Median Voter Theorem At Work: Presidential Candidates’ Stance on Trade Policy

Fall Break


Siyu Qian ’19
Contributing Writer

This year’s election is quite a surprising and unprecedented one. Despite the fact that various “accidents” have sprouted up, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton still became the presidential candidates, who possess opposing positions concerning fundamental issues. However, on the aspect of trade, the two of them seem to achieve an agreement—both oppose free trade.

Trump persistently roars about how “Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization—moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas,” making his attitude toward trade come as not a surprise. However, Hillary Clinton’s shift of positions in the election seem suggest a distancing from the Obama administration—in October she opposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement among twelve of the Pacific Rim countries, which President Obama signed.

This reminded me of what Professor Charles Staelin discussed in his trade class last spring about “the political strategy of locating oneself just to the right or left of the opponent to cleave off half of their support.”

A politician’s political standing might never be his or her own standing and their positions will change according to voters’ attitudes. In this election year, confronting an opponent such as Donald Trump, who is dedicated to destroying free trade (and many voters indeed support him in this), Hillary Clinton compromised, shifting from touting TPP to opposing it. A move that might be viewed as self-contradictory, Clinton’s action does theoretically win more supports from the voters. Her shift to the “right” on trade issues can gather a wider range of supporters than if she stood by her original position.

It is quite true that under the globalization of the business world, U.S. manufacturing industries are hampered by trade and U.S. low-skill job opportunities leak to overseas. The two candidates do have the obligation to address the people’s immediate concern. However, we should also be aware of what Clinton declares, “Donald doesn’t see the complexity. ” The complex nature of trade issues is indeed a sound reason for Clinton to speak about a “smart and fair trade” in the first presidential debate. The pros and cons of trade, and its adjustments, are still continuing debates in America political and academic worlds.

Tearing up trade agreements might even bring the worse outcome to the American economy—without outsourcing low-skill jobs overseas, the U.S. might not be able to afford the high cost of low-skill laborers or the cost of upgrading industries upward along the value chain. Therefore, in the long run, more people may lose their jobs if the trade agreements are repealed. Clinton’s statement concerning “smart and fair trade” is quite ambiguous, but this shows that she is cautious about the whole issue— she understands the U.S. problem of lost job opportunities cannot be addressed through simple trade policies.

Instead of repealing trade agreements, we should think more about how to make them beneficial to America. Furthermore, there should be other social and economic adjustments that might have the greater possibility to alleviate the problem and push the American economy forward.

Regardless of how trade policies truly affect America’s economy in the short and long term, candidates’ responsibilities are to address the concerns of the majority and to make voters better understand what they are discussing. The advantage of their doing so is raising the hot issue quickly, but the disadvantage is that they tend to oversimplify their ideas and thus, do no good to provide a solution to the problem. People should be aware of this negative side of democracy.

Leave a Comment