Globalization: America's Biggest Bipartisan Mistake | Opinion

In 2007, a Swiss newspaper asked former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan whom he predicted would be elected president the following year. He dismissed the question out of hand: "It hardly makes any difference who will be the next president. The world is governed by market forces."

It was an odd remark coming from a man appointed by the president of the United States. And yet it contained a remarkable truth.

For more than two decades, a bipartisan collection of politicians, academics, business leaders and policy "experts"—call them the "Uniparty"—devoted much of its energy to fighting for, and later defending, an unquestioning commitment to the free flow of people, goods and capital around the world. So closely synced were the bipartisan coconspirators that their arguments and talking points were virtually indistinguishable. On trading freely and ignoring borders, there was no daylight between Democrats and Republicans, no debate. It hardly mattered who would be president; both nominees desired a world governed by markets, not the people.

As Russia's invasion of Ukraine and China's saber-rattling toward Taiwan make clear, globalization is not simply the natural state of affairs. And in hindsight, the globalist policy program—of free trade with China, open borders to the world and the flow of real investment out of the domestic economy—was disruptive and harmful to the United States. Understanding how the Uniparty pulled the wool over our eyes is critical to ensuring that such a betrayal of American interests does not happen again.

First, Uniparty leaders appealed to American idealism to distract from concerns about the real-world consequences of their proposals. They tapped into post-Cold War optimism and turned it into delusion. With communism defeated, they argued, all nations were poised to embrace American-style capitalism and democracy, and it was America's responsibility to bring them both.

Politicians enlisted trade policy in their campaigns on the belief that free trade and democracy go hand-in-hand. As President George W. Bush argued, "Societies that open to commerce will one day open to liberty." It was an inevitability: the possibility that nations like China might adopt one but not the other was not, therefore, a matter of concern. And besides, argued Clinton treasury secretary Larry Summers, "welcoming China into the global economic system is right for the American economy and for the global economy."

The Uniparty's promise never panned out, and free trade failed to free the world from authoritarianism—look no further than the Chinese Communist Party. But America still paid the price of unfair competition and offshoring.

When not taking credit for the glories of globalization, Uniparty leaders on both sides of the aisle insisted the matter was entirely outside their control. President Bill Clinton insisted "globalization is not something that we can hold off or turn off. It is the economic equivalent of a force of nature." Much like a hurricane, the free flow of capital and goods across borders cared little what the American people thought or how they might be affected. Appealing to democratically elected leaders to pursue a different course was futile.

There were, in fact, plenty of policy decisions to be made. The United States was not forced to trade freely with China. But the Uniparty repeated the mantra coined by Democrat Xavier Becerra—then a California congressman and now Joe Biden's secretary of health and human services—that "globalization is a fact, not a policy option." Feigning powerlessness was convenient for politicians who didn't want to exercise their power to protect American interests—be they domestic industries suffering from unfair competition or American workers left behind by offshoring.

Bill Clinton and George W Bush
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 29: Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush speaks onstage HISTORYTalks Leadership & Legacy presented by HISTORY on February 29, 2020 in New York City. Noam Galai/Getty Images

Rather than acknowledge the tradeoffs, the Uniparty relied on economists to spin an argument that would make Pollyanna blush. Americans were promised, in the words of Bill Clinton, that they would "be leveling up, not leveling down." Republican Senator Phil Gramm extolled the "untold benefits to our people" that free trade would bring—"not the least of which are high-paying jobs." The conservative Heritage Foundation's Larry Wortzel promised that "China's eventual accession to the WTO...would mean more jobs and job security for American workers." Not only would free trade create more jobs, the story went, but those new jobs would also be better than the old ones.

Experience would soon expose these as false promises. As factories shuttered due to offshoring, opportunity vanished for more Americans every year. Jobs in the fastest-growing sectors like health care and hospitality paid less than the sectors that dwindled. Dependence on government assistance and opioids became more prevalent. Even the pathway through higher education offered little escape as universities minted new graduates at a faster rate than the economy could create "jobs of the future" that required a degree.

But the Uniparty argued that if Americans suffered, it was not without purpose. Free trade, its leaders maintained, was humanity's greatest anti-poverty program, and adopting their preferred policies would lift billions out of subsistence. "The complete elimination of barriers to trade," the Bush's administration's Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick, promised, "could lift an additional 300 million people...out of poverty." Economic policy was an act of benevolence, not of statecraft.

In some respects, this argument was the one they got right. Alleviating world poverty is an admirable goal, and trade has delivered tremendous benefits to developing nations. But that result alone cannot justify a policy that did grievous harm domestically. Policymakers are elected to serve their own constituents—not those of other nations. A trade negotiation is not a charity auction.

After far too many years, globalization is finally facing a public reckoning. What was once a durable bipartisan consensus now faces bipartisan scrutiny. Between pandemic-ravaged supply chains and the prospect of a long war in Europe, the promise of a rules-based global order, governed by free markets and filled with free people, seems as quixotic as ever.

As policymakers reconsider that global order and America's proper role within it, we must not forget how far political rhetoric led America astray in just a few decades. The Uniparty remains in power today, and the public remains susceptible to its untampered idealism, feigned powerlessness, false promises and misplaced benevolence.

Americans must look past the rhetoric and demand a frank reassessment of our nation's economic policies and a sincere attempt to recover our balance after decades of misguided embrace of globalization.

Today we are suffering the devastating consequences of the Uniparty's radical globalization program. Our industrial strength has atrophied as production has moved offshore. Domestic growth and investment have stagnated as investors send their capital overseas. Meanwhile, the typical American faces poorer job opportunities, greater dependency on government and a lower life expectancy than at any point in nearly two decades.

At least the imported flatscreen TVs are cheaper.

Wells King is the research director at American Compass.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.