For months now pundits have offered various arguments as to why the current presidential cycle is so tilted on its axis. Speculation has abounded to explain both the rise and staying power of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, but as we’ve progressed through more than half the state primaries and caucuses, a unified theory has emerged tying America’s economic and political angst into a tidy package with the word ‘trade’ stamped up top in bold red letters.
Sanders has made trade one of the primary prongs in his attack trident against Clinton (the other two being Wall Street and her husband’s record in office on crime and welfare) pushing her to disavow both NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after having lobbied for the former and helping negotiate the latter. Clinton has gone so far as to say she lobbied against NAFTA in 1992, which even sympathetic journalists have called “ludicrous.”
The GOP race is no different. If one listens to Donald Trump long enough, you’ll come to believe that America hasn’t made a good trade deal since we acquired Manhattan from the native inhabitants almost 400 years ago. Exaggerations aside (and with apologies to both the Native Americans and the Dutch), Trump is using trade, along with immigration, as his Exhibits A and B in riling economically disenfranchised voters to his cause.
Voters are lapping up these messages because they see that finally someone in a position of power is calling out the ruling political class for not only being completely out of touch with their everyday reality, but also for deliberately creating these problems which are now the root cause of their diminishing hopes for a better future for themselves, their families and their communities. And nowhere is the message playing as strongly as in rural America – the midsection of this country that both feeds the nation and holds along its backstreets and dirt roads much of our nation’s institutional knowledge and archived memories of better times.
One look at the rural economy today and it is little surprise that their frustration with the political elite has boiled over. Towns that were once engines of manufacturing and home to good paying jobs are now blighted by shuttered factories. Decades of promises made by politicians have failed to materialize. Instead of tearing down barriers and expanding U.S. opportunity, our trade policies have favored multinational businesses, accelerated the outsourcing of rural jobs, lessened wages and exacerbated our trade imbalance.
In addition, the farms that serve as the economic backbone of rural America are being threatened like no time since the 1980s, when bankruptcy signs and foreclosure auctions were common sights.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently noted that farm incomes are down nearly 60 percent in just the last three years and projected to slide further still. That marks the worst three-year stint since the Great Depression, and the effects are rippling throughout the countryside. Equipment dealers are laying off workers, access to capital is drying up, and what’s left of Main Street shops are struggling. Meanwhile, Washington continues to attack them with rigorous and costly regulations and taxes, while refusing to hold accountable global competitors who cheat and distort our food markets.
There is an antidote for what currently ails small-town America, but government officials continue to resist because the cure is simply less government.
Politicians could signal their understanding of this issue and demonstrate a change in our thinking toward to rural America through any number of policies already on the table. One such example is the zero-for-zero approach to agricultural. Zero-for-zero instructs our trade negotiators to eradicate foreign subsidies – things like government stockpiling programs meant to distort prices, currency devaluations that give our competitors a leg up, and hidden subsidies that keep inefficient foreign farmers in business. Then the policy gets rid of U.S. farm policy in favor of a free, subsidy-free world market.
Unfortunately, the zero-for-zero concept hasn’t gotten the support it deserves in DC so far. Neither have smarter trade policies, reduced regulatory burdens and a less onerous tax code. That’s the problem, and that’s why rural Americans are screaming at the establishment.