From the rantings of television demagogue Lou Dobbs to an increasingly shrill “fair trade” Congress, protectionist sentiments — or at least, a rising general confusion about the importance of international trade to prosperity — are clearly on the increase in America. But there’s a contradiction: At the grassroots level, when voters get inside the booths, the most blatantly protectionist candidates for president aren’t doing so well. The contradiction illustrates that the realities of a rapidly-evolving globalization continue to run ahead of the politics.
To connect the political and economic dots, consider some recent news from South Carolina, where the U.S. textile lobby used to dominate both the political and business sections of the newspapers. Even though protectionist forces are supposed to be on the rise, the business pages tell a different story. That story involves creative American entrepreneurs and foreign businesses — including, perhaps surprisingly, ambitious Chinese capitalists — who are moving in, bringing the promise of American jobs with them.
On Jan. 25, the day before South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary, the Palmetto state’s political coverage duly noted how the most protectionist candidate, John Edwards, was seeking support the old-fashioned way: trying to entice voters who were worried about jobs being shipped overseas. “We need jobs here,” one potential Edwards’ supporter told political reporter Jason Spencer of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. Spartanburg is the home of textile magnate Roger Milliken, a venerable Republican who has been at the heart and soul of the domestic textile lobby for most of the past half century. But while the political reporters were busy noting such traditional appeals for votes, the business sections of South Carolina newspapers were reporting more forward-looking news.
The big business story last Friday was that a Chinese-backed company named American Yuncheng Plate Making has plans to pour in $10 million over the coming five years to make packaging materials and engraving cylinders to manufacture textiles. American Yuncheng spokeswoman Irene Quiao “said the company chose South Carolina because of its low tax rates and access to key markets,” reported the Greenville News. The Chinese-backed plant will be based in Spartanburg, where it hopes to create at least 120 new jobs.
In the lead story of the Jan. 26 edition of GSA Business, a bi-weekly that covers economic developments in the three upstate cities of Greenville, Spartanburg, and Anderson, reporter Tony Taylor noted how a local developer was converting an old cotton mill into condominiums, thanks to tax credits stemming from a piece of state legislation from 2004: the South Carolina Textile Community Revitalization Act — one more sign that South Carolina is moving on.
Nobody seemed to see the contradiction between politicians who were looking to the past and an emerging South Carolina economy with its obvious embrace of globalization. Nobody, perhaps, except voters. Last Saturday, John Edwards, even though he ran as a native son and the son of a mill worker, even though he had won the state’s primary four years ago, got nowhere this time. Victorious Barack Obama got 55% of the South Carolina vote. With only 27%, Hillary Clinton was a distant second. Native son Edwards was left behind with 18%.
A week earlier, John McCain, the most free-trade oriented Republican running in his party’s Jan. 19 primary, carried South Carolina with 33% of the vote. Mike Huckabee, the so-called “populist” candidate who had tried to cash in on voters’ economic anxieties, trailed second, with 30%.
The most ardent Republican advocate of trade protection running didn’t even get on the charts. For California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, South Carolina was where his presidential ambitions died. The congressman had been Roger Milliken’s candidate (according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Milliken & Co., was the congressman’s number one contributor, with $14,700 given as of Sept. 2007).
The old-line U.S. textile lobby still has influence, particularly in Congress. But the brand of textile politics that for the past generation has encouraged uneducated mill workers to believe that they could escape the realities of global markets, while enjoying lifetime job security, is beginning to look as faded as an old pair of blue jeans.