• February 2, 2015
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  • Trade

The Demographics of Trade

Trade polls show different viewpoints between generations and political parties.

As Congress prepares to debate Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, how does the public react?

Three major polls looked into the question last year – two by the Pew Research Center in February and September, and one by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in May.

Pew found a public splitting by 55-25 in favor of the view that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would be “good for the United States,” and by 53-20 in favor of its right-coast cousin the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP).

Good news for the Obama administration and the agreements’ supporters. (Up to a point – standard arguments for trade liberalization in terms of prices, jobs, and so on fare less well.)

Youth vs. Age

These big numbers are of course composites of smaller groups, with people of different regions, levels of education and wealth, and political views often disagreeing with one another. The sharpest division of opinion in Pew’s poll – and possibly the one with most implications for the future – pits youth against age:



Why the difference? Younger people may simply always be more “pro-trade” than their elders – feeling resilient in the face of potential setbacks, able to shift plans, and more excited than worried by the prospect of change – and likewise, may always grow more cautious as they age.

Another possibility is a long-term generational shift of opinion. Nearly 20 million of next year’s eligible voters were born after 1993, when Congress debated the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World-Wide Web went live.

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Nearly 20 million of next year’s eligible voters were born after the NAFTA debate in 1993.

The oldest Millennials, born between 1986 and 1992, were at most in first grade at the time and probably not paying close attention; they add another 28 million.

Perhaps their generation is more inclined than their elders to see the post-Cold War trade agreements as fixed elements of the policy landscape, to view daily international web-searches as normal parts of life rather than striking innovations, and to debate these things less in terms of ‘are they good or bad,’ than of ‘where do we go from here?’

Red vs. Blue

One striking point from the Pew poll is that Democrats appear more favorable to the agreements than Republicans and Independent.



The Chicago Council’s poll asked a different question, less tied to particular policies – “Do you believe that globalization, especially the increasing connections of our economy with others around the world, is mostly good or mostly bad for the United States?” – but got a similar result, with 75 percent of Democrats answering “yes,” as opposed to 62 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of independents. The Council observes that:

“Self-described Democrats have consistently expressed positive views of globalization, increasingly so since 1998 and especially so after 2008. Opinions of globalization among Republicans and Independents became less positive after the 2008 recession, but since then have more or less recovered to pre-recession levels.”

Why would this be? Perhaps (as the Council’s comment suggests) voter attitudes toward policy change a bit as presidencies change. But the Pew figures suggest that there are some structural and possibly enduring demographic and regional reasons that ‘blue’ approval for trade policy might be especially high.

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Self-described Democrats have consistently expressed positive views of globalization.

Urban Americans, for example, are less likely than rural or suburban residents to agree with critical comments (‘trade destroys jobs,’ ‘trade reduces wages,’ or simply ‘trade is bad’).

Likewise, by region the relatively liberal West is most disposed to dismiss these criticisms, and young voters at least in recent elections have leaned more Democratic. So perhaps this is a long-term feature of the debate.

Beyond Red vs. Blue

A separate Pew analysis, out last year and entitled “Beyond Red v. Blue“, looks at “Political Typology” by dividing Americans into seven non-traditional ideological categories.

These are Next-Generation Left (young, relatively affluent, vaguely libertarian); Faith and Family Left (somewhat lower-income, more socially traditional), Business Conservatives (obvious), Hard-Pressed Skeptics (low-income, economically struggling and politically disaffected, not strongly ideological), Staunch Conservatives (‘social right’), Young Outsiders (detached, skeptical of government, socially more liberal-income), and Solid Liberals (relatively upscale, social-issue focused and economically a bit ‘populist’.)

Asked whether ‘free trade agreements’ are good for the United States (without specifying any particular agreements or partners), the results suggest that American liberals of most kinds are positive about trade agreements, while social conservatives differ with the business-oriented right:


This article first appeared in Progressive Economy’s Trade Fact of the Week and was republished with permission. goldbrown2

Ed Gresser is Executive Director of Progressive Economy, a Washington (D.C.)-based project of the non-profit GlobalWorks Foundation that is joined in the campaign to eliminate global poverty. Before joining GlobalWorks, Gresser served as Director of the Trade and Global Markets program and as interim President of the Democratic Leadership Council, and as Trade and Global Markets Director for the Progressive Policy Institute. He served as Policy Advisor to U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky during the Clinton Administration.

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