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International perspective: American public opinion on trade, 1950-1990.

PUBLIC OPINION POLLS provide politicians with maps to the politically possible. Whether a politician wants to know which policies will be popular or simply wants to know which rationales might seem credible, poll results can help guide the way. For politicians and for the rest of us, a good understanding of policy choices requires an understanding of the accompanying public opinion.

Public opinion on an issue, moreover, may possess a character independent of the issue itself. This character is shaped by the nature and persuasiveness of the relevant arguments, and by the nature, plausibility, and probability of the different outcomes that could result from different policy choices. American public opinion on international trade possesses a unique character. And its study certainly bears relevance to contemporary events.

This article surveys American public opinion on U.S. trade policy from the 1950s through the 1980s. A thorough search revealed over 1,000 survey questions from twenty-four different polling firms in over 100 separate national polls.(1) A majority of the questions were posed in the 1980s as the U.S. ran up large merchandise trade deficits, widely reported in the media. Many trade questions in the 1950s and 1960s concerned proposed trade embargoes of communist countries.


Until the 1980s, the issue of trade seldom appeared in the polls and, when it did, it did not appear prominently. For example, a poll in 1955 asked: "What are some of the things the government can do to keep the country prosperous?".(2) Among the numerous economic policies mentioned in response, "Encourage foreign trade" and "Curtail imports" were mentioned by 4 percent and 3 percent of the respondents, respectively. That put them in eleventh and twelfth place, behind such responses as "Lower taxes," "Keep employment high," "Help the farmers," and "Keep controls on prices." The split and contradictory nature of public opinion on trade policy - roughly equal proportions of the population desiring to encourage trade and to curtail imports - persisted into the 1980s.

A poll in 1972 asked respondents to pick the two or three world problems that merited top priority consideration. "Trade barriers" was mentioned by only 1 percent of the respondents to rank nineteenth out of twenty problems mentioned.(3)

On thirty-two occasions, from August 1980 to May 1988, the New York Times/CBS News poll asked: "What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?" Not until January 1985 was "Foreign trade" mentioned by over 1 percent of respondents. It was never thereafter mentioned by more than 2 percent of respondents. Thus, in spite of all the attention given to the trade issue in the 1980s, it remained a subordinate or secondary issue in public opinion polls.

Sometimes, trade policy achieved more prominence when ranked within a smaller subset of issues. On ten occasions during the 1980s, pollsters asked respondents to mention or to rank important economic issues, important foreign affairs issues, or important national security issues. Interestingly, trade ranked much higher among national security and foreign affairs issues than it did among economic issues.


When asked most directly, most Americans acclaimed trade to be good for us, at least until recent years. Majorities favored reduced tariffs on imports provided that the other country reduces its tariffs on our goods (67 percent yes; 22 percent no in 1955).(4) Majorities believed that we need foreign trade for our own economic security (74 percent yes; 16 percent no in 1975)(5); that without trade we would suffer considerable economic hardship (66 percent agree; 2 percent disagree in 1972)(6); and that the end of free trade in the modern world would not be an acceptable price to pay for restricting imports (31 percent acceptable; 63 percent not acceptable in 1983).(7)

To the question, "All in all, do you think trade with other countries, both buying and selling goods, helps the U.S. economy, or hurts the U.S. economy?" they replied, with diminishing majorities over the years, that it helps.(8) When "Japan" was substituted for "other countries" in the above question, public sentiment skewed the other way.(9)

The picture of traditionally popular support for free trade gets muddled not only by changing sentiment in recent years but also by Americans' traditional support for policies that would inhibit trade. To illustrate the point, in Peter Hart's 1972 survey, respondents were asked to rate on a negative-to-positive scale (of values -3 to +3) their feelings about the words "free trade," "import taxes," and "protectionism." All three items received strongly positive ratings, in spite of their mutually exclusive character.

