The “tea party” movement plainly has shaken up American politics and economic policymaking. Will international economic policy be next?
From its early 2009 inception, the tea party has been practically synonymous with free-market absolutism. And certainly the Washington operators who have funded much tea-party activity — such as former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey — were expecting the movement to fuel a push-back against the hypergovernment they accused both major parties of building.
Yet many and possibly most tea-party activists have voiced support for at least two major economics-related exceptions to government minimalism.
The first, of course, entails the pro-amnesty open-borders immigration policy long pushed by Republican establishmentarians in and out of government. The second entails the outsourcing-focused trade policies so dear to the hearts and wallets of mainstream Republicans, their big-business and Wall Street supporters, and many Democrats.
Major tea-party qualms about “open borders trade policies” initially surfaced in a poll released in June by the steel industry’s Alliance for American Manufacturing. Conducted by prominent Democratic and Republican polling firms, the survey found that tea-party supporters generally favor strong, explicitly pro-manufacturing government policies, including pro-manufacturing trade policies — a position that clashes loudly with libertarians’ strong opposition to government “picking winners and losers.” Indeed, nearly as many tea-party supporters as Americans overall (78 percent versus 81 percent) favor “a national manufacturing strategy” — including trade policies — “to help support manufacturing in the U.S.”
Just 27 percent of tea-party supporters endorse doing “whatever is necessary to revitalize manufacturing.” But just 39 percent of the general public backs this open-ended proposal. More important, however, fully 57 percent of tea-party supporters — compared with 47 percent of the general public — agree that manufacturing should be helped “but only if government’s role is limited to incentives and trade policy.”
Libertarian Washington insiders might respond that these tea-party positions dovetail with the traditional trade-policy goal of expanding exports. Yet tea-partiers agree more strongly than the general public that Washington should “stop unfair trade practices, illegal subsidies and enforce environmental and labor standards” — proposals that are anathema to libertarian outsourcers.
Further, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey published last month showed that 61 percent of tea partiers say trade agreements have hurt the United States — fully eight percentage points higher than the result for the general public.
Talk and even responses to sophisticated surveys, however, can be cheap. Will tea-party supporters actually send these messages actively and forcefully to politicians? Here, the crystal ball really fogs up.
Trade-policy critics can take heart for three reasons.
First, the immigration policies loathed by tea partiers and the trade policies that unmistakably concern them are linked by far more than the threats they pose to Americans’ livelihoods. Outsourcing-focused trade deals seek to ensure that not only goods but all factors of production become completely free to cross borders. Tea-party activists could soon see that the closer this goal becomes, the harder it will be to ensure that workers are treated as exceptions, as nothing more than human factors of production. Therefore, if they want to start re-establishing control over U.S. immigration flows, tea-partiers will need to start opposing the past two decades’ trade agenda.
Second, and more speculatively, the tea partiers clearly are nostalgic for an earlier America with stronger, closer families and communities. But re-creating or even approaching this goal again will be almost impossible without revitalizing a domestic manufacturing sector needlessly weakened by outsourcing-focused trade deals. Given the premium wages manufacturing has long paid to everyday Americans, it’s no accident that the middle class was more secure economically and socially when the nation was more industrialized.
Perhaps more fundamentally, as suggested in sociologist Charles Murray’s recent Washington Post column on the “New Elites” who so infuriate tea-party types, “mainstream,” “quintessentially” American values are closely related to an economy centered around providing “bread-and-butter goods and services to individual Americans.” That sure sounds like a call for more manufacturing. Conversely, an economy that scorns and discourages such work as obsolete and instead glorifies and encourages financial gimmickry and reckless real estate speculation is hardly conducive to these norms or to social stability.
Third, and maybe foremost, without major changes, the economic losses and debts produced by failed trade policies will become even more obvious over the next few weeks and months. Tea-party supporters and their families won’t escape the consequences.
Working overtime to keep the tea partiers on the libertarian straight and narrow, however, are the formidable money, public relations and organizational skills available to their Washington insider allies. In other words, the economy’s fate may hinge on what rings truer to tea-party nation — the insiders’ skillfully packaged absolutist free-market slogans or their own experiences and deepest instincts.
• Alan Tonelson is a research fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a national business organization whose nearly 2,000 members are mainly small- and medium-sized domestic manufacturers. Author of “The Race to the Bottom,” Mr. Tonelson is also a contributor to the council’s website www.AmericanEconomicAlert.org.