March 12, 2015; Buzzfeed

Since the days of the North American Free Trade Agreement, negotiated under the administration of President George H.W. Bush and ratified under President Bill Clinton, free trade agreements and “fast track negotiating authority” have been controversial issues, generally sought by the White House regardless of the political party and increasingly opposed by labor unions and political “progressives.” What constitutes a “progressive,” and who can claim that word, is at the heart of a controversy reported upon by Kate Nocera and Evan McMorris-Santoro for Buzzfeed.

President Obama has been supporting a new trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership and seeking fast track negotiating authority, which would basically give the White House the ability to bring the completed agreement to Congress for an up or down vote, but with no ability to amend or filibuster. Nocera and McMorris-Santoro picked up on a Politico report about a “rift” among progressives regarding the TPP.

A new, hitherto unknown entity called the “Progressive Coalition for American Jobs” has emerged with the purpose, it appears, to “give the president trade promotion authority and establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” The Coalition’s website takes you to a “fact sheet“ that contends that President Obama’s negotiating stance on the TPP will “level…the playing field for American workers and protect…jobs here at home.” They contend that unlike previous trade agreements, this one, under President Obama’s firm hand, would get the signatory countries to respect collective bargaining rights for their workers, prohibit “exploitative child labor and forced labor” (does that mean that there are non-exploitative versions of this?), set minimum wage and maximum work hours standards (what those might be isn’t specified), and adhere to environmental protection standards.

“There’s something weird about the group, though,” the Buzzfeed writers reveal. “No one in the Washington, D.C., progressive community seems to have ever heard of them before.”

Nocera and McMorris-Santoro reveal that the people behind his coalition, not identified on the coalition’s website, are former members of the Obama campaign team, including Mitch Stewart, who had run Organizing For America, an organization that emerged from the Obama campaign, Lynda Tran, another former OFA person, and Jeremy Bird, the campaign’s former field director who with Stewart created the campaign consulting firm 270 Strategies. According to the Buzzfeed reporters, “Tran told BuzzFeed News the purpose of the group was to boost liberal voices who support the Obama trade agenda.”

The emergence of this coalition, if it is a coalition with real members, may reflect the interest among some Obama allies, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to find an acceptable version of the TPP that would give Democrats in Congress the ability to support the president’s trade agenda. However, who the coalition really is, who its members are, how it is funded, and how they are able to support the TPP when the specifics aren’t really known to the public—these and other questions are brewing among union officials and other “progressives” who don’t quite think the TPP is the playing-field leveler that the coalition fact sheet suggests.

In speaking to Buzzfeed, Tran didn’t say who funded the coalition or who the members of the coalition might be.

“It’s insulting,” Candice Johnson, spokesperson for the Communications Workers of America, is quoted to say. “You put progressive in your name and that’s going to convince people?” She and others have called the group “fake” and “AstroTurf.”

“I have been in the trenches working on TPP from the beginning, and as far as I can tell there is no one in favor of it except big corporations,” added Mike Lux, a Washington-based progressive consultant. “Every progressive group and sector that works on economic issues—labor, consumer groups, enviros, the online groups, civil rights groups, human rights groups, you name it—is vehemently against TPP, so I don’t know what progressives are in this group’s coalition.”

But inquiring minds want to know. A blog called “Digby’s Hullaballoo” has tried to get into some of the bona fides of this coalition, but the trail is well camouflaged. At the Campaign for America’s Future, Dave Johnson has done the same, including calling 270 Strategies for answers, though the specifics about the coalition haven’t been revealed. Johnson’s article and many on the special TPP section on the Bill Moyers website suggest very different interpretations of the “benefits” of the TPP.

Those of us who remember President Clinton’s assurance that he wouldn’t have supported NAFTA if it hadn’t been for the promise that it would lead to more “good-paying American jobs” might have good reason to be suspicious about similar sentiments from President Obama on the TPP. However, there are issues about the Coalition that raise questions beyond the TPP’s merits or lack of them regarding transparency and disclosure.

First, the PCAJ website is so opaque as to be meaningless. Anyone could have put up that website, appropriating the terminology of “coalition” and “progressive.” Like an increasing number of political advocacy websites that we encounter, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to find on the websites any information about who’s behind the efforts. This has to stop. When websites appear that purport to represent a broad swath of Americans, or more specifically of nonprofit and community organizations, but do not identify them and do not identify the specific people behind the effort, this must be called out and condemned. No ifs, ands, or buts here. Even if a coalition like PCAJ has some substance, which we doubt, the lack of transparency and disclosure is tantamount to a flashing neon sign that reads “FAKE.”

Second, the time is up for a refusal to reveal donors and the size of their donations. The American public has a right to know who’s paying for what in the public debate—on both sides of the issues. Many nonprofits, including 501(c)(4)s as well as 501(c)(3)s, have been protecting the confidentiality of their donors and amounts like sacred carvings. In today’s environment of big sources of secret money flowing into the tax-exempt sector to carry out the political agendas of special interests, the legitimacy of the practice of keeping the identities of funders secret is really no longer defensible. There is too much Astroturf masquerading as the voice of the people for this to be a healthy practice in any way, shape, or form. Not only PCAJ, but many groups that propose to be political coalitions should be disclosing their donors—else, again, the public should see their probity as dubious.

And third, there is the question of what a progressive is. In a way, PCAJ has provided a small service by bringing to the public a full-throated debate about what (or who) is or isn’t a political progressive. On trade, it seems like PCAJ is getting roundly criticized for having grabbed the progressive label without having much or anything to say regarding a legitimate progressive defense of the TPP. The comments from Johnson, Lux, Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, and others about whether progressives can possibly support the TPP and fast-track negotiating authority (see Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent condemnation of President Obama’s TPP position and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s piece that says that trade deals like the TPP only benefit the One Percent) help clarify the substance of what “progressive” means. But that same discussion needs to be extended into other arenas, such as the privatization of education, where many “progressives” have swallowed hard as some of their brethren link arms with the Waltons, the Broads, the Gateses, and others to support charter schools and private schools that have drifted far from the progressive notions that underlie the TPP critique.

We should all be educating ourselves about the TPP and looking at pieces like “Six Ways the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) Will Affect You,” including projected job losses (130,000 projected to Vietnam and Japan alone), increased medicine prices, and weakened environmental protections. But we should also demand that coalitions tell us the makeup of their organizational memberships and who pays the big bucks for their political operations. Otherwise, we’re all buying into a dumbing down of political dialogue and, in this case, a dumbing down of the meaning of “progressive.”—Rick Cohen