It becomes apparent when one compares responses to different questions that some Americans considered "free trade" to include some level of import restrictions, perhaps the level extant in the U.S. at the time. Consider that in 1972, 56 percent of respondents had "positive feelings" about free trade, 66 percent felt that we would suffer economic hardship without free trade, and 74 percent (in 1975) believed that we need free trade for our own economic security. Yet, when offered a choice between removing all trade barriers (as pure "free" trade would require) or maintaining some import quotas, 81 percent chose quotas and only 7 percent chose pure free trade. Obviously, there was some overlap. That overlap consisted of respondents ostensibly in favor of free trade but favoring some level of import restrictions or import restrictions in certain circumstances.


It's a popular notion to believe that support for import restrictions rises with economic recession, but the poll data don't support it. It's difficult to perform precise trend analysis because questions were usually not asked in exactly the same way over time. But sometimes they were for brief periods. Two questions concerning import restrictions on Japanese goods were asked at three different times; one was asked 1982, 1985, and 1987 and the other was asked in 1982, 1983, and 1988. With each question, support for import restrictions grew over the period, seemingly negatively correlated with economic recession.

It could be that support for trade restrictions would be higher during recessions, once other variables (such as size of the U.S. trade deficit, press attention to the deficit, etc.) were controlled. For such multiple correlation analysis, however, the time series data need to be better than they are.


Until the 1980s, when considering it as an independent principle, majorities strongly endorsed free trade. When considering it as an independent principle, majorities also strongly endorsed import restrictions. Over the years, the two contradictory opinions attracted roughly equal proportions of public opinion and, together, provided a balance. Somewhere between pure free trade and a level of import restrictions so high as to choke off trade lay a happy medium level of import restrictions that the largest majority of Americans would support. That happy medium seems to have moved in the most recent years as support for import restrictions remained firm while support for free trade softened.

To understand the anatomy of public opinion on the general issue of import restrictions, an issue dissection is needed. In March 1988, the Opinion Research Corporation posed a relatively neutral question: "Some people advocate putting restrictions on imported goods in order to reduce the number of products from other countries that are sold in the United States. Do you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose restricting imported goods?" Fifty percent were in favor and 45 percent were opposed.

The sample was then subdivided into those favoring restrictions and those opposing restrictions. In rank order, the reasons most often mentioned in favor of restrictions were: to protect American jobs; to induce other countries to stop unfair trade practices; and to reduce the trade deficit. The reasons most often mentioned in opposing restrictions were: a belief in free trade; fear that they would negatively affect consumers; fear that they would hurt one's company; and fear that other countries would retaliate.

It is only in recent years that we have heard much public discussion of the trade practices of other countries. In regard to Japanese trade policy and import restrictions in particular, we've heard a great deal. What happens to the opinion of a U.S. citizen who opposes import restrictions on free trade grounds when he or she becomes convinced that another country is "unfairly" restricting imports from the U.S.? The citizen might conclude that there's little point in opposing import restrictions on free trade grounds because, due to the behavior of the other country, trade can't be free anyway. Furthermore, he or she might decide that a tit-for-tat response in more likely to promote free trade in the long run.


As early as 1962, majorities viewed the "problem of foreign competition for American companies" as serious (63 percent "very serious" or "fairly serious"; 12 percent "not serious:).(10) Still in 1972, majorities considered "imports a really serious threat to American jobs..." (63 percent yes; 27 percent no).(11)

Such questions, moreover, became pervasive in the late 1980s, with soul-searching regarding the alleged U.S. "competitiveness" problem. Four times during the 1988 election campaign, pollsters asked likely voters if they thought "unfair foreign competition" was "ruining" the U.S. economy. Large majorities (70, 62, 65, and 67 percent) answered "yes," while 25, 30, 28, and 26 percent said "no".(12)

But, putting the problem in perspective, another 1988 poll ranked the alleged causes of U.S. "uncompetitiveness."(13) A large majority, 66 percent of respondents, agreed that "Other nations are taking unfair advantage of us." But that only placed it fourth among the six suggested reasons - ahead of overpricing of U.S. labor and poor management of U.S. business, but behind poorly run U.S. government, poor U.S. education, and more disciplined foreign nations. (Notice that public institutions were faulted more, and private institutions less.)

