Clueless in Seattle

The real legacy of the WTO protests is a rising tide of populism -- try telling that to politicians swapping platitudes on global trade.

Published December 10, 1999 12:00PM (EST)

Listen to any presidential contender or other political leader on what happened last week in Seattle, and cluelessness reigns.

Their responses ranged from the platitudinous ("I support free and fair trade. And along with the president I have argued that labor rights and environmental protections should be a more important part of the negotiating process" -- Al Gore) to the painfully obvious ("I readily concede there may be an instant in time where someone has been pained by free trade" -- George W. Bush). And the award for meaninglessness goes to Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "The key," he said, "is not to run away from global trade but to embrace it while dealing with the negative aspects." The minority leader clearly has a great future as a marriage counselor.

Meanwhile, the media focused on the easy debate of whether the Seattle authorities were unprepared for the protesters (they were) and whether they subsequently overreacted (they did). In between, they giggled uncomprehendingly and made lame jokes about topless lesbian sea turtles.

Sure, a ski-masked anarchist trashing a Starbucks makes for a better front-page photo than a few thousand demonstrators peacefully protesting the subversion of democracy -- but it was a classic case of reporters who can't see the deforestation for the tree-huggers. So in the days following the Battle in Seattle, much was written about the "what" and very little about the "why."

But the why is what we're left with now that everyone's gone home. The most significant aspect of the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle is that they embodied the widespread fears and anxieties of millions of Americans who do not share the prevailing assumption that these are the best of times, and who in effect represent America's unrecognized third party, made up of those so disgusted with the system that they have even given up on voting.

Our leaders' hubristic mindset can't even conceive of protest amid a 4-percent unemployment rate and an 11,000-point Dow. Is that why the conference organizers and the local authorities were completely caught off guard by the level and intensity of the protests?

It's not like they were a secret. They were more than eight months in the planning, discussed and developed through the Internet, announced in a full-page ad in the New York Times signed by 60 anti-WTO groups and preceded by a traveling caravan that visited 18 cities, holding teach-ins on civil disobedience before arriving in Seattle. Not exactly an underground operation.

The protesters left Seattle but very likely will take their message to the streets of Philadelphia and Los Angeles during the national party conventions, because last week proved that's the only way they'll be heard.

"We'll be prepared for whatever demonstrators may be planning to do here," says California Gov. Gray Davis. But maintaining law and order is one thing; responding to a fundamental challenge to the political order is quite another. Downplaying it is definitely not going to make it go away.

The emerging populist alliance cuts through both parties and across generations. It traces its roots not to the street protests of the '60s but to the progressive reform movement of the '90s -- the 1890s. "The humblest citizen in all the land," said populist William Jennings Bryan in his 1896 "Cross of Gold" speech, "when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of error." In "The Age of Reform," Richard Hofstadter analyzes Robert La Follette's watershed address in the U.S. Senate in 1908: "He attempted to prove, with careful documentation from the interlocking directorates of American corporations, that fewer than one hundred men, acting in concert, controlled the great business interests of the country. 'Does anyone doubt,' he asked, 'the community of interest that binds these men together?'"

Protest organizer Mike Dolan drew similar distinctions. "The division that matters now is no longer between the two parties but between corporatists and populists," he told Marc Cooper on Radio Nation. He defined "this historic confrontation" as one "between civil society and corporate rule."

"This has not stopped our work," said World Trade Organization director-general Mike Moore as the talks were collapsing around him. "Our working lunch went ahead as scheduled. The plenary will start at 3, as scheduled." And they accomplished nothing -- not as scheduled.

"The question is, who elected these 50,000 people out there?" asked Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute, clearly forgetting that protesters protest to keep in check the power of those elected. And, come to think of it, who elected the WTO bureaucrats?

The unchecked power of the few over the economic and political life of our nation -- indeed, over the very lives of average Americans -- was the target of both the turn-of-the-century progressives and the end-of-this-century's protesters. If anything, the arrogance and incomprehension are even greater today.

There is no doubt that the authorities will be better prepared next time. There is also no doubt there will be a next time. The corruption of our system and the cluelessness of our leaders guarantee it.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

MORE FROM Arianna Huffington

Related Topics ------------------------------------------