third Left” groupings, which have in many cases affiliated themselves with anti-corporate activist groups such as ATTAC and which call for withdrawal from multinational groupings that are guided by corporate interests, says, “We strive to create a new economy that will grant every citizen on earth the right to live a dignified life. International solidarity is the key to creating a society in which justice and solidarity prevail. We fight against racism and hostility to foreigners. We oppose the division of society into ruling classes and oppressed lower classes and strive to create a world in which conditions favor mankind’s progress towards greater equality and freedom.”
In Canada, Svend Robinson’s New Democratic Party offers a similar model. Traditionally critical of corporate-sponsored free trade agreements because of its close ties to that country’s labor movement, the New Democrats have since the Seattle protests of 1999, aligned themselves more closely with anti-corporate globalization movements. In April, 2001, when the Canadian government invited representatives of more than thirty countries to Quebec to launch talks regarding development of a hemispheric Free Trade Area of the Americas, one sector of the government chose to attend both the official meetings and the protests that took place outside them. NDP members of the parliament joined anti-FTAA activists in the streets of Quebec. “What is urgently needed (are) new forms of global governance that can hold global corporations accountable to the common good in the way that national governments were once able to discipline earlier forms of corporate activity in the interests of society,” says Bill Blaikie, a senior NDP member of parliament who marched in Seattle and Quebec City and played a critical role in shifting the NDP toward a focus on the threats corporate-guided globalization poses for Canadian sovereignty and democracy. “Democracy will be an issue, as it was in Seattle and Quebec City, and will continue to be until we get trade agreements that are not designed to limit (the) legitimate power of government to act in the public interest.” NDP pressure has forced Canada’s Liberal party government to examine at least some of the threats corporate globalization creates for workers rights, the environment, human rights and sustainable development in Canada.
The NDP has invited critics of corporate globalization and the free trade agenda, including Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, to address parliamentary committees, providing exposure and legitimacy to arguments for “protecting the commons” against moves by the WTO to liberalize trade in services—an initiative that, if successful, will undermine public services and social welfare programs in Canada and every other country. On a more practical note, the NDP has defended the right to protest at a time when anti-corporate campaigners are often demonized in the press. When activists were prevented from getting to anti-FTAA protests, Blaikie demanded to know: “Why do we have free trade in capital, and goods and services, but we don’t have free trade in protesters?”
Having allies in government matters, as activists in countries around the world have begun to realize. In the U.S., the late Senator Paul Wellstone, the Minnesota Democrat who died in a tragic plane crash just before the fall 2002 national elections, brought many elements of the anti-corporate agenda into Senate debates regarding farm, labor and trade issues. Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, continues to do so, focused in particular on concerns about how the corporate free-trade initiatives are harming the human rights, the economic prospects and the health of people in Africa. Representatives Dennis Kucinich, Sherrod Brown, Marcy Kaptur, Tammy Baldwin, Jesse Jackson Jr. and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus that Kucinich chairs, played a critical role in preventing Congress from authorizing former President Bill Clinton to put hemispheric free-trade negotiations on a so-called “Fast Track”; and they came within one vote of denying President George W. Bush that authority in 2002. However, the Democratic Party is not officially opposed to the corporate free-trade agenda; indeed, many of its leaders, including Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore and 2000 vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman have been the most ardent advocates for the corporate agenda on trade and development issues. With Kucinich seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2004, and with other candidates picking up on aspects of the anti-corporate agenda, the Democratic Party will be under increasing pressure from its labor, environmental, farm and human rights constituencies to move toward more clearly defined anti-corporate positions on trade and corporate governance issues. But the lingering influence of corporate campaign contributions on the Democratic agenda—an influence that in America’s cash-dominated political systems often trumps that of party members and mass constituencies—leaves many Democrats skeptical about whether the party can ever become an effective force of opposition to corporate capital’s domestic and global ambitions.
That has created an opening for the Greens and left-leaning groups such as the New Party and the Labor Party. At this point, however, Congress has only one independent left-wing member, Vermont socialist Bernie Sander, who, notably, is one of the most consistently effective critics of the corporations that have come to dominate so much of the agenda in the House of Representatives.
As in countries around the world, members of a new generation of anti-corporate campaigners in the U.S. are making choices about where to direct their political energies. Some Democrats in the U.S., along with enlightened members of the British Labour Party and other old-school liberal and social democratic parties around the world, have recognized the need to reach out to this generation. Tom Hayden, for instance, has worked hard to make the case for taking over the moribund infrastructure of the Democratic Party at the grassroots and building upward. Hayden and others who argue for using the Democratic party as a vehicle to beat George W. Bush in 2004 will have a good deal of success, particularly among Americans who are horrified by the Bush administration’s militarism abroad and religious and economic fundamentalism at home. But the pragmatic decision to use the shell of a moribund Democratic party as a vehicle to defeat Bush does not mean that the party will necessarily become the vehicle for a new politics in America. While third-party presidential candidates may have a harder time in 2004, because of the growing polarization fostered by Bush’s policies, that does not mean that Americans who are attracted to an alternative politics will suddenly take up places on one side of a two-party continuum.
Many young activists will continue to choose alternative routes, particularly that of the Green Party. The success of the Greens internationally—the party has grown so large in some countries that it has won a place in governing coalitions, most notably in Germany, yet it remains for the most part solidly in the anti-corporate camp—inspires many U.S. activists to continue to look beyond the short-term obstacles that “the world’s greatest democracy” erects to prevent new parties from entering the political process.
Much of the media attention to the U.S. Greens has focused on the presidential candidacies of consumer activist Ralph Nader, one of the first prominent Americans to warn about the dangers of market globalization and the threat to democracy posed by organizations such as the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank. Nader’s candidacies have drawn many young people into the Green fold, especially after the Seattle protests in 1999 and IMF and World Bank protests in Washington, D.C. in April 2000. Nader is the first to note, however, that the Greens have had their greatest success not at the national level but in local politics—where corporate power holds less sway, and where Green candidates have won hundreds of elections for school board, city council and county government posts. Even where they have not won elections, Green candidates have energized local politics—as have anti-corporate campaigners who have chosen to work within the Democratic Party to challenge corporate dominance of their party’s upper echelons.
But how much sense does it really make to try and take anti-corporate globalization issues all the way home to the local politics level? “A lot,” says Adam Benedetto. A 26-year-old writer and activist, Benedetto hit the streets of New York in the spring of 2002 as part of energetic demonstrations outside the World Economic Forum. For a week in New York, he was in the thick of the protests, teach-ins and forums that sought to challenge the WEF-spun fantasy that corporate-defined market globalization would improve the circumstances of the world’s most impoverished peoples, protect the environment and advance human rights. When he returned home to Madison, Wisconsin, Benedetto was looking for a way to keep active on the fundamental issues he had been busy addressing in New York. He also wanted to have an impact on the debate in his hometown. With encouragement from friends in the local Green Party, he hit on the idea of running for Dane County Sheriff, the chief law-enforcement job in the region. Democrats were not planning to challenge the popular Republican incumbent, so Benedetto seized the opportunity to run a different type of campaign than anyone in Madison has seen before.
Refusing to be boxed in by conventional political norms, Benedetto announced his candidacy at a demonstration outside the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting being held in Madison that June. And he never looked back. Benedetto’s campaign pushed the limits of the local debate at every turn. For instance, Benedetto backers distributed literature that promised he would “Crack Down on Corporate Crime and Corporate Criminals”—arguing that “Handcuffs fit people who wear ties too.” The Green candidate promised to actively oppose the Drug War at home and in the coca fields of Colombia. He talked about ending all forms of racial profiling, opposing the construction of new jails, and aiding immigrants in fights with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other federal agencies. Benedetto said that, if elected, he would resist implementation of the draconian U.S.A. Patriot Act—the post-September 11 assault on civil liberties in the U.S. that threatens to criminalize acts of international solidarity and protests by anti-corporate campaigners. For good measure, Benedetto said he would have the sheriff’s office teach activists how to mount peaceful campaigns of civil disobedience.
“I wanted people to start thinking creatively about what the sheriff’s office could do, about what all these local offices could do to help build a network of opposition to corporate power,” says Benedetto. “And, you know what, they did.” Benedetto got the incumbent sheriff to participate in public debates and forums with him, and the sheriff actually ended up admitting that his young challenger was probably right about the Drug War’s failings and the need to do more to address issues of race and class discrimination in the criminal justice system. Other local leaders went further. Wisconsin’s Democratic Lieutenant Governor, a popular Democratic state representative from Madison, a school board member and a number of city and county elected officials endorsed Benedetto’s candidacy, as did a powerful local political group, Progressive Dane. On Election Day, Benedetto won more than 30,000 votes—a quarter of all those cast in the county—and ended up carrying much of Madison. At his “victory” party—and even the most curmudgeonly local political analysts admitted that the strong showing was a victory for the first-time candidate—Benedetto was joined by a surprise guest: U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, the maverick Democrat whose opposition to the corporate agenda at home and abroad has often put him closer the Greens than his own party on many trade and international development issues.
In the days after the election, as he was being encouraged to seek other offices, interviewed by reporters and congratulated everywhere he went, Benedetto stayed on message. “The point of this campaign was to get the message out that politics belongs to everyone, not just to the politicians and the corporations that fund them,” he explained. “We don’t have to play by the old rules. We don’t have to accept someone else’s definition of what the issues should be. We can talk about corporate power and globalization. We can point out the connections between racism at home and racism abroad, and we can tell people that the same powerful interests are responsible for what’s wrong in our hometowns and in other countries. We can define politics differently—and better. We don’t have to limit ourselves to a single tactic to build this movement. We can be in the streets, we can be candidates. Ultimately, we can win both ways. We have to. We’re the future.”
John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine. He is also the editorial page editor of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. Nichols has covered progressive politics and activism for well over a decade. His latest book is entitled It’s the Media, Stupid (Seven Stories Press), which he co-authored with Robert McChesney. This article will appear in the upcoming issue of Left Turn magazine (www.leftturn.org/).