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Republicans and Democrats have a hard time agreeing on anything, but the issue of trade seems to defy party affiliation. Teeter totter via

Why fight over free trade confounds partisan divide

This week, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill giving him trade promotion authority (TPA), intended to ease the passage of trade pacts with other countries by requiring lawmakers to vote simply yay or nay – no amendments allowed. During the signing ceremony, the president praised the measure as a result of all-too-unusual cooperation among Democrats and Republicans.

While that can’t really be said for the House, which followed a more partisan divide, the Senate’s decision to give President Obama so-called fast-track authority stands out as an exceedingly rare moment of bipartisan compromise. It’s something I’ve seen only a handful of times in my ten years researching public opinion and political representation in American politics.

In all, 13 Senate Democrats joined a majority of Republicans to pass TPA, considered key to striking a deal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade deal involving a dozen countries, mostly in the Pacific Rim.

In an era when Democrats and Republicans are seemingly divided on everything from policy issues to beer choices to the suitability of potential mates, the pro-trade vote provides evidence that gridlock is not inevitable in a Washington that’s as polarized as any since Reconstruction.

But what was it that compelled Senate Democrats to buck pressure from environmentalist groups, labor unions and other organizations critical to the party’s base to work together with Republicans on the issue? Did they go against the views of the American public, as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz suggested? And what does it teach us about bipartisanship going forward?

Conflicting views on trade

Opponents of the agreement on both sides of the aisle argued it went against the will of the people and benefited only the few.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who along with Senators Warren and Sherrod Brown led the fight against fast-track authority, has called the agreement a giveaway to “Wall Street and corporate America.” And Republican Senator Cruz described the vote as detrimental to working people and a victory for a corrupt “Washington cartel.”

Indeed, Americans have long held conflicted views on the issue of trade. There is general acceptance of the idea that trade is a boon for consumers, but that it has mixed or negative effects on vulnerable workers. Recent general social surveys by the National Opinion Research Center, for example, have shown Americans of all political stripes endorse the somewhat contrary notions that free trade both “leads to better products” and “has taken away a lot of jobs in the United States.”

Public data on TPP are still sparse, but we can perhaps evaluate attitudes on this issue through the lens of another recent trade agreement: the 2011 deal to extend trade preferences similar to those found in the North American Free Trade Agreement to South Korea.

Much like TPP, this bill produced a rare (by modern standards) amount of cross-party compromise, with 59 House Democrats joining 219 House Republicans, President Obama and 83 senators to turn the bill into law.

The 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) surveying over 54,000 Americans showed that citizens with an opinion on the topic were almost evenly split (51% in favor, 49% opposed) on this bill.

Republicans (54% support) were modestly more in favor of the bill than were Democrats (49%) or independents (50%), but the lack of a significant partisan divide on trade is, again, exceedingly rare in American politics. On nearly every other economic, social or foreign policy issue, opinion gaps between Democrats and Republicans are 20 points or larger.

The Korea debate, much like TPP, had a bit of an “ends against the middle” feel to it in Congress, with moderate establishment representatives from both sides favoring it, while the more extreme ideologues oppose it. But this did not carry over to the American public: people who described themselves as “very” liberal or conservative were no more likely to oppose the bill than those who described themselves as moderate or only “somewhat” ideological.

What drives attitudes on trade

So what appears to drive attitudes toward trade?

Unlike many issues in American politics — even those such as views on top tax rates or government-provided health care, that are strongly connected to one’s economic circumstances — income and perceived material self-interest seemed to matter much more than partisanship to one’s views on trade.

Among both Democrats and Republicans, citizens with incomes in the top third expressed majority support for the trade bill, while those in the bottom third mostly opposed it.

The differences in the CCES survey were even starker at the extremes of the income distribution: 66% of Democrats in households earning more than $200,000 per year supported the Korean trade bill, while only 46% of those in households making less than $30,000 per year did. About 69% of “rich” Republicans supported the bill, while only 48% of “poor” ones did.

The importance of income to trade preferences holds when controlling for a variety of other explanations, such as education, union status and political ideology, and is reflected in more abstract questions about trade as well.

Wealthier people regardless of party are more likely to believe that the benefits of trade outweigh the costs, are more positive about the job-creating abilities of trade agreements and less likely to want to restrict imports or otherwise place limits on economic competition.

Trade thus represents a rare issue in which one’s perceived class interest is a stronger predictor of one’s views than party affiliation.

Partisanship is by far the most important heuristic, or process, citizens use to form opinions about new or unfamiliar policy issues. But in the absence of clear cues from party leaders regarding what to support or oppose, as is the case on trade, citizens feel freer to evaluate this issue using different criteria.

Trade? Who cares?

So does the decision of policymakers to pass TPP over the likely objections of poorer citizens reflect another instance of the rich getting their way in American politics?

In general, the academic research seems to support Bernie Sanders’ view: there is no shortage of evidence that policymakers in general, and Republican policymakers in particular, give greater weight to the views of wealthier constituents than those of poorer ones.

But perhaps when it comes to trade, a much simpler explanation is in order: among national policy issues, trade stands nearly alone in the indifference it engenders among American citizens. Trade is something about which most Americans simply do not care.

A recent Pew Research Center poll asked Americans to rate the priority that policymakers should give to 20 different policy issues, encompassing a range of economic, social, foreign policy and other concerns. “Dealing with global trade issues” came in dead last among the 20 issues. For no group — be it Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, ideological extremist or moderate — did trade move the needle much.

So while TPP stirs passions among certain segments of the electorate, it’s not an issue that policymakers are likely to hear much about come election time. Unlike many other issues, TPP appears unlikely to affect many people’s votes, or motivate people go to the polls at all.

It’s likely, at least in part, that the lack of clear party dividing lines in Washington and the apathy that citizens have toward trade are connected. Most recent research suggests that Americans’ primary commitments to political parties are more emotional than they are intellectual.

Americans root for parties the way they root for sports teams. We want our preferred policies to become law, but mostly we want our team to win, and the other to be humiliated. Since trade has long been an issue on which “elite” Democratic and Republican positions have been blurred, trade lacks the winner–loser aspect that spurs many to pay attention to politics at all.

The end result is that elected officials don’t have much reason to believe that their vote on trade will matter come election time. Policymakers, by and large, do listen to public opinion, even at the expense of powerful interests, on issues that the public cares about.

But in the absence of public concern, this is safely an issue on which policymakers can follow the recommendations of economists, “special interests” or simply their own views of what is right, with very little fear of political consequence.

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