Photo from The White House.

The Conflict on the Left Over TPP is a Clash of Loyalty vs. Ideology

Alliances, loyalties, and trust are as important as political ideology when it comes to supporting legislation.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal on paper is troubling from a progressive standpoint. Or, more accurately, the parts the American public has been able to able to see through selective releases of information and leaks. That’s part of the problem: details of the TPP have been classified and withheld by “the most transparent administration in history.”

From leaked information we have learned that the proposal would expand and extend the United States’s already stifling intellectual property laws, affecting everything from media to pharmaceuticals. This could lead to the prevention of lower-cost generic medications as well as prevent the U.S. government from fixing the broken Digital Millennium Copyright Act domestically for years.

Organized labor is rightfully concerned that the deal will result in a net negative for American workers while increasing corporate profits, like 1994's North American Free Trade Agreement. The Economic Policy Institute estimated that NAFTA resulted in close to 700,000 lost U.S. jobs.

Those are just the problems we know about. It looks really good for corporate interests and high finance and really bad for everyone else. Ideologically, it would seem likely that those on the left would opposed to this secret deal.

And most are.

Organized labor, digital rights groups like the EFF, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, Campaign for America’s Future, MoveOn, New York’s Working Families Party, Progressive Democrats of America,, among many others are publicly in opposition. As are many members of the House and Senate.

The battle on the left can be roughly described as President Obama and his strongest allies vs. those who are ideologically opposed to TPP. I use ‘ideologically’ here not necessary representing a specific paradigm but to represent those who oppose based on a conflict of policy with their beliefs of how government should work. I draw this distinction because this is not a pure policy debate between center-left and left. In fact, such a debate is impossible with secret legislation.

Nor is this conflict President Obama vs. anti-Obama. I, for one, was an early supporter of Senator Obama in 2007 and continue to believe that on the whole he has been a good president in very difficult times. For nearly all on the left, TPP and fast track would be opposed no matter who is at the helm.

However, with President Obama at the helm of the TPP deal, this does become a conflict of Obama vs. the left.

With secret deals and the resulting information asymmetry, anyone who is not an insider privy to the details can only base their support on trust, alliance, and/or loyalty. This is the crux of my argument.

This is obvious for people directly working for the administration: supporting the president’s initiatives is in the job description. While I am sure there are people within the administration who are as ideologically opposed as those on the outside, their concerns are voiced in-house if at all, and externally show support.

The next group is former staffers, advisors, and political allies. Being a part of such a cohesive operation like the Obama campaigns instills deep feelings of loyalty. Much like members of a sorority or fraternity, there are bonds that are stronger than most policy concerns. If this were Game of Thrones, it is Robb Stark calling all the banners that are sworn to him. They may disagree with Stark’s objective, but they will come.

The most interesting group are Obama true believers without connections or access. Many of these people only became politically active because of the Obama campaign and these are the people Obama wants to engage with Organizing for America to support TPP. I was watching some posts on Twitter earlier this week from these supporters who were very defensive of the criticism about TPP from the left. The recurring sentiment was “knowing the details doesn’t matter, I trust the President.” When President Obama tells Senator Warren she is wrong on TPP — “when you hear folks make a lot of suggestions about how bad this trade deal is, when you dig into the facts, they are wrong” — the issue is settled for them. It doesn’t matter that they can’t “dig into the facts” of a secret deal.

This is not to say that the staffers and allies are sellouts or that the grassroots supporters are sheep. I myself have been the staffer and the loyalist at times in the past. The purpose is to understand the nature of the conflict on the left.

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