China Trade Is Linked to U.S. Voter Extremism ; New Research Connects Globalization and Bitter American Political Divide

By Nelson D Schwartz; Quoctrung Bui | International New York Times, April 27, 2016 | Go to article overview

China Trade Is Linked to U.S. Voter Extremism ; New Research Connects Globalization and Bitter American Political Divide


Nelson D Schwartz; Quoctrung Bui, International New York Times


Research suggests that globalization and related job losses since the turn of the century have contributed heavily to a bitter political divide in the United States.

In this forlorn Southern town whose once-humming factories were battered in recent years by a flood of Asian imports, Rhonda Hughes, 43, is a fervent supporter of Donald J. Trump. Her 72-year-old mother is equally passionate about Senator Bernie Sanders.

Disenchantment with the political mainstream is no surprise. But research to be released this week by four leading academic economists suggests that the damage to manufacturing jobs from a sharp acceleration in globalization since the turn of the century has contributed heavily to the United States' bitter political divide.

Ms. Hughes avoids discussing the election with her mother, but their neighbor Benjamin Green, 83, knows just what Washington needs. "It'll take a junkyard dog to straighten this country out," he said.

Cross-referencing congressional voting records and district-by- district patterns of job losses and other economic trends between 2002 and 2010, the researchers found that areas hardest hit by trade shocks were much more likely to move to the far right or the far left.

"It's not about incumbents changing their positions," said David Autor, an influential scholar of labor economics and trade at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the paper's authors. "It's about the replacement of moderates with more ideological successors."

Mr. Autor added: "In retrospect, whether it's Trump or Sanders, we should have seen" it coming.

"The China shock isn't the sole factor," he continued, "but it is something of a missing link."

In addition to Mr. Autor, the research was conducted by David Dorn of the University of Zurich; Gordon Hanson, a professor at the University of California, San Diego; and Kaveh Majlesi of Lund University in Sweden.

"Exposure to import competition