Similarly, in the focus of recent years on trade specifically with Japan, large majorities cited the Japanese for unfair trading practices but faulted U.S. institutions equally or more for the trade deficit. A 1989 poll revealed that 63 percent of respondents believed Japan had unfair trade policies with the U.S. (versus 22 percent "fair").(14) In another poll that year, 55 percent agreed that "most of the problems of American business are the result of foreign competition" (42 percent disagreed).(15) In another poll at the same time a 65 percent majority believed that "the Japanese are unfairly restricting the sale of American products in Japan (15 percent said no).(16) Yet another poll, in 1988 revealed 71 percent of respondents believed that the Japanese government had not made enough of an effort to correct the trade imbalance" (12 percent disagreed).(17)

The blame directed toward home was as strong, however. When asked if "American business has made enough of an effort to sell its products in Japan," 54 percent of respondents said "no," while only 28 percent said "yes," in 1988.(18) When asked if "The United States government has made enough of an effort to correct the trade imbalance (with Japan)," 67 percent replied "no," and only 20 percent replied "yes."

When asked to choose who should get more of the blame, the fingers pointed home. A February 1989 poll asked directly which country was more to blame for the deficit: 83 percent identified the U.S., 14 percent Japan.(19) In a 1988 poll, 33 percent of respondents felt that Japanese companies competed unfairly with American companies, but 48 percent felt it was more true that the U.S. was blaming Japan for its own economic problems.(20) A 1988 poll revealed that 38 percent of respondents felt that Japanese import restrictions best explained why the U.S. didn't export more to Japan, but 53 percent asserted that American products were not competitive.(21)

In July 1989, television's Nightly Business Report announced the results of a poll it had sponsored just before the Paris economic summit meeting.(22) Respondents were asked if they thought U.S. economic power and influence had increased or decreased in recent years. Forty-one percent asserted that they had decreased, 25 percent thought they had increased, and 29 percent thought they had stayed about the same. Among those who asserted that U.S. economic power had decreased, 53 percent thought it was "more because of America's own shortcomings," while 39 percent thought it was "more because of unfair trade policies and practices by other nations." The entire sample was then asked to choose one "best way to improve our economic position in the world." Sixty-nine percent chose one of three domestic policies: spend more on education and research (23 percent); cut the budget deficit and induce Americans to save more (24 percent); and improve U.S. products' quality (22 percent). Only 20 percent opted to "increase tariffs on goods imported into the U.S. from countries with unfair trade policies." Similar questions in other polls garnered similar responses.

The economist and former presidential advisor Charles Schultze took these results to indicate strong support for free trade. In his words, "...three-quarters chose one of the three sensible policy options... Only a quarter of the people picked the protectionist option of increasing tariffs. ...those who blame |U.S. economic decline~ on our own policies significantly out-numbered those who blamed it on unfair trade practices by other countries. This confirms |that~ politicians who think there's a lot of political mileage beating up on other countries with punitive trade legislation are seriously underestimating the sound economic instincts of American voters."

Schultze may have overstated his case. True, large majorities of Americans believe that the U.S. is more to blame for its own economic problems than are its "unfair" trading partners. And large majorities prefer domestic solutions to U.S. economic problems. But just because most Americans would choose other reasons and other policies first doesn't mean they wouldn't also choose to blame U.S. problems on "unfair" trading partners or to impose import restrictions on them. In fact, by large majorities they do both. And because most public policies are not unidimensional, there's no reason that second- and third-choice policies cannot also be incorporated into a government's policy portfolio, particularly when they themselves command strong popular support and when they complement the primary policy.

It could also be argued that many of the questions concerning import restrictions were "leading" questions. Asking respondents if they favored import restrictions "to protect U.S. industry" or "to reduce the trade deficit" suggests that imposing import restrictions will protect U.S. industry or reduce the trade deficit. This argument attracts three rejoinders. First, it seems reasonable that there be some ulterior rationale for imposing import restrictions, for one would hardly want to do it just for the sake of doing it. Second, if need be, a politician could affect rationales such as "to protect American jobs" or "to respond to unfair trading practices," and find anecdotal evidence to support them easily enough. Third, one could find majority support for import restrictions even without an ulterior rationale as in the 1988 question: "Do you think a limit on goods imported into the U.S. would help or hurt the country?" (55 percent "help"; 29 percent "hurt").(23)


We can make use of relatively neutral questions. Considering the level of majority support for import controls without an ulterior rationale as a base level of support, we can then compare the base level of support to the level of majority support for import controls when certain conditions were added to the questions. The difference between the two levels equals the marginal increase in popular support attributable to the added condition.

For example, a base level of support for import controls for 1988 is 55 percent obtained from the question above. Compare it to the level of support in this question, also from 1988: "To reduce the trade deficit, should the U.S. impose higher taxes on imports, or not?" Sixty-five percent said "yes", 26 percent "no"(24) the marginal increase in popular support attributable to the condition that the higher import taxes were meant to reduce the trade deficit is 10 percent (65 - 55 = 10 percent).

Similarly, the marginal increase in popular support attributable to the condition that import controls were meant to prevent a loss of U.S. jobs or to protect U.S. industry is 15 percent. For the condition that the trading partner is "unfair," the marginal increase is 16 percent. The condition that elicits the largest marginal increase in support - 30 percent - is the belief that another country restricts U.S. exports.

On the opposite side of the import controls issue are conditions that, when added to the base question, garner marginal decreases in support. For the conditions that import controls would cause higher prices on goods in the U.S. or that the other country might retaliate, the marginal decrease is -6 percent. The retaliation threat to U.S. exports, of course, was mentioned often by President Bush during the 1992 election campaign. For the condition that trade barriers would cause considerable economic hardship (such as in a deep recession or depression) the marginal decrease is a whopping -35 percent.

This information is relevant to policymaking or policy posturing: the reason for (or the reason given for) a proposed import restriction matters. A politician can potentially attract more popular support for an import restriction by justifying it with one or more of the above conditions that produce positive marginal increases.

A majority of Americans professed a willingness to undertake the sacrifice that import restrictions would entail. The willingness was stronger to the degree that the cause was stronger. Import restrictions against a country perceived to be unfair in its trading practices, to have a large trade surplus with the U.S., and to be putting American jobs at risk, would gain the strongest support.

In 1988, 54 percent of respondents believed that Japan had "unfair trade policies" versus 27 percent "fair". South Korea and Taiwan received the next highest "unfair" ratings at 39 percent. Fifty-four percent of respondents in 1989 wished to increase tariffs on Japanese goods while 14 percent wished to reduce or eliminate them (21 percent wished to keep them level).(25)

The strongest level of support given to any proposal to restrict imports arose with the condition the other country "won't allow the U.S. to sell products there freely." (87 percent "yes"; 9 percent "no" in November 1988). Eighty five percent of the "yes" would persist even if the other country retaliated by restricting more U.S. imports (making 74 percent of the whole population in favor of import restrictions even in the face of retaliation).(26)

This analysis also illustrates, however, that Americans were aware of the danger of taking import restrictions to their logical limit - barriers so high as to choke off trade. Trade barriers that high garnered a marginal decrease of -35 percent in the polls, suggesting that voters do see a connection between protectionist legislation and economic costs as most economists would insist they should. Further, it suggests that a politician opposed to import restrictions might most effectively attract popular support by warning of general economic consequences, such as lowered growth and layoffs in domestic industries that are dependent on imports or exports rather than just citing the first-order effects of higher prices on some consumer goods.

Clearly, majorities of U.S. citizens were not hesitant to endorse the use of import restrictions. The specific character of those restrictions lacks perfect clarity, however. Most citizens did not understand the intricacies of trade policy (and probably weren't familiar with the GATT restrictions on trade policy) nor did pollsters expect them to be. To the extent that pollsters probed, it appeared that:

1. more people favored quotas than favored import taxes (i.e., tariffs);

2. majorities favored policies to help retrain American workers adversely affected by international competition (the U.S. has such a program);

3. opinion was inconsistent on the question of requiring the President to impose economic sanctions against "unfair" trading partners;

4. more supported import controls aimed at "wealthy" countries than at underdeveloped countries, other thing being equal;

5. more supported efforts to induce an "unfair" trading partner to import more U.S. goods than to restrict U.S. imports of their good; and

6. majorities favored domestic content legislation for foreign manufacturers but opposed foreign ownership of U.S., companies.

In several ways - by preferring quotas to tariffs, by favoring import restrictions in general, and by opposing foreign ownership - American majority opinion differs from economic orthodoxy. But so, too, does U.S. trade policy.


Judging from American public opinion on trade policy in recent years, a majority of voters will not believe a candidate who claims that the trading practices of other countries are to blame for U.S. economic problems because most believe those problems to be self-inflicted. Moreover, most voters do not believe trade problems to be so important and influential as to cause deeper, more general economic problems. Thus, a candidate who lays trade as the cornerstone of his or her economic policy proposals probably builds an unstable political structure.

But a majority of Americans do support import restrictions and a selective, targeted trade policy in principle. With certain conditions added to justify a proposed import restriction, that majority can grow large. At the same time, certain conditions can also be added to a proposed import restriction that would decrease support for it.

The U.S. has long maintained import restrictions, usually justified to "protect U.S. industry" or U.S. employment. But recent years have offered a unique opportunity for even more and probable different trade restrictions. Just in the 1980s majority support for free trade disappeared, and U.S. politicians and journalists started to focus intensely on the trade policies of some of our trading partners (particularly Japan), exposing some new and very popular rationales for import restrictions.

Some scholars have asserted that just in the past several years elite, intellectual opinion also has changed.(27) Once it provided almost monolithic support for free trade. Now, some opinion leaders support strategic trade policy, managed trade, or similar concepts. With strong popular support and some elite support, there may be more support for trade restrictions now than at any other time since World War II. To reiterate, however, that support exists only for selective trade restrictions, not another major tariff barrier like the Smoot-Hawley tariff.


1 The search was conducted at the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut. The New York Times, the Americans Talk Security project, and the Nightly Business Report provided additional poll data.

2 April, 1950, National Opinion Research Center.

3 October, 1972, the Overseas Development Council and Peter D. Hart Associates

4 April, 1955, National Opinion Research Center

5 May, 1975, Yankelovich, Skelly and White

6 October, 1972, the Overseas Development Council and Peter D. Hart Associates

7 February, 1983, Harris

8 April, 1972, Opinion Research Corporation and The New York Times and CBS News for the other three polls.

9 The New York Times and CBS News

10 January, 1962, Opinion Research Corporation

11 April, 1972, Opinion Research Corporation

12 August to October, 1988, NBC News and The Wall Street Journal

13 March, 1988, Roper

14 February, 1988, Gallup

15 May, 1989, Harris

16 May, 1989 Time/CNN/Yankelovich, Clancy, Shulman

17 May, 1988, The New York Times and CBS News

18 May, 1988, CBS News and The New York Times

19 February, 1989, ABC News and The Washington Post

20 May, 1988, CBS News and The New York Times

21 November, 1988, Harris

22 July, 1989, The Nightly Business Report and Reuters

23 March, 1988, NBC News and The Wall Street Journal

24 November, 1988, Associated Press and Media General

25 February, 1988, Gallup

26 November, 1988, Associated Press and Media General

27 Talk given by William Snyder of the American Enterprise Institute at the Harvard Institute for International Affairs, October 23, 1987; also Matthew Greenwald and Ray Teixeira, "Trade Talks: Public Attitudes about Protectionism," Public Opinion, September/October, 1986.

Richard Phelps is affiliated with the consulting firm of Pelavin Associates, Washington, DC.
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Author:Phelps, Richard
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Date:Jul 1, 1993
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