Division On Trade Disrupts Democratic Convention

5 minute read

On the Democratic National Convention floor this week, delegates appeared to agree on most issues—stronger gun control, comprehensive immigration reform, equal pay, you name it.

Free trade, however, was a glaring exception.

“For a lot of us, it’s a major problem,” said Paul Schipper, a 28-year-old delegate, referring specifically to the Obama administration’s signature trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The deal, which would link the U.S. and eleven other Pacific Rim nations, has already been signed and is expected to go up for a vote in Congress after the November election.

Although the soon-to-be-official Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has promised repeatedly that she will not support the TPP—”and that means before and after the election,” she says—many liberal Democrats, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ delegates at the convention, were skeptical.

“It’s a nightmare scenario,” said Kim Netherton, a 32-year-old delegate from Lakewood, Colorado, pointing at the rumor, fanned this week by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who predicted that Clinton will reverse course after the election. “She’s given us lip service on the TPP, but once she gets what she wants, will she revert back? That’s one of our greatest fears.”

Protests over trade were common on the floor throughout the convention. Three of the most prominent party leaders who favor TPP—Vice President Joe Biden, Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine, and President Obama—faced demonstrations from delegates when the spoke. The dissidents, largely from California, Texas and Florida, held up signs, and refused to cheer.

During most of Obama’s speech, another group of delegates unfurled a homemade sign, painted on a sheet, that read, “TPP KILLS DEMOCRACY.” Schipper, the delegate from South Dakota, said he was asked to either put away his anti-TPP sign or leave the arena during Kaine’s speech. Biden, Kaine, and Obama all steered clear of any mention of the controversial agreement.

As the TPP has become a political third rail for Democratic leaders, the larger question of where rank-and-file Democrats stand on free trade deals, globalization, and outsourcing has become increasingly complex. A generation ago, the divide was clear: Republicans were free-traders, while Democrats embraced a protectionist platform. But in recent years, the electorate has shifted.

A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 71% of Democrats said that trade and business ties between the U.S. and other nations are good for the country, but the vast majority did not expect free trade deals to personally benefit them. Fewer than a quarter of Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, agreed that trade deals create jobs or lead to higher wages.

Both major political parties have scrambled to get ahead of voters’ shifting positions, often with flummoxing results. Obama, who ran in 2008 on the promise to take down NAFTA, now calls the TPP “the most progressive trade deal in history,” while Republican nominee Donald Trump, has alienated the traditional Republican establishment by championing punitive tariffs and other protectionist moves.

At the Democrats’ convention in Philadelphia, delegates reflected these shifting views. Many who were opposed to the TPP told TIME that they were not opposed to all trade deals, while those who espoused support for the TPP rarely did so without caveat.

“Free trade agreements are very complicated,” said Jonathan Rothschild, the mayor of Tucson and an Arizona delegate for Clinton. He pointed to the sheer size of the TPP, which is many hundreds of pages and includes minute rules on everything from intellectual property to wildlife trafficking. “Striking the right balance on every issue is difficult,” he said.

Schipper, the South Dakota delegate who supports Sanders, also offered a nuanced position. While he wore an anti-TPP pin and listed the TPP among his primary concerns this election cycle, he recognized the need for thoughtful trade agreements.

“I’m not anti-globalization,” he said, adding that he recognized the need to negotiate lower tariffs and quotas, and to rebalance certain trade deficits. But he and many other people in the anti-TPP crowd object to the other hundreds of global rules and regulations governing things like corporate property rights and pharmaceutical patent protection that “put corporate interests above those of the American people,” he said.

Netherton, the Colorado delegate, also listed the investment chapter of the TPP—a chapter that has nothing to do with tariffs, quota or trade in the traditional sense—as one of the most worrisome. That chapter includes a controversial enforcement mechanism, Investor-State Dispute Settlement, that allows foreign corporations to challenge the laws and regulations of sovereign nations, including the U.S., outside of national court systems.

The Democratic Party’s platform, finalized last week, reflects these concerns, but walks a careful balance. The text, touted as the most progressive in recent history, leaves the door open to future trade deals, but demands more exacting criteria.

“Over the past three decades, America has signed too many trade deals that have not lived up to the hype,” the platform reads. “Trade deals often boosted the profits of large corporations, while at the same time failing to protect workers’ rights, labor standards, the environment, and public health.”

Schipper said he’d be fine supporting trade deals in the future that did just that. “I’d be very much inclined to support an agreement that took into account human rights and the well-being of American workers,” he said. “I think a lot of people would support that.”

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Write to Haley Sweetland Edwards at haley.edwards@time.com