America is about to go protectionist. Now I’m scared.
At least it looks that way after the elections on Tuesday, when the front-running presidential candidates—Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump—won big victories in large states.
Both have spent much of this campaign savaging free trade. They blame the flow of goods and services across borders for many of our economic woes. Clinton has denounced a Pacific trade pact that she once supported and Trump has all but promised a trade war with China.
To make matters worse, their major challengers—Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Ted Cruz—also have embraced protectionism. Sanders is a lifelong believer while Cruz converted to economic isolationism last year, in a brazen act of political opportunism.
The only bright spot on Tuesday came from Republican John Kasich’s win in Ohio. With Marco Rubio suspending his campaign, Kasich is now the only major presidential candidate who speaks favorably about free trade.
So things look pretty bad for trade—but the reality may be even worse.
That’s the lesson I learned last weekend, at the Republican convention in Fayette County, Iowa, where I live and farm. Our rural county is home to about 20,000 people, and we’re totally dependent on agriculture. We export about half our soybeans to customers in other countries. Around a quarter of our pork and 20 percent of our corn also ships abroad.
In other words, we live in a landlocked county in the heartland of America, but we’re connected to a global economy. Although nobody would mistake us for rich, we enjoy a good standard of living—one that we wouldn’t have if we couldn’t sell our farm products to people in foreign lands.
If anybody should appreciate the importance of trade, it’s us.
At last month’s Iowa caucuses, I proposed a plank in support of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a pending trade agreement that would improve the ability of farmers to sell our products to countries such as Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
I offered it because so many presidential candidates had condemned trade, as if walls and tariffs can lead us to prosperity. They can’t. I wanted to do my part to send a different message.
My proposal went to the platform committee, and I expected it to come up again at last weekend’s county meeting.
That’s exactly what happened, except that it didn’t meet with the easy approval I had imagined. Instead, my plank was rewritten. Rather than a statement in support of TPP, it warped into a statement opposed to TPP.
“Everyone in this room trades with the world,” I said. “This is about our survival.” My prosperity is their prosperity. We are all in this business together.
It didn’t matter. The anti-TPP plank passed by a wide margin. I was astonished and horrified.
The statement ultimately didn’t make it into our county platform, but only because the parliamentarian ruled against it on procedural grounds. Yet he couldn’t erase the sentiment. My trade-dependent neighbors now seem to think trade hurts us.
So do our young people. When our county’s youth committee reported on its own deliberations, it announced the adoption of a single position: opposition to free trade.
Psychologists have a term for the anxiety that comes from encountering new information that conflicts with our core beliefs: cognitive dissonance. That’s exactly what I’m suffering from right now, as I watch neighbors whose livelihood depends on exports turn against trade.
It’s as if the facts of our lives don’t matter.
I hope we’ll recover from these protectionist passions, seeing in time that they’re just a momentary and ill-advised fling brought on by the hot rhetoric of a campaign season.
In other words, I hope we’ll come to our senses.
Doing that, however, will take leadership. If we can’t have this kind of leadership from our presidential candidates at the top, it will have to come from the bottom. Farmers will have to speak up, explaining to one person at a time why we trade right now and why we’ll need to trade even more in the future.
I choose to speak up now. Will you join me?