The Prairie Populist: Byron Dorgan

Sen. Byron Dorgan, a populist Democrat from North Dakota, has a new book out entitled “Take This Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America.”

David Sirota

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) is tough on trade

North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan is a popular Democrat from a very red” rural state. He’s remained a voter favorite not because he’s tried to split the difference with Republicans or suck up to the Washington power structure, but because of the populist stands embodied in his new book Take This Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America. In the book, Dorgan takes on Washington’s bipartisan consensus on trade issues, detailing how politicians of both parties are betraying ordinary Americans by pushing free” trade pacts written by corporate lobbyists. These pacts, which polls show the public opposes, are filled with protectionist provisions for the corporations who write them and are free” only in that they are free of similar protections for regular citizens.

Since being elected to the House in 1980, where he served six terms before being elected to the Senate in 1992, Dorgan has taken on both Republicans and Democrats who have sold out to corporate interests on trade deals; for his trouble, he has been berated by his colleagues and ignored by the media. But now, with wages stagnating, job outsourcing intensifying, and pension and health benefits being slashed, Dorgan can no longer be shunted aside. Dorgan discussed his new book with In These Times in early August.

How do you account for the false debate on trade issues, where it’s either people who want trade or people who don’t want trade?

The other side has stolen the language. We’ve seen that happen in politics with the term liberal,” where they make the term mean something it doesn’t mean. We see this stolen language on free trade. They have had accomplices – the major newspapers that have corporate ties and interests. They describe the circumstances of our participation in the global economy, and those who don’t sign up for their version of that are labeled protectionist xenophobes” or isolationists.”

Do you ascribe any failure to our side for not doing a better job of fighting for fair trade?

Oh absolutely. Some on our side,” have been perfectly willing to get dressed and walk down the aisle with [corporate interests] because they want to be seen as pro-business.”

There’s no one person to blame. Look, the Clinton administration pushed NAFTA. It’s true that Reagan and the first George Bush began the discussions and negotiations on NAFTA, but President Clinton pushed it, and NAFTA is a demonstrated failure. Probably three-quarters of a million net jobs lost, and in addition, we turned a very small trade surplus with Mexico into a very large trade deficit with very few benefits to Mexican workers.

Do you think the Democratic Party can define itself as the party of fair trade” with its current leadership?

I admit, there’s probably a quarter of the [Democratic] caucus here in the U.S. Senate that I think is wrong on the trade issue, but it’s also the case that a large majority of the Democratic caucus is on the right side of the issue – demanding fair trade, and working against CAFTA, working against NAFTA.

Do you see a change in the thinking about trade among the lawmakers you work with? 

One of the reasons I wrote the book is to show my colleagues and Democrats around the country that there’s a way to talk about this that should not brand you as someone who wants to put walls around America or as someone who’s not pro-growth. There’s a way to talk about this that suggests that our position is one that expands opportunities and creates more economic growth. I’m hoping to light a fuse, to create national debate about an issue that has largely been hidden from view, except for the day-to-day pain of people who are losing their jobs.

There was never really a serious chance that any of the trade pacts in the last five years would be stopped in the Senate, but in the House, votes have been close. How do you account for that?

Well, most every member of the Senate goes to the mirror in the morning and sees a potential president. I’m half joking here, but those kinds of aspirations make it so that you don’t want to provoke a fight with the largest established interests in the country. They want to try to be seen as pro-business.” You can’t be seen as pro-business” in the eyes of the Chamber of Commerce and others unless you sign up for these trade agreements.

Are you concerned about the prospect that a Democratic president would be more of the same on trade?

Yes, of course. We’re kind of at a tipping point. It’s taken a couple of decades to get to the point where we have an engine that’s slowly revved up to move jobs overseas as a source of cheap labor. This could accelerate very rapidly, and the opportunities we’ve seen decade after decade – greater opportunities for our kids, better jobs that pay well with better benefits – all of that could deconstruct very quickly. That’s why this is a really important time to have this debate. My hope is we will nominate someone who will take this debate on.

Some will say, Look, the Democratic Party has always been the party of internationalist, free’ trade.” What’s your response to that?

Free trade of half a century ago and free trade today are completely different subjects. Free trade today is now generally defined as the opportunity to transfer capital and technology anywhere in the world to employ labor to build your products to ship to America. That didn’t exist 50 to 75 years ago. Free trade then was about producing here and selling there, producing there and selling here, in circumstances where we were able to work with other countries to persuade them to reduce barriers. It wasn’t about moving jobs and creating low wage countries as platforms of manufacturing opportunities. 

How have you as a senator been able to be immune from the free trade consensus?

This started with me back in the mid-’80s when I was in the House. The event that really prompted me was the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement, the first one that preceded NAFTA. I was on the House Ways and Means committee at the time, and I said I’m going to learn about and understand this agreement. I even went to Montreal during some of the sessions and sat in and tried to understand what the deal was doing. At the end, I realized that in exchange for opportunities in the financial service sectors, they traded away the interest of family farmers. When they finally had those votes, the vote was 34 to one, and I was the one. And they tried every which way, they said You can’t do this, this needs to be a unanimous vote.” And I said, You know what, this is bullshit. I’m not going to support something that I think undermines our country’s interests. I don’t believe this was negotiated in a way that represents our country’s best interests.”

The wealthiest corporate interests are essentially unified in support of the current trade policies. Does that mean a reform of trade policy is ultimately contingent on serious campaign finance reform?

I don’t know that it’s connected so much to that as it is to a grassroots movement by the American citizens who say, Wait a second, we’re not going to put up with this anymore. We know what kind of future this is going to offer us and we don’t like it.” At some point, there is a tipping point that’s going to happen on this issue. It would have happened already if these trade talks had always been transparent and conducted in plain view. 

Do people ask you how you can run on these issues coming from a red state?”

I’m obviously in front of a lot of groups in North Dakota, and I get asked a lot about these issues. Most people agree with me, that we ought to stand up for this country’s economic interests, we ought to demand fairness, we ought to stand up for workers, farmers, and America’s small businesses. 

Does anybody really think that after a century of what we went through to define what kind of standards we want in this country – work standards, environmental standards – that now all bets are off and we should say to the American worker, You compete with people who will work 7 days a week, 14 hours a day and are paid 25 cents an hour”? Does anybody really believe we should compete with that or if we were forced to, could compete successfully? The answer is hell no.” 

What will happen in 20 years if we keep our trade policy on autopilot right now?

We’ll continue to sell pieces of our country off everyday with the trade deficit. But more importantly, we’ll see the American worker, the American family with diminished opportunities, downward pressure on their wages, fewer health benefits, fewer retirement benefits, children having more difficulty in coming out of school and getting a job. 

Now go 20 years ahead, and tell me what you see if we reform our trade policy. 

If we make some changes and decide that we’re going to be a world leader and we’re going to retain our strength as a world-class economy, we’re going to hopefully expand trade, but it has to be fair trade. We’re going to create standards that require others to lift themselves up as they do business with us. We’re going to take the steps that will be necessary to make sure that American people will have good jobs that pay well and that when productivity increases they will see opportunities to increase their incomes. If we do all of that, I think we’ll have a better future and reason for hope. 

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David Sirota is an awardwinning investigative journalist and an In These Times senior editor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. Follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.
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