Free Trade

This Election Day, Americans Are Still Not Voting for Protectionism

Tariffs and anti-free trade policies are not rising up from the democratic process but being created by the political class.


Americans head to the polls today with their country in the midst of a growing trade war with China, yet trade itself continues to be a relatively minor issue for the electorate.

Indeed, despite some political narratives suggesting that President Donald Trump's Rust Belt-driven 2016 victory was due to a rejection of globalization, Americans remain overwhelmingly in support of free trade and generally recognize that protectionist tactics like tariffs do damage to the economy. Although Trump has spent three years—one on the campaign trail and two in office—pushing a protectionist agenda that includes tariffs and threats to tear-up or force renegotiation of trade deals, polling seems to indicate that his agenda is not being driven by voters.

In fact, it's quite the opposite, argues Scott Lincicome, an international trade attorney and senior policy adviser at Republicans Fighting Tariffs.

"Protectionist policies emanating from the United States government today are most likely a response not to a groundswell of popular support for protectionism but instead to discrete interest group lobbying (e.g., the U.S. steel industry) or influential segments of the U.S. voting population (e.g., steelworkers in Pennsylvania)," Lincicome writes in a new paper about public sentiment towards trade policy. "Protectionism therefore remains a classic public-choice example of how concentrated benefits and diffuse costs can push self-interested politicians into adopting polices that are actually opposed by most of the electorate."

A May 2018 survey from the Pew Research Center shows that 56 percent of Americans believe trade agreements are a positive thing for the country, compared with only 30 percent who hold a negative view of trade deals. Both numbers are in line with historical norms.

Source: Pew Research Center

One of the most interesting trends identified by Lincicome is a divergence among Republicans, where pollsters have found that support for free trade and tariffs are both increasing. It doesn't seem to bear out the narrative that anti-trade sentiment has taken over the GOP, but rather that Republicans lack a clear direction on trade and are united as a party by other issues instead (such as immigration).

Trump's often confused messaging on tariffs reflects this two-sided reality. On several occasions, the president has argued that the tariffs are a gateway to freer trade. There's little evidence so far that he's right about that—and, indeed, the rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement produced a slightly more restrictive set of trade policies. And, bizarrely, Trump has also claimed that his tariffs don't exist at all.

Polling also shows that opinions about trade and protectionism are closely linked to partisan views. In other words, Republicans are more likely to support protectionism when they have a president who supports protectionism. Once again, it is not the desires of voters that are causing this shift to happen.

In this muddled environment, it appears that special interests that favor more protectionism have been the driving force behind the Trump administration's belligerent trade policies—or, at least, they have amplified what Trump already believed.

"These polling realities puncture the current conventional wisdom on trade and public opinion," says Linciome, who is also an adjunct scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute. "In particular," they puncture the notion "that Americans have turned en masse against trade and globalization, and that President Donald Trump's economic nationalism reflects the bottom-up policy demands of a silent majority of American voters."

NEXT: Trump Warns That Democrats 'Would Obliterate Obamacare'

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. On several occasions, the president has argued that the tariffs are a gateway to freer trade. There’s little evidence so far that he’s right about that?and, indeed, the rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement produced a slightly more restrictive set of trade policies.

    China’s president vows to lower tariffs, increase imports amid tensions with US

    Chinese president Xi Jinping vowed to lower tariffs, broaden market access and increase imports on Monday.

    Xi made the comments at a trade expo designed to demonstrate goodwill in the midst of the U.S.-China trade war, Reuters reports.

    Xi’s recent statements match comments Trump made Friday, expressing confidence that he could strike a deal with China at talks later this month.

    “I think we’ll make a deal with China,” Trump told reporters.

    1. Reason avoids news like this.

      It blows up the notion that you cannot use negotiation tactics to get authoritarian nations like China to lower trade restrictions.

  2. “Despite some political narratives suggesting that President Donald Trump’s Rust Belt-driven 2016 victory was due to a rejection of globalization, Americans remain overwhelmingly in support of free trade”

    Elections are decided on the margins. It isn’t what 48% of the voters on the left want that decides who wins. It isn’t the 48% of the people who line up on the right that decides who wins. It’s the 4% who could go either way.

    That swing vote is in the swing states of Michigan, Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and to say that they didn’t support Trump because of his promises to restrict trade with China and others is to be oblivious to the facts.

