I don’t know
Most Americans feel uncertain about the benefits of trade and trade policies because we lack information to make a confident assessment. In national polls, the higher the level of uncertainty, the increased likelihood individuals will check the “I don’t know” box.
In her 2017 book, American Opinion on Trade: Preferences without Politics, political science professor Alexandra Guisinger produces deeper insights into how Americans form their opinions on trade than what traditional polls indicate.
As with other types of policy issues, Guisinger found that Americans incorporate “sociotropic” concerns into their evaluations of the impact of trade, meaning they consider how trade policies might affect others, not only themselves.
Therefore, even the most well-informed respondents to a survey on trade could be conflicted if they hold countervailing beliefs about how trade affects them as an individual versus how it affects their community or the nation, resulting in ambivalence or a non-opinion on trade.
A sense of community
Guisinger’s research bears out two factors she says should bereliable predictors in how people form views about the impacts of trade on their community: the concentration of import-competing jobs and residential turnover.
Local production of goods – industrial or agriculture – historically provided a strong direct connection for residents to the community-level effects of trade on employment. But communities with high residential turnover, especially urban and suburban areas, have become more diverse economically. “One-company towns” focused on making products that compete with imports are few and far between.
Thus, while Americans are concerned about the community-level effects of trade, it has become more complex to assess the local impacts – positive or negative – of trade policies due to structural changes in the economy, a challenge that is compounded by high levels of residential turnover.
Conversely, longer-term residency that characterizes rural areas corresponds with a higher understanding and stronger beliefs about the impact of trade on the community. Guisinger presents evidence that these communities are less likely to oppose trade protections.
On the barstool, in the bowling alley, or in the local paper
National broadcasts tend to influence American views on how trade impacts the U.S. economy. Studies of how economic news is covered by national media show that reporting on the perceived negative effects of trade (a widening trade deficit or job losses), heavily outweighs reporting on the perceived positive effects of trade (increased product choice, lower prices). Less than 5 percent of economic reporting offers a portrayal of the positive benefits of trade.
But to evaluate local impacts, Americans rely more on information available through local papers or newsletters, and they are also influenced by political ads targeted to their districts. Personal relationships with family and friends who hold strong opinions on trade are most influential. (National politicians have to eat when they are on the campaign trail, but they choose local diners versus the drive-through for a reason.)
Overall, however, the information environment on trade policy is generally very weak, leaving Americans with little on which to base an opinion on trade, especially when it comes to evaluating trade’s impact to their community.
The power of words and images
Guisinger’s evaluation of polls suggests that individuals generally believe trade protections help other people more than themselves. Women and minorities are less responsive to pro-trade messages.
Yet in her analysis of more than 500 trade-related political ads, images of trade protection in those ads overwhelmingly presented white, male workers as the beneficiaries of trade protectionism. The Alliance for American Manufacturing got the memo on this point – their latest ads promoting steel tariffs features stock image diversity.
Respondents to polls on trade are also susceptible to the way the questions are framed. A negative framing plays to the respondent’s empathy toward the perceived downsides of trade for some workers in their community or the broader economy.
What would happen if tariffs on imported steel were re-labeled as “redistribution” of wealth? After all, producers who use steel in the products they make, and consumers who buy products made of steel are paying the price for protecting domestic steel production. And what if trade protections that benefit older workers are instead labeled as a form of social security? Far-fetched? Maybe not in today’s political environment.
Don’t Know, Don’t Care
For most people, not having a strong opinion about trade is a rational choice because they have discounted trade issues in favor of other, more significant concerns. But if the average American is uninformed, largely ambivalent about trade, or prioritizes other issues over trade, any preferences they hold will have little impact on trade policymaking or related votes.
Guisinger points to research that shows that American views on trade are malleable and the public is receptive to positive messages on trade from trusted “elites,” creating a valuable opportunity for politicians to send pro-trade messages.
The hard part is that a single negative message can be enough to pull a majority toward supporting protection, whereas it would take a sustained and broad information campaign of pro-trade messaging to move public opinion significantly against protection.
Politicians who attempt pro-trade messaging would be taking on political risks for low political rewards. Instead, most American politicians have retreated into avoidance and silence on trade policies as a default position.
Engage or Status Quo?
For the last seventy-five years, American trade policy has been oriented toward free trade and market opening, even if the general electorate held views that favored protecting the home market.
This disconnect can no longer be characterized as simply a lag in public opinion. It is a rift that has only grown wider in recent years. Coverage of trade in mass media and through political campaigns and ads have only driven the wedge deeper between mass and elite opinions on the benefits of trade.
Whether you agree or disagree with the trade policies of the Trump administration, President Trump has engaged more Americans on trade through his tweets than at any time since 14 million Americans heard Ross Perot’s NAFTA one-liner that the trade agreement would cause a “giant sucking sound” as American jobs move to Mexico.
There has been a valiant attempt by academics to promote economic literacy in primary and secondary education, but there remains a significant void in reliable and accessible information about trade’s impact at the community-level, which Guisinger’s research demonstrates is important to individual views on trade policies.
The American public deserves an opportunity to have factual, accessible, and interesting information about the benefits of trade and we’ll have to do much better collectively at making that information relate to what individuals care most about – how trade affects their community – if we are to overcome the American public’s continuing skepticism about the benefits of trade and sustain global leadership in promoting our core free-market values. At TradeVistas, we’re trying to do our part.