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Free trade agreements

What Americans think about trade and trade agreements

Published 05 September 2016

While anti-trade rhetoric has been a regular feature of the U.S. political landscape, opinion polls show that Americans are not in fact generally opposed to trade or trade agreements with other nations.

While anti-trade rhetoric has been a regular feature of the U.S. political landscape, 2016 might be unique for the amount of bipartisan vitriol aimed at trade and trade agreements. Both U.S. major party presidential nominees have declared their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive agreement among the United States and 11 other countries, including Australia, Japan and Canada. Opposition to trade was also a signature plank for several candidates in the primaries.

Opinion polls show, however, that Americans are not in fact generally opposed to trade or trade agreements with other nations, despite the harsh words they hear from candidates and elected officials. Americans don’t want to slam shut their borders to trade; and young Americans in particular see the benefits of a global economy. On the other hand, Americans are acutely aware of the costs of trade and worry about its impacts on their job security. They are also ambivalent about the benefits of specific trade deals.

Americans see trade’s benefits for consumers and the U.S. economy

In a 2016 survey of 2,061 adults by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 59 percent of Americans said international trade is good for the U.S. economy, 70 percent said it was good for consumers, and 64 percent said it was good for their own standard of living.  Similarly, a 2016 Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans saw foreign trade as “an opportunity for economic growth” – versus 34 percent who saw it as a “threat to the economy.”

More broadly, the Chicago Council’s survey found that 65 percent of Americans said globalization – “the increasing connections of our economy with others around the world” – was “mostly good” for the United States, versus just 34 percent who considered it “mostly bad.”

67 percent of college graduates think trade is good for the economy

Americans also tend to favor trade agreements, but support is strongest among the young, the better educated and Democrats.

According to the Chicago Council’s survey, 6 in 10 Americans support the TPP, while a 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of Americans think trade agreements are generally “a good thing” for the United States. Moreover, an October 2015 Gallup poll found that just 16 percent of Americans think that withdrawing from the TPP would be “very effective” in helping the U.S. economy.

These figures, however, mask some significant differences in support for trade agreements, depending on political party, age, income and education. Democrats, for example, are much more likely than Republicans to support trade agreements – perhaps because they see the issue as a referendum on President Barack Obama’s leadership. In Pew’s survey, 60 percent of Democrats said they saw trade agreements as a good thing for America, compared to just 40 percent of Republicans.

Young Americans are also much more likely than older Americans to view trade agreements favorably – likely reflecting their internationalist outlook and higher levels of education compared to older generations. In a 2015 survey by Pew, 69 percent of Americans ages 18-29 said they thought trade deals were a good thing for America (versus 50 percent of those age 65 and over), and 56 percent of young Americans said they thought these agreements would benefit their personal finances (compared to 33 percent of seniors). Moreover, just 24 percent of Millennials said they thought trade agreements were bad for the country, compared to 40 percent of those ages 50-64 and 37 percent of those over age 65.

And perhaps not surprisingly, the Americans best prepared to compete in a global economy – those with the highest levels of income and education – are much more likely to support trade agreements. In the Chicago Council’s poll, for example, 67 percent of college graduates and 69 percent of those earning $125,000 or more a year said trade was good for the U.S. economy, versus 55 percent of those with a high school diploma or less and 53 percent of Americans earning between $20,000 and $40,000.

Despite their general support for trade, Americans worry – a lot – about trade and globalization’s impact on U.S. jobs.

While Americans appear well aware of – and appreciate – the benefits of access to a global marketplace, they are also deeply anxious about the impacts of trade on their own economic security and that of their fellow Americans. For instance, even as a majority of Americans said in the Chicago Council’s survey that they believe in trade’s benefits for the economy, U.S. companies and consumers, only 40 percent said trade was good for creating U.S. jobs, and just 35 percent said it was good for job security.

Similarly, according to a 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of Americans said trade agreements lead to job losses, while the same percentage said they lead to lower wages. Just 17 percent of Americans said trade agreements create jobs, and only 11 percent said they raise wages.

Knowledge about specific trade agreements is low.

The seeming contradictions in Americans’ attitudes toward trade and trade agreements are no doubt frustrating to advocates of trade. But one potential reason for this disconnect is the low level of knowledge most Americans have about the substance of specific agreements.

Gallup, for example, found that while 28 percent of Americans said they disapprove of the idea of withdrawing from trade agreements such as NAFTA, 43 percent said they don’t know enough to have an opinion. Likewise, a March 2016 survey of 10,000 registered voters by Morning Consult found that 45 percent of respondents had no opinion about the TPP and 72 percent either hadn’t heard of the agreement or had heard “not much” about it.

So what to make of Americans’ conflicting views on trade?

There are two potential conclusions. The first is that Americans understand, accept and appreciate the reality of life in a global economy. But what they do not have is faith in the ability of the U.S. government and its leaders to manage the economic anxieties that stem from global competition and a changing labor market. Compounding these worries is the sense that large, complex and opaque trade agreements are either negotiated on behalf of or for the sole benefit of companies (rather than their workers) or “give away the store” to other countries for the sake of other benefits to foreign policy.

Correcting these misperceptions will be vital to restore and support optimism about trade.

© The Hinrich Foundation. See our website Terms and conditions for our copyright and reprint policy. All statements of fact and the views, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the author(s).


Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a contributing editor to Washington Monthly and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection, forthcoming in 2020 from the New Press. Her writings on economic opportunity, social policy, and higher education have appeared in numerous national outlets, including the Washington Monthly, the Washington Post, Governing and, among others. She is a veteran of the think tanks the Progressive Policy Institute and Third Way as well as of Capitol Hill, where she worked for Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN). Anne has a law degree from Duke University and a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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