A follow-up to Ed’s post earlier on the Morning Consult poll confirming that the “free-market party” isn’t really a free-market party and probably hasn’t been for a long time.
Here’s the partisan breakdown when Americans are asked whether they agree with Mike Pence’s instantly famous protectionist profession of faith on the day the Carrier deal was announced that “the free market has been sorting it out and America’s been losing.”
Trump was once asked during the Republican primaries whether he was conservative enough for the GOP’s base and he answered by reminding the interviewer that it’s called the “Republican Party,” not the “Conservative Party.” Look again at these numbers, though, and you’ll see virtually no difference between Republicans and self-identified conservatives. “Conservatives” are now more skeptical of the free market — much more — than “liberals” are.
The pattern recurs when you ask Americans if they support tariffs or other taxes on U.S. companies that outsource jobs:
Click the link and you’ll see that literally every demographic tested favored the idea (interestingly, young adults were the most tepid in their support) but Republicans and conservatives, the supposed pro-business/anti-tax wing of the political spectrum, favored it most strongly. What’s going on here?
Partisanship, to a large degree. My pal Karl pointed out on Twitter that the share of Democrats who view free trade mainly as an opportunity rather than a threat was below 50 percent for most of the Bush years, once dropping as low as 36 percent, before beginning a steady climb once Obama took office. It reached 66 percent in 2013 and has remained above 60 for most of the years since. Why? Because their guy, Barack Obama, has been in charge of trade and they trust him. He’s a “globalist,” to borrow a word from the nationalists, so they’re globalists too, by and large. And of course it was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who negotiated NAFTA and made outsourcing semi-respectable as a matter of Democratic economic policy.
But it’s not all partisanship. Follow that last link and look closely at Gallup’s graph and you’ll see that the share of Republicans who view free trade mainly as an opportunity hasn’t been above 57 percent in the past 15 years. The number began to decline during the Bush years, in fact, not the Obama years, and was below 50 percent by 2008. The highest level it’s reached since then is a mere 52 percent. For most of the past five years, there’s been a double-digit gap between Democrats who see free trade mostly as an opportunity and Republicans who do. You can see greater misgivings on the right about free trade in other old polls too. Last year, right around the time Trump got into the race, YouGov asked Americans if free-trade agreements have been mostly good or bad for the U.S. Democrats split +39 for “good,” Republicans split … +4. A few months before that, before Trump had become a candidate, YouGov asked Republicans and Democrats whether free-trade agreements have a negative impact on wages, jobs, consumer protections, and businesses. In every case, more Republicans perceived a negative impact than Democrats. In the specific case of jobs, the gap between Republicans who saw a negative impact and Democrats who did was 15 points.
What you’re seeing in today’s new YouGov numbers, I think, is partly a show of partisan loyalty to the new Trumpian protectionist creed but also a genuine drift in opinion on the right over the past 10 years or more. As the party’s working-class base struggled economically, support for free trade began to struggle too — and yet the party’s leadership maintained its free-trade orthodoxy, creating a vacuum in advocacy for protectionism. One guy outside the party sensed that and filled that vacuum, and the rest is history. As the conservative kids on Twitter might say, sifting through these poll numbers, “that’s how you got Trump.” The ominous number, though, is the first one above, which shows strong Republican skepticism not just towards free trade but towards free markets. We may be heading for a bizarre era in which Democrats, for mostly tribal partisan reasons, end up as the biggest brake in Washington on Trump’s meddling with markets. Although, more likely, Dems will end up nominating Elizabeth Warren in 2020 and she and Trump will compete to outbid each other on who can muscle businesses more aggressively, especially in the Rust Belt. That’ll be a welcome corrective to the political status quo in privileging blue-collar concerns over white-collar ones. Whether the new policy status quo ends up being better is a different question.
One note in closing. Although YouGov sees plenty of support for protectionism, especially on the right, reaction to the Carrier deal is surprisingly equivocal. When asked if they approve of how Trump negotiated it, 37 percent of Americans said yes versus 30 percent who said no. A small plurality of 30 percent agreed that it was “crony capitalism.” And a near-majority of 45 percent thought the precedent would encourage other companies to try to “shake down” state and local governments for tax breaks by threatening outsourcing versus just 17 percent who disagreed. The public likes seeing jobs stay put but they’re not blind to the consequences here.