    Trump did all the things he promised to do, and he did all the things the anti-trade left has been promising to do since Bill Clinton was in the White House. The economy is good. Trump will be rewarded for that in those swing states by that swing vote.

    Trump’s party may lose 24 or more seats in the House today, but if the economy holds up, he’ll be rewarded for his protectionism by the voting demographic that really matters, and if the Democrats don’t figure out how to counter that, Trump will be reelected come 2020.

    1. P.S. The extent to which Democrats support free trade may be highly correlated to the extent to which they associate protectionism with Trump.

    2. If the Democrats take control of the House, they will do so because they ran candidates who promised their consituents that they were reasonable and not like Pelosi and Waters and the rest. This will put them in a very tough position going into 2020. If these candidates keep their promise to be reasonable and break with the nutcase wing of the party, then the Democratic majority will turn into an working majority for Trump and the more centrist Republicans in the House as Democrats break party ranks to vote with the Republicans on some issues. This will enrage the nutcase base and cause all kinds of problems for them in 2020.

      If these members fall in line and vote with the leadership, the nutcase base will be happy, but the Democrats will spend two years doing nothing but alienating the very voters that gave them the majority. So, I don’t see how they win no matter what happens. The fact is that they cannot win a majority without at least some of their members promising to do things that will never be acceptable to their nutcase base. I don’t see how they solve that problem because I don’t see the base getting any less crazy or any more appealing to most of the country.

      1. the Democratic majority will turn into an working majority for Trump and the more centrist Republicans in the House as Democrats break party ranks to vote with the Republicans on some issues

        And this is where we may see a new party form, especially if more moderate Democrats start to find common cause with Republican anti-Trumpers. We might see something analogous to the way the Whigs formed a party organized around opposition to Jackson.

        1. I think it would be a new party. And I think it would be the moderate Democrats voting with the Trump supporting GOP on things like trade and entitlements and other pocketbook issues that the Democrats used to own but walked away from when Silicon Valley took over the party and which the country club chamber of commerce wing of the GOP, which is who all of the anti Trump GOP are, never wanted.

          That is the common ground between the parties. There is some common ground among the increasingly cmall anti Trump GOP and the Demcocrats, but not on anything that would ever get through the Senate much less be signed into law by Trump. The people who have common ground on things that could actually happen are the Trump GOP and the moderate Democrats who ran on being centrist.

            1. If we had a healthy Republic where a third of the country, including the entire media, academic and entertainment industries, had not gone batshit insane, we would have one party that was more or less along the lines of Trump’s nationalist economics and another party that was more internationalist and libertarian along the lines of Rand Paul. Those two parties could fight it out and keep each other honest and you could vote for either of them knowing that even if you didn’t agree with them on everything they would largely do an acceptable job running the government.

              Sadly, we don’t have a healthy Republic and have two parties; the Republicans and the Too Crazy, Stupid, and Evil to vote for under any circumstances party.

  3. Squirrels: We shall deliver no comments before it’s time.

    1. Yeah, it has been particularly painful the last few weeks.

    2. Just pretend we’re all in spaceships facing enormous time lags as our comments fly across millions of miles of void.

      1. pretend?

  4. I tend to be against Trump’s additional tariffs but this article is just delusional. People were luke warm to NAFTA and pissed off about what they were hearing in regards to the TPP. It’s just revisionist history to argue otherwise.

    “” they puncture the notion “that Americans have turned en masse against trade and globalization, and that President Donald Trump’s economic nationalism reflects the bottom-up policy demands of a silent majority of American voters.””

    This just a huge fucking strawman argument. American’s never turned against trade. Trump never talked about eliminating trade. He consistently argued that he could negotiate a better deal for America.

    1. Journalists seem to be incapable of understanding the concept of revealed preference versus stated preference. You can only vote for one candidate. And no candidate is going to agree with you on everything. So, you have to make a decision based on what issues are the most important to you. Thus, your vote becomes a revealed preference.

      It doesn’t matter whether a majority say they support NAFTA or have a positive view of it, whatever that means, anymore than it matters if a majority support “common sense gun control”. What matters is how many people are willing to change their vote for a candidate based on that issue. If I think NAFTA is great but don’t Trump’s desire to change it an important enough issue to cause me to vote for his opponent, then my opinion about NAFTA has no political weight.

      The fact is a lot of voters in this country not only object to these agreements but are willing to change their vote based upon a candidates’ positon on the issue. And that matters. What people tell pollsters but are not willing to change their votes based on does not.

  5. “percent of Americans believe trade agreements are a positive thing for the country”

    I thought trade agreements were a bad thing because they are the opposite of free trade? That’s what Reason was pushing when Trump axed NAFTA and replaced it with a new agreement. Perhaps this poll question isn’t so much a reflection of positive views by American on free trade, but a sign that Trump’s tough talk on trade is resonating with Americans (rightly or wrongly)?

    1. And thinking that the agreements are a positive thing doesn’t mean that you don’t think they can be improved or that the US should never try to renegotiate them or put tarriffs on products from countries that don’t want to give us equal access to their markets.

      There is a large range of opinion that is consistent with thinking “trade agreements are a positive thing for the country” other than the free trade fanatcism promoted by reason.

  6. >>>Trump’s often confused messaging

    your prism requires calibration.

    1. I don’t really get how people say his message is confusing. Whatever you think of his positions, they always seem to be very clear to me. I understand how someone could object to them. I don’t agree with them all myself. But, I cannot understand how anyone could claim his positons are confusing or hard to understand. Yet, journalists are forever claiming his positons are “confused”.

      1. misapplied buzzwords … authors making themselves look stupid … why confused, bro? everything will be fine.

      2. It’s because journalists aren’t too bright and are thus easily confused.

        re: the complete meltdown on election night 2016.

  7. Wow, Democrats have a moderately long history of viewing free trade and free trade agreements as a better thing than Republicans do!!!

    Un-free trade = tariffs = taxes. Low tariffs = individual freedom (to chose who to buy from).

    Welcome to the world of high-tax, anti-individual-freedom Republicans and low-tax, pro-individual-freedom Democrats! Who knew?!?!

    1. Look at whose interests each party represents. The Democrats represent the interests of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Academia, the poor, and the upper middle class gentry left who work in government or service sector jobs like law or NGOs or finance and such. The Republicans under Trump increasingly represent the middle class and people work in grimey making thing industries like energy, manufacturing, agriculture and such.

      It is just a question of each party looking out for it’s supporters’ economic interests. If you work in academia or in tech or are a government employee, you don’t give a fuck if the country’s manufacturing base goes away. You just want cheap consumer products and in some cases to feel good about yourself fighting against the evils of “climate change” and all that. And you certainly don’t care if the border isn’t secure. Those peopel dont’ live in your neighborhood and you like the cheap labor.

      In the same way, if you work in manufacturing or energy, you don’t give a fuck if some community activist in Berkely is worrie about global warming or if some Wall Street lawyer gets his cheap electronics from China or his illegal maid from El Salvador.

      Both sides want their economic interests looked after. It has nothing really to do with freedom on either end.

      1. Yes, I do have to agree with your above points… Sad to say! WHO is looking out for maximized individual freedom in this mix, where experimental-historical evidence does generally but strongly point towards small government and large individual freedom being what is best for the entire nation? Only libertarians, sad to say, and we are a voice crying out in the wilderness…

        1. What is “best” is a value judgement. What you think is best might not be best someone else. Also, even if something is best for the country overall, it might not be best for certain segments of the country. And there is nothing wrong with the people who are worse off to object and want their interests looked after. That doesn’t mean we should, but they have every right to ask and their claim isn’t illegitiate.

          The whole point of a republican form of government is to mediate between these differing interests. Sure, most of the time that means you won’t get the best or ideal sollution. What you will get however is a form of government where everyone feels like their interests are at least heard and you usually get a compromise that no one likes but everyone can at least live with. And I think that is better than having a system where people who are harmed by even good economic polcies are told to go fuck themselves and suffer for the collective good of the country and the economy. I don’t think that is a healthy situation or conducive to a stable republic.

  8. I essentially started three weeks past and that i makes $385 benefit $135 to $a hundred and fifty consistently simply by working at the internet from domestic. I made

    ina long term! “a great deal obliged to you for giving American explicit this remarkable opportunity to earn more money from domestic. This in addition coins has

    adjusted my lifestyles in such quite a few manners by which, supply you!”. go to this website online domestic media tech tab for extra element thank you .

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.