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The Global Economy & the U.S. Vote

March 31, 2020 | Professor Layna Mosley

This is a blog post featured in the IAH Election Blog Series. The series aims to provide intellectual, humanistic and artistic insights on the 2020 U.S. elections. Faculty writers determine their own topic, looking to cover themes that foster conversations across differences and demonstrate the unique insights the humanities can offer. This blog post was written by Dr. Layna Mosley, Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Global Economy & the U.S. Vote

Dr. Layna Mosley, Professor of Political Science at UNC-Chapel Hill

UNC-Chapel Hill co-hosted the 2016 meeting of the International Political Economy Society, a group of scholars who study the intersection between global trade and finance, on the one hand, and politics within countries, on the other. That meeting took place three days after the U.S. presidential election, and the surprise and worry were palpable, even as we focused on the social science of the topics we study.

Our worries centered on what President-elect Trump’s policy promises – reducing US commitments to international institutions such as the World Trade Organization; withdrawing the US from the Transpacific Trade Partnership; engaging in a trade war with China – would mean for the global economy and for the international role of the U.S. We also talked about the very immediate worries of our undocumented as well as foreign students, given Trump’s stated views on immigration. And we wondered whether our theoretical lenses for understanding how global forces affect individuals’ political views and vote choices had fallen short.

The mid-2010s witnessed the success of populist political candidates in many countries, including the United States. While populism was by no means a new phenomenon, the most recent strand was typically from the political right, and it took a dim view of trade and financial integration, as well as of immigration. Although economic globalization was associated with improved material conditions (and declining rates of poverty) for a wide swath of the world’s population, domestic political support for it was shrinking in many countries. The challenges to the post-World War II international order were therefore largely rooted in domestic politics.

Trump’s 2016 campaign – and his policies since January 2017 – centered in part on treating the global economy as a zero-sum game. For him, it was an arena in which other countries (especially, but not only, China) sought to undermine American prosperity and power. He approached existing trade pacts and international institutions – for instance, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization – as deeply biased against the United States. And his rhetoric regarding trade often invoked an anti-foreigner sentiment, expressed in a jingoistic fashion that harked backed to earlier eras. (Interestingly, some of that same sentiment has surrounded his public discussion of COVID-19). Unusually, trade featured at the center of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign (both in the primaries and in the general election); but “trade” (or “NAFTA”) often stood in for broader isolationist claims, and for anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner sentiments.

So what did we scholars miss, and how does that change the way I’m thinking about the 2020 election? While we, as a discipline, have long been attentive to how economic concerns and anxieties affect voters’ choices (and firms’ lobbying on trade policies), we were less focused on how these concerns interacted with anti-other attitudes. That is, we tended to assume that voters’ material considerations – about their own households or about the broader economy – were more important drivers of vote choices than their cultural attitudes. To the extent that voters paid attention to global trade and finance, they did so by considering the effects of the global economy on their material situations.

We know that not everyone in an economy benefits from trade: firms and industries that are not internationally competitive, and individuals who work in those sectors, stand to lose market share, profits and their jobs when trade liberalization happens. At the same time, large and globally competitive firm benefit from access to lower-cost inputs for their supply chains; and when other countries lower their barriers to trade as well, these firms’ export opportunities expand. Government officials also are aware that freer trade lowers prices for consumers: agreements like NAFTA made it cheaper for everyday Americans to purchase avocadoes, tomatoes, cars and home appliances.  In the aggregate, therefore, countries moved toward trade liberalization in recent decades, not least because the overall benefits of economic globalization outweigh its concentrated costs. In the U.S., Republicans took on the “party of free trade” mantle; but Democrats also were happy to support trade liberalization, especially when protections for labor and the environment were included in trade agreements.

Yet populist backlash against globalization wasn’t only – or perhaps primarily – about economics. Yes, many individuals had experienced a stagnation in real incomes, and in the face of rising inequality within countries. But these changes were due in large part to politics within countries (to national governments’’ decisions over tax policy, for instance). They also reflected, especially in manufacturing industries, a shift toward automated production technologies, which benefitted higher-skilled workers at the expense of less-skilled employees. Individuals, however, often blamed globalization for these changes, as this was perhaps an easier target.

Moreover – and this is what I think about as the next U.S. election approaches – much of the sentiment directed at trade and at global institutions was based not in material concerns, but in what we often label “cultural attitudes” – that is, in the extent to which individuals are accepting of, versus threatened by, individuals and ideas from other countries and cultures. Put differently, the anti-globalization backlash, in the U.S. and elsewhere, appears rooted more strongly in nativism and racism than in material concerns – despite recent attention to the “China shock” to U.S. manufacturing activity.

As scholars of political economy, we continue to debate the relationship between material and cultural concerns. Some scholars argue that cultural attitudes in and of themselves drive support for populist political parties. Others suggest that economic insecurity – for instance, concerns about one’s job being outsourced, or about job losses in one’s local area – activates latent anti-outsider attitudes. Economic shocks may activate authoritarian values, and these values (which include a desire for control) can drive support, for instance, for Brexit and disapproval of the European Union. Politicians, aware of these dynamics, exploit them in their campaigns, blaming economic openness and foreign countries (especially those that are culturally different) for voters’ insecurities.

What is perhaps most interesting is the question of how fundamental these cultural attitudes are: is there a segment of the U.S. electorate that has long held anti-cosmopolitan views, but which only became salient in 2016? Or has the prevalence of these views increased, perhaps in ways that also interacted with attitudes toward a female presidential candidate? Alternatively, would the creation of broader-based economic opportunities, in cities as well as rural areas, reduce the appeal of nativist claims?

Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the U.S. election – and elections in many countries – in fundamental ways. The economic shock of the pandemic may well be unprecedented, and the consequences for human life may well be dire. Voters are likely to vary in how they attribute blame for this public health crisis. Some are likely to point to the global system, or to China specifically, as a source of the problem. Others may focus their frustrations on local, state and national leaders. What seems certain is that, when my international political economy colleagues again gather in November 2020, we will confront a world that is radically changed. What remains to be seen is exactly how the economic and social dislocations wrought by COVID-19 will affect the U.S. presidential election, as well as the politics of globalization.

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