Why American Voters Have Difficulty with Free Trade Agreements

Anti–free trade protestor. Flickr/Creative Commons/Billie Greenwood

Americans feel locked out of the system.

As a member of Congress for twenty years, I supported every measure to open more overseas markets to U.S. goods and services. While I’m a strong free trade advocate, my goal is to present the sentiments of American voters as they enter the final weeks of an extraordinary election.

Free trade agreements (FTAs) are under fire from both the Democratic and Republican nominees for president and their respective political parties. Hillary Clinton’s views on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) have shifted, but Donald Trump has always been opposed. Clinton’s running mate has changed from cautiously supporting to opposing TPP. Trump’s running mate has always been an ardent supporter of free trade agreements and TPP, but now he “questions their wisdom.”

The Republican Party platform differs dramatically from the 2012 document, using more cautious language in describing the benefits of free trade. In fact, the platform states that the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) should not be voted on in an after-election “lame duck” Congress. The Democratic Party platform for 2016 likewise reflects a more protectionist position than the 2012 document. Though the platform does not specifically mention opposition to TPP, the emphasis in the 2016 document is now on trade enforcement.

Since the 1980s, trade has departed from being a bipartisan issue to being primarily supported by most Republicans and opposed by most Democrats. What is different this year is that several Republican candidates have backed down from their classical free trade position, reflected in the pending TPP trade deal, partially in response to the rhetoric coming from the leaders of both political parties. Note that the incumbent candidates voted for TPA for the President.

I served with most of these legislators and know their sensitivity to their constituents. The purpose of this article is not to criticize them for changing, but to illustrate how their constituents shifted their views on trade.

As a general rule, Members of the House and Senate vote for or against FTAs based upon the impact of the agreement on the state or congressional district they represent. The difficulty legislators have on these votes is when the effect is unclear on a particular state or congressional district. When I was a freshman in Congress, I was confronted with how to present NAFTA to my constituents. I favored it, so I took the initiative to organize a trade education event in my district and helped to turn the tide of public opinion around to support NAFTA.

Now, public views have shifted. A recent poll conducted by Politico Pro-Harvard “shows an across-the-board skepticism toward international trade, with 65 percent of Americans believing that trade policies have led to a loss of U.S. jobs. Just 13 percent believe trade policies created jobs and 15 percent said it had no effect.”

According to the Pew Research Center, Republicans have shown the biggest shift. In June 2015 (before Trump announced his candidacy for President), Republicans supported free trade by a margin of 51 to 39 percent. But in August, when asked if past free trade agreements are a bad thing, the margin flipped to 61 to 32 percent. Also, Pew found that people with a high school education or less said that trade agreements had hurt their family’s finances by a ratio of nearly two to one. Plus, people who are opposed to free trade are more motivated to vote, similar to other single-issue voters.

Positioned at the intersection of dramatically shifting demographics and technology, Americans are relating to institutions in a fundamentally different way than before. Gallup reports that the public’s trust in institutions (including Congress, the Presidency, the Supreme Court, religions, the press, and military, among others) is exceedingly low. Moises Naim, the former editor of Foreign Policy, wrote, “Most people look at the world, their neighbors, employers, clergy, politicians and governments with different eyes than their parents did.” People’s views of all institutions – companies, governments, religions – are changing so rapidly that predictability and stability can no longer be assumed.