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The Politics of Globalization

By Mark Penn and Thomas Freedman

Americans have profoundly mixed feelings about globalization. They generally support it in the abstract -- and, as befits the national character, most people are optimistic for the country as a whole. But on a personal level, people are anxious about their own futures, and they are seeking political leaders who will control and shape globalization to ensure that all of society benefits from it.

That is the picture that emerges from a broad study of voter attitudes about globalization that we conducted for the Democratic Leadership Council. (The report is available in its entirety on the DLC's website, dlc.org.) Its findings suggest that the best way to build support for an economic strategy that embraces the new global economy, instead of retreating from it, is to offer a convincing vision of how globalization can help expand security and opportunities for Americans.

The study finds that a huge majority of voters -- 89 percent -- agree with the sentiment, "Americans are optimistic, and America is most successful when we view change as an opportunity for success, rather than as a threat to be resisted." Only 7 percent disagree with that. Voters also insist that the country must remain the world's leader in science and technology. But that spirit of optimism does not necessarily extend to voters' personal lives. For example, less than one-half expect their incomes to rise enough in the next decade to improve their standards of living, and people overwhelmingly say they would prefer job security over higher salaries.

As a general matter, while more than one-half say they support globalization, few support it strongly. In fact, a protectionist strain runs through voters' attitudes about globalization. A majority say they would rather limit competition than adapt to global economic pressures. The survey asked people whether they would rather "limit change and competition by ending unfair trade, reducing immigration, and producing more of the goods we consume here at home" or "adapt to changes by training workers and specializing in things other countries want, such as high-tech goods and information services." By a 54 percent to 40 percent margin, respondents picked limiting change and competition over adapting to it.

Pros and cons. Voters see particular aspects of globalization as having both positive and negative consequences. Their attitudes about the Internet, jobs, national security -- and especially trade -- are all examples of that trend.

For instance, when voters were asked in the survey for their reactions to a series of statements about globalization, the statement that elicited the strongest positive response had to do with the Internet -- but so did the statement that elicited the strongest negative response. Seventy-eight percent of voters said they viewed globalization more favorably (and 35 percent said they viewed it much more favorably) when they heard this: "The Internet lets billions of people all over the world communicate, do business, and learn about other cultures cheaply and conveniently."

But by the same token, 85 percent said they viewed globalization less favorably (and 68 percent said they viewed it much less favorably) when they heard this: "The Internet allows people to trade child pornography internationally, and it is very difficult to enforce the law across international borders."

A similar picture appeared on the job front. By a wide margin -- 75 percent to 21 percent -- voters said job creation, lower prices for consumers, and increases in investment and economic growth stemming from international trade were positive consequences of globalization. But by an even wider margin -- 81 percent to 15 percent -- voters said that jobs moving overseas and U.S. factories closing are negative consequences of globalization.

On national security, voters said a favorable consequence of globalization is the increasing "interchange and exchange between the U.S. and other countries, which helps create new alliances and makes us more secure." Democrats, Independents, and Republicans all felt similarly on that score. But Republicans felt more strongly than others that globalization's overall effect on security also has an unfavorable consequence, namely, that "terrorists can use cheap travel, international finance, and the Internet to recruit and plan terrorist attacks thousands of miles away."

And then there is the issue of trade. Better than anything else, it illustrates the mix of positive and negative voter perspectives on globalization. While less than one-third of the voters surveyed in the DLC study favored the total repeal of existing trade agreements, only about one-third supported the creation of new ones.

In fact, absent some new development, the public may remain deadlocked on the question of trade for some time, thwarting progress in Washington. The clearest indicator of this came from those who work in export industries. Only 43 percent of these voters -- who should logically be in favor of trade -- said they wanted to negotiate more trade agreements.

Policy solutions. The challenge for political leaders is to create a society that offers security and shared benefit in a world of both expanded opportunity and change. The DLC survey found that voters favored an agenda for coping with the global economy that includes such things as expanded 401(k) accounts, more flextime, incentives for alternative energy, and greater equity and fairness -- with greater access to stock and option programs for all workers, for example.

There is no single idea or silver bullet for dealing with the range of issues created by globalization. Instead, political leaders need to address globalization from several angles, by confronting everything from the competition for scarce resources, to job losses, to the need for stable employee benefits. The fact that there is an appetite for solutions on all those fronts may explain why the electorate seems so unsatisfied with the U.S. economy, even though there is low inflation and low unemployment.

As a political matter, Democrats hold wide leads on most individual issues that are related to globalization, but they have yet to actually win the broader debate on globalization. Older voters favor Democrats on the general issue of managing globalization, while voters in high-growth communities favor Republicans. But neither party holds clear majority support in the electorate as a whole. Democrats still must work on clearly presenting their national security approach. Republicans are not trusted to help everyone in society enjoy the benefits of globalization, rather than just a privileged few.

The DLC study suggests that leaders of both parties must devise policies and messages that speak to the country's conflicting feelings of hope and anxiety. They would do well to offer an optimistic agenda that promotes entrepreneurship, mitigates insecurity, and invests in science and technology. Most of all, they need to prove to voters that they understand and care about American workers; understand globalization and the New Economy; and know how to make globalization work for all Americans. Only by making a credible case on these points can leaders win public support for any sort of policy agenda.

Mark J. Penn is president of Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates LLC and worldwide president and CEO of Burson-Marsteller. Thomas Z. Freedman was a senior adviser to President Clinton and is president of Freedman Consulting LLC. They would like to thank their colleagues Andrew Claster and Matt Lindsey for contributing to this article.

Blueprint Magazine


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