Elite vs. the people in American politics

Business Times - 16 Oct 2007
A gulf divides political elite and the US public
Reactions to US policy on global issues shows up a division in govt and public attitudes


IF you have been monitoring the latest opinion polls that measure the American public's shifting attitudes on the Iraq War, international trade and other global policy issues, you might assume that the Bush Administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress would be now in the process of adopting policies and taking steps aimed at the withdrawal of American troops from Mesopotamia and pulling the US out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

After all, the American politicians and the voters who elect them pride themselves as being part of the most open and representative democratic system that the world has ever known (and they even try to impose their political system on other countries through peaceful measures, and if necessary, by force).

So if the opinion polls are accurate, and the majority of the American people are, indeed, in favour of ending US military presence in Iraq and reducing its security commitments elsewhere, how come the number of US troops in Iraq has actually increased this year?

And if a large number of Americans are sceptical about the benefits of free trade to the American economy, why is the Bush Administration continuing to promote new free trade accords with other nations?

The reason is that there continues to be a wide gap between the more internationalist attitudes of the political and business elites and the more nationalist views of the general public when it comes to many global policies.

Many US lawmakers, especially those who belong to the more exclusive Senate, and who in many cases, enjoy the financial backing of businesses and industries who have a vested interest in maintaining a open global trade system, such as the powerful financial industry, tend to reflect the attitudes of the American elites and try to resist the protectionist and isolationist pressures from their constituencies.

And these constituencies are not in a very good mood. The many opinion polls that have been published recently, have all pointed to a dramatic drop in the American public support for the war in Iraq. Hence according to an ABC News/Washington Post from Sept 27-30, 2007, 59 per cent of Americans now believe that the Iraq War is not worth fighting (as opposed to 38 per cent who continue to support the war).

Fifty-four per cent of Americans want US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq even if civil order is not restored in the country, and 55 per cent of them are actually criticising the Democrats in Congress for not putting enough pressure on the administration to get the troops out of that country.

When it comes to international trade and other globalisation issues, the American public's attitudes seem to reflect growing scepticism with regard to the pro-free trade policies of the Bush Administration. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from March 2-5, 2007 says more Americans (48 per cent) believe the US is harmed by the global economy compared with 25 per cent of Americans who think that their country is benefiting from globalisation.

More Americans (46 per cent) believe that free trade agreements have hurt that US than those who do not (28 per cent). In fact, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll suggests that 70 per cent of Americans think that outsourcing is hurting the American economy, while a Newsweek poll (conducted by Princeton University Associates) indicates that more Americans (35 per cent) think that free trade agreements like NAFTA have been a 'bad thing' for Americans than those who believe that they are a 'good thing' (28 per cent).

And according to the most recent study of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, there has been a dramatic decline in American support for global trade - from 78 per cent in 2002 to 53 per cent this year.

At the same time, 75 per cent of Americans advocate imposing restrictions on immigration into the United States.

Hence it would not be an overstatement to suggest that the American people are exhibiting signs of rising anti-interventionism (isolationism), anti-free-trade (protectionism) and anti-immigration, while the policies being embraced by their government runs contrary to these positions.

If anything, Bush administration officials have insisted that the US would have to continue maintaining its presence in Iraq for many years to come; and interestingly enough, the three leading Democratic presidential candidates - Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards - have all refused to commit themselves to ending US military intervention in Iraq and have endorsed the Bush administration's tough approach towards Iran.

At the same time, President George W Bush and his aides are continuing to lobby Congress in support of bilateral free-trade agreements with Peru, Panama, Colombia and South Korea. The agreements will eliminate tariffs and quotas on a majority of US farm, consumer and industrial products and textiles. In the case of South Korea, tariffs would be eliminated for both US and South Koreans automakers. The accords would also provide protection for US investors operating in those countries.

Watching the recent televised debate between the nine Republican presidential candidates in Michigan (a state with a struggling auto industry and a relative high unemployment rate) leads one to conclude that if elected, the top figures in the race - former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and Senators John McCain and Fred Thompson) intend to continue pursuing the free-trade policies of this administration (while promising to increase assistance to workers displaced by global competition). All the candidates, with the exception of Congressman Ron Paul, also enthusiastically back President Bush's policies in Iraq (while pledging to manage the war more effectively) and vis-Ã -vis Iran (bomb it, if necessary).

It's important to remember that rhetoric during campaign doesn't always translate into concrete policies in office.

Presidential candidate Bill Clinton promised during the 1992 campaign promised to place link renewing China's trade status to improvement of its human rights conduct. Eventually, during his presidency, Washington agreed to permit China to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) despite the fact that there had been no major improvements in China's human rights policy. If anything, President Clinton proved to be more effective in winning the support of Congress, including the Democrats there, for a very energetic global free-trade agenda.

The expectation in Washington is that notwithstanding the current attacks by Hillary Clinton or for that matter, Mr Obama and Mr Edwards against free trade and their promises to pursue 'fair' or 'smart' trade, these politicians would follow a trade approach a la Bill Clinton, including requesting Congress to renew the White House's trade promotion authority (TPA) which the current Congress has refused to approve for President Bush.

In order to placate the protectionists, the Democrats are likely to link the approval of new trade accords to safeguards for the environment and organised labour.

In fact, even the Bush administration has indicated that it would back attaching such safeguards to the free trade agreements with Peru, Panama and Colombia so as to win their approval by the current Congress.

Hence on global trade, like on Iraq and the Middle East, the next president's policies would probably be described as 'Bush with a friendly face', meaning that the White House occupant would try to demonstrate that he or she is 'feeling the pain' of a 'struggling middle class'.

It's not clear, however, whether the majority of the American people are going to buy this bill of goods. The recent effort by a coalition of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, backed by the White House, to win Congressional approval for an amnesty for illegal or undocumented immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America, had failed after losing public support around the country.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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