The “Protectionist Moment” That Wasn’t – American Views on Trade and Globalization



Scott Lincicome | CATO Institute

The United States’ recent implementation of protectionist tariff and trade policies has not been driven by intense public demands for such policies. In fact, recent public opinion polling uniformly reveals that, first, foreign trade and globalization are generally popular, and in fact more popular today than at any point in recent history; second, a substantial portion of the American electorate has no strong views on U.S. trade policy or trade agreements; third, and likely due to the previous point, polls on trade fluctuate based on partisanship or the state of the U.S. economy; and, fourth, Americans’ views on specific trade policies often shift depending on question wording, especially when the actual costs of protectionism are mentioned.
These polling realities puncture the current conventional wisdom on trade and public opinion—in particular, 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. Instead, numerous surveys show that Trump’s protectionism drives (and is not itself driven by) the opinions of a significant portion of the electorate—an electorate that, when confronted with the actual implications of Trump’s policies (i.e., higher prices, harmed businesses, or foreign retaliation), moves toward the freer trade position. Such facts provide important insights into the origins of America’s current “protectionist problem” and how policymakers and trade advocates can better overcome it.


Contrary to conventional wisdom, the United States is not experiencing a “protectionist moment.” Indeed, recent polls show Americans’ support for trade and globalization at or near all-time highs. For example, in the last year:

  • Pew (May 2018) found that American support for free trade agreements rebounded to pre-2016 levels, only a couple percentage points off its all-time high in 2014.
  • WSJ/NBC News (March 2018) found “Americans overwhelmingly think trade is more of an opportunity to boost the economy than it is a threat to it . . . by a 66%– 20% margin. And that feeling transcends party lines, as Republicans, independents and Democrats agree that foreign trade is an opportunity for economic growth.”
  • Gallup (March 2018) found that “[a] strong majority of U.S. adults (70%) see foreign trade as an opportunity for U.S. economic growth through increased exports rather than a threat to the economy from foreign imports (25%)”—down from an all-time high in 2017 of 72 percent. Before that, “no more than 58% had held the positive view of trade.”
  • Monmouth (June 2018) found that 52 percent and 14  percent, respectively, of Americans in 2018 think that “free trade agreements are good or bad for the United States” up dramatically from 24 percent good and 26 percent bad in November 2015.
  • The Chicago Council (mid-2017) found that voters by a widest-ever 65 percent to 31 percent margin believe that “globalization, especially the increasing connections of our economy with others around the world is mostly good . . . for the United States.” The “mostly good” percentage had remained at its all-time high since 2014; the “mostly bad” percentage was at its lowest level since 2002. The same poll found record support for “international trade” being “good” for the U.S. economy (72 percent), U.S. consumers (78 percent) and U.S. job creation (57 percent). In 2018, the “international trade” numbers moved even higher: 82, 85 and 67 percent, respectively.


Despite strong public support for trade in general, polls also show that the issue is not a priority for most American voters, even during the height of the 2016 election season when then-candidate Trump made “bad trade deals” a centerpiece of his campaign. One poll taken right after the 2016 Republican National Convention asked respondents, “How do you feel about rolling back free-trade agreements?” and revealed that half of them had no opinion (“neither favor nor oppose”) on the question—a far higher share than the eleven other issues polled. (The second-highest “neither” score was Medicare vouchers at only 29 percent.) Moreover, “[i]f we add up those who were either indifferent or said they weakly support or oppose rolling back free trade, fully 67 percent of Americans don’t care very much either way”—again, the most disinterest in an issue by a large margin.

The poll also showed that, unlike issues such as Medicare vouchers, immigration levels, or war with Iran, the number of respondents did not significantly increase as the intensity of the response increased—it stayed flat. The authors therefore conclude that, even in the summer of 2016, “trade is more prominent in campaign rhetoric than in most voters’ minds”.

Other surveys from 2016 reveal similar results—an April 2016 Gallup poll, for example, found 43 percent of Americans had no opinion on U.S. withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), while only 28 percent supported or opposed it—consistent with Gallup’s previous findings that “trade is not top-of-mind to Americans when they are asked to name the most important problem facing the country or the most important priorities for the next president.”

More recent polls show the same thing:

  • Harvard-Harris (March 2018) found that only 11 percent of voters viewed “renegotiating trade deals” as the “international problem” that “should be the highest priority for President Trump.”
  • Pew (January 2018) found that voters ranked “global trade” last among issues that are a “top priority for Trump and Congress.” Historically, Pew noted that “[d]ealing with global trade issues has been among the lowest-ranked priorities over the past two decades.” Only 38 percent of voters saw trade as a top priority in 2018, up slightly from 32 percent in 2010.
  • Gallup (June 2018) found that only 1 percent of Americans believe that “foreign trade/trade deficit” is “the most important problem facing the country today.”


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