Last week Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted out something very silly:
My first response to this notion was pretty negative. This kind of logic is breathtaking and not in the good way. On trade, for example, I’m pretty sure that elected officials voted to give the president Trade Promotion Authority to negotiate trade deals, and will have to vote on any new deal like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. I’m pretty sure that the president, also an elected official, appoints the key trade negotiators. And I’m super-sure that since the executive branch only has two elected officials, addressing Sanders’s complaint would require a massive increase in the number of elections for cabinet positions, regulatory commissions and the like. This is the kind of proposal that makes democracy seem like a very bad idea.
Maybe this is nitpicking, however. Sanders’s deeper point is that Americans are sick and tired of the global economy screwing over Americans. This is one theme that he shares with Donald Trump — and to a lesser degree, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Ted Cruz.
I don’t think it makes a lot of sense, but this is usually when very sage commentators start talking about “economic anxiety” and how outsiders like Trump and Sanders have tapped into America’s “economic rage.”
There’s just one problem with that narrative: actual public opinion polling:
As Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum have noted recently, there’s been no dramatic swing toward protectionism as the 2016 election has heated up. Indeed, as I noted in my book “The System Worked” a few years ago, American attitudes about trade liberalization have become markedly less protectionist since 2008. It’s not just an artifact of Gallup, either: Pew data show a similar trend.
Yglesias notes, correctly, that part of the reason for this has been simple partisanship: Democrats tend to be more supportive of free trade when a Democrat is in the White House. Republicans have a higher baseline support for free trade based on ideology. So when the president is a Democrat, support for free trade increases.
But I have another very speculative explanation for that chart above: What if ordinary Americans, even if they don’t know much about this issue, are actually right about the effects of free trade?
As the hard working staff here at Spoiler Alerts noted last week, the years after the declaration of permanent normal trading relations with China were the years when trade-related economic dislocations in the United States were at their most severe. Since 2010, however, those effects have been outweighed by the more positive aspects of integration into the global economy. Maybe, just maybe, a large swath of ordinary citizens correctly perceived the effects of free trade on the U.S. economy over the past 20 years. Think of it as a wisdom-of-crowds approach to foreign economic policy.
If this is correct, then Sanders’s idea to directly elect trade negotiators might make some rational economic sense. It’s just that those directly elected trade negotiators would frequently pursue policies that Sanders himself would not like.