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Signs of a Political Earthquake in Oregon

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The conventional wisdom in national politics is that lawmakers from coasts and tech regions must support our current international economic policies or face a backlash among their information sector constituents. Economic populism -- i.e., pushing for fair trade reforms, progressive taxation, and financial regulation -- has been billed by the Establishment as not only substantively unacceptable, but only politically effective in the industrial Midwest and Northeast. That's why the Oregon senate race is so incredibly significant: as I explore in my newspaper column this week, if Democrat Jeff Merkley defeats incumbent Republican Gordon Smith, all the calculations that undergird our corrupt economic politics will collapse like a package of mortgage-backed securities.

The Pacific Northwest is a collage of economic sectors -- extractive industries, high tech companies, and ports. Throughout the go-go 1990s, going populist on trade could get a Democrat votes in traditionally conservative places like Douglas County (see Rep. Peter DeFazio's success there), but could also alienate suburban office parkers -- and Republicans like Smith effectively exploited that wedge.

But as I originally found in reporting the Microsoft section of my book The Uprising, there has been something of a convergence.

As outsourcing and wage cutting hit the information sector, an unspoken -- and almost unacknowledged -- solidarity between blue and white collar workers began developing. More and more, a Democrat could talk tough on issues like NAFTA and CAFTA and feel comfortable that both manufacturing and high tech workers would agree with them. Put into movie terms, as the outrage of Gung Ho's factory workers became the seething anger of Office Space's cubicle drones, politics began realigning along class lines in places like the Northwest - -with the "us" being most workers and the "them" being the very wealthy.

The financial crisis and the subsequent decimation of everyone's 401(k) plans, of course, has only accelerated this convergence -- and now the wedge politics of Smith is being aggressively countered with the unabashed populism of Merkley. And polls show it is working.

The populist path was blazed in 2004 by leders like Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D-MT), and in 2006 by candidates like Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Jim Webb (D-VA). But whereas these figures were able to leverage populism in states that seem more ready for full-throated economic progressivism, Merkley is running in a place known for its so-called political "moderation" (read "blandness"). The fact that Merkley is in the race at all shows that the realignment of economic politics is happening not just in the boarded up factory towns where national political pundits expect it to happen, but even in the heart of the "new economy." Should he defeat Smith, he would deliver a painful shock to the status quo -- one with major policy ramifications.

As just one example, a Democratic U.S. Senate that included Merkley as one of its stars would have a much more difficult time rubber stamping the corporate-written trade policies. And because Merkley would have just won in Oregon's "Silicon Forest," Democrats would suddenly face very real counter-pressure to ignore their high-tech industry donors demanding more unfair trade pacts.

To be sure, there is going to be a significant effort by Big Money to try to force a Democratic Congress to stay the Bush course on even the most unpopular and immoral policies. After all, in the face of polls showing bipartisan anger at our current globalization policies and more headlines about the Colombian military killing anti-free-trade protesters, John McCain nonetheless used the last presidential debate to continue advocating for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Indeed, the forces of money and power will stop at nothing to get their way - and a Merkley victory will strengthen the populist pushback inside the Democratic Party.

You can read the full column here.

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