WTO dissent in the streets, instead of in the Legislature?
by Steven Hill
As the clouds of tear gas dispersed over the streets of Seattle, one
couldn' t help but wonder where all this dissent over the World Trade
Organization came from. Certainly in booming economic times we have not
heard much vocal opposition in our state and federal legislatures.
In fact, no matter which political party has been at the helm, Democrats
or Republicans, the U.S. government and corporations have been the world's
primary boosters for globalization and the World Trade Organization.
Unfortunately, the heat of debate usually has reduced the complexities of
the issue to simplistic slogans and sound bites.
While the nostrums of free trade, consumer choice and technological
innovation have become the mantra of the times, our politics seem to be
running headlong in the opposite direction -- toward less choice and less
quality information. Campaigns have become increasingly negative, and
legislative races increasingly noncompetitive. Third party efforts have had
little chance of success.
But what else should we expect from our Winner Take All system? Winner
Take All elections are contested in one-on-one races where 51% wins
everything and 49% wins nothing. This guarantees a two-party system where
each side campaigns and governs by blaming the other side.
In the carnivorous climate of Winner Take All, positions that question
the promised land of globalization get chewed up. Even carefully nuanced
positions expressing doubt or seeking compromise get chewed up. So do third
parties like a Labor, Reform or Green Party that might offer voters a
different kind of choice than the doo-wop chorus of the Democrats and
Without the presence of a political party whose candidates are explicitly
pro-worker, the American labor movement has had little choice but to support
the Democrats. This has left the Democratic Party under the leadership of
Bill Clinton free to drift as far to the right as they dare. The mantle of
speaking for the little guy in recent years has mostly fallen to the likes
of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, with Democrats Dick Gephardt and David
Bonior occasionally voicing opposition to their party leader, President
There has been some agitation for a Labor Party, but nascent efforts have
not been promising, due to the toxic soil of Winner Take All. There have
been over a thousand third parties in our 200 your history, but nearly all
have quickly fallen into the dust bin of history because Winner Take All is
so notoriously hostile to the success of third party efforts.
Yet third parties are the laboratory for new ideas. Without them,
controversial issues are mostly left on the political sidelines. Fresh ideas
about globalization get strangled in the crib by Winner Take All's two-party
Instead, candidates feel compelled to campaign on safe issues,
substituting simplistic slogans for complex issues that have been determined
by polling and focus groups. The goal is to hone your campaign message to
one that attracts swing voters, and then repeat that message like a mindless
Thus, the Winner Take All dynamic contributes little to our understanding
of complex issues like globalization and its impact on American workers or
the environment. Fostering understanding and debate of issues related to
globalization is simply not the way you win elections today when faced with
the Winner Take All conundrum.
And the major media, which is seemingly stuck on political coverage of
the "horse race" aspect of campaigns, routinely ignore candidates
who are judged unelectable, even if they are raising good ideas and issues
-- like the downsides of globalization.
Consequently, when fervent opposition to the World Trade Organization
erupts in the streets, it looks as if it's coming from out of nowhere. But
it's not. It's just that such a point of view so rarely wins representation
in our Legislatures or is reported by the media.
The story in Europe is quite different. There, instead of Winner Take
All, they use forms of proportional representation that allow points of view
and political parties from across the political spectrum to win
representation. The European labor and environmental movements have used
this effectively to build strong Social Democrat and Green Parties that have
articulated an agenda questioning globalization and related issues like
genetically modified foods and secrecy of the World Trade Organization.
When President Clinton addressed the delegates of the World Trade
Organization, he stated that the perspective espoused by the protesters
should be listened to and included in their deliberations. If he is sincere,
then he should consider a change of electoral rules in the U.S. that will
allow that perspective to win representation in our legislatures.
Try to imagine what our politics would look like if our legislatures
mirrored the full range of opinions that exist in our society, not only on
globalization, but a whole range of issues including health care, Social
Security, education and more.
Instead, with Winner Take all, we get simplistic sound bites and
polarized politics. And national policy suffers as a result.
[Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting
and Democracy. He is co-author of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon
Press 1999). For more information, see www.fairvote.org or write to: PO Box
60037, Washington, DC 20039.]