Some people are suggesting that Bernie Sanders‘ win in Michigan was a result of his opposition to trade deals like NAFTA and TPP and that this will serve him well with white working class voters in the so-called “rust belt” states. Just prior to the debate in Flint, Michigan, Sanders tweeted this:
The people of Detroit know the real cost of Hillary Clinton’s free trade policies. pic.twitter.com/OoatUvhEc9
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) March 3, 2016
Both Danielle Krutzleben at NPR and Steve Chapman at the Chicago Tribune did some fact-checking on the role of trade deals in the challenges faced by cities like Detroit and Flint. Krutzleban begins with a chart showing that the migration out of Detroit started around 1950 and that since then, it has lost more than 60% of its residents. That started long before the trade deals Sanders suggested as the cause of all those abandoned buildings.
Chapman identifies several factors that are not accounted for if we simply look at things like NAFTA to blame. He points out that Michael Moore’s documentary “Roger & Me” about the shut-down of the General Motors plant in Flint came out four years before NAFTA took effect and that the challenge to the auto industry back then was coming from Japan (not China or Mexico), where they were producing more reliable and fuel-efficient cars.
The other issue that hurt Detroit was the migration of auto plants – not overseas – but to states (mostly in the South) who adopted so-called “right to work” laws that undermined unions. Another factor was automation – which reduced the number of workers required to produce cars by a third. Finally, Chapman makes this observation:
Breaking down trade barriers would actually help the American auto industry and those on the assembly lines. One major attraction of building cars in Mexico is that it has free trade agreements with 45 countries — while the U.S. has free trade deals with just 20. Exporting to most of the world is easier there than here.
Bernard Swiecki, an analyst at the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research, told Business Alabama why Audi recently decided to put a factory in Mexico instead of the U.S.: “If they export it, they save $4,500 per vehicle in tariffs they don’t have to pay.”
These are just some of the complicating factors that affected a state like Michigan. But they are paralleled by a look at history that informs us of what drove the manufacturing boom in the United States as well as what is challenging its survival today. To sum up: it is not as simple as blaming trade deals.
What I find troubling about Sanders’ approach to all of this is not simply his avoidance of even a cursory mention of these complex issues. It is more about the fact that he is obviously tapping into the anger and despair that is felt by those who are affected (much like Donald Trump is doing) and then locating a singular culprit on which to focus their blame.
But beyond even that, the one thing many of us have spent the last seven years criticizing about Republicans is their use of anger/fear mongering to foster obstruction. What is totally lacking from Sanders is any articulation of what his own approach to trade would be. In that way, he is mirroring the Republican approach to Obamacare: suggesting that trade deals need to be repealed without offering a replacement. For those of us who think that it is important to get beyond the anger/fear and talk about actual policy that works, that is not good enough.