Why Both Republicans and Democrats are Grumpy about Trade
September 24, 2018
Some interesting poll data has emerged over the past couple of weeks that merits some discussion. As usual, some of the most useful comes from the Pew Research Center and the intrepid Bruce Stokes, who has spent a lot of time over the past six years trying to understand what the American people think about trade and how that is changing.
It is not news to point out that, broadly speaking, Americans support trade generally and have done so for years. They also support trade agreements generally, though with less enthusiasm. That does not, however, stop them from having negative views on the consequences of trade such as lost jobs or plants moving offshore. One can draw two conclusions: we don’t approach the issue of trade entirely rationally, and we are perfectly capable of maintaining two contradictory views at the same time. No surprise there, either. Human nature.
The news is the sharp change in Republicans’ opinions about trade at the very time that Democrats are holding steady and are actually more pro-trade than Republicans or Independents, putting both of them out of step with their elected officials. The Republican sea change correlates directly with the rise of Trump. For example, on the question of tariffs, according to an NBC poll in July, 49 percent say they hurt the U.S. economy, and 25 percent say they help; 45 percent of Republicans say they help, and only 23 percent say they hurt. Democratic numbers, in contrast, are 10 percent positive and 71 percent negative.
A Pew poll taken at about the same time shows even more extreme results—overwhelming Republican belief that increased tariffs will be good for the United States and equally overwhelming Democratic belief that they will be bad.
I used to think that trade was more a regional issue than a partisan one. That is, voters and politicians of both parties in Ohio and Pennsylvania were more trade skeptical than voters in California or Washington. That may still be true, but it is clear that just as with many other issues, the bitter partisan division our country is experiencing has infected the trade debate as well.
This poses challenges for politicians in both parties because they are out of sync with their constituents. Republican members of Congress are significantly more pro-trade than their voters, and Democratic members of Congress are significantly less pro-trade than their voters. There are reasons for that, probably grounded in the different sources of financial and organizational support for the two parties.
Normally that doesn’t matter much because trade has been what pollsters would call a low-intensity issue. People have opinions about it, but that does not mean they translate their opinions into votes. Pew annually asks people what are the biggest challenges the country face, and trade (along with climate change, sadly) regularly rank at the bottom.
As a result, relatively few politicians are likely to lose their jobs just because they did or did not vote for a trade agreement.
That, however, may be changing. The president talks about trade frequently, made it an important issue in his campaign, and gives every sign of trying to make it an important issue in the fall midterm elections; and, clearly, he has done a good job of convincing his base that he is right on the issue. Republican members of Congress are acutely aware that his base is also their base, and thus a “wrong” position on trade could come back and bite them at the ballot box. This has led to a lot of discomfort since most of them are free traders at heart, as well as a significant demonstration of spinelessness. Some are prepared to whine and complain, but the only ones that seem prepared to do anything are the ones that are retiring.
The Democrats face a mirror image problem. Pushed hard by organized labor, many of them are trade skeptics and comfortable with the president’s policy (though not necessarily with his rhetoric) but represent voters who are pro-trade and unhappy with the president for many reasons, including trade. Their inclination is to oppose him on trade as they have on everything else, but that risks parting company with labor. So far, they have argued process fouls—he has the right idea but is going about it the wrong way—as a means of squaring the circle.
This is less of a problem for Democrats on the West Coast, for example, who represent pro-trade districts, but those who need to hang on to the older white male blue-collar voters that have been the core of Democratic support for decades face a difficult challenge. As a result, dyspepsia among Democrats is as bad as it is among Republicans.
An interesting question—which won’t be answered definitively for years—is whether this is a temporary phenomenon or the beginning of a reversion on the part of both parties to their historic roles. For nearly 100 years, the Republicans were the party of high tariffs and protection as their strength lay in northern manufacturing states, which wanted protection, while Democrats were the party of free trade since their strength was in the agricultural south, which focused on exports. That flipped after World War II, but now there are signs that it is moving back as party loyalties among different regions and demographic groups begin to shift. For the Republicans, it presents a challenge of reconciling their 60-year low tax, low tariff views with their new voters. For the Democrats, it presents an opportunity to capture a chunk of the business vote that has generally eluded them at the cost of alienating labor leaders who agree with them on virtually everything else but have put trade at the top of their agenda.
In normal times that wouldn’t matter—see the table above. But if the president succeeds in making trade a big issue in the election, he puts everybody on the spot. No wonder trade makes people grumpy.
William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.