Talking Trade: The Divisive Articulation of Trade in American Politics

Arnold, Colin, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Bair, Jennifer, Sociology, University of Virginia

The 2016 US Presidential Election saw an unprecedented emphasis on the adverse consequences of globalization and free trade. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders built their campaigns around the idea that the “American Dream” and way of life had been undermined by political and economic elites pursuing their own interests through global economic expansion. However, the political divides between the various pro- versus anti-trade factions in 2016 did not align with conventional economic or political expectations. Scholars of trade policy typically argue that individuals’ policy preferences are largely based in a material cost-benefit analysis of how trade has, or is expected to affect an their income. Scholars of democratic and electoral politics argue that political parties are generated by, and serve to reflect the cleavages that emerge from these competing policy positions, and will ebb and flow according to the material preferences of their competing bases. Consequently, debates over American trade policy have historically unfolded along partisan lines. This is clearly not the case in terms of trade today. Strong pro- and anti-trade factions can be found in both major American political parties. How does one explain these noted contradictions? Why has trade become such a divisive wedge issue between and within both major political parties? How did the contours of this debate develop? Why have party elites and the broader electorate seem to have drifted so far apart in their respective positions on trade? This paper aims to address these questions by developing a constructivist framework that centers on the incorporation of dominant economic ideas by competing political parties in the articulation of political cleavages. By drawing on a multi-step textual analysis of party platforms, it that the two major American parties continue to support liberal trade policies, but have developed and incorporated their seemingly mutual support in significantly different ways.

MA (Master of Arts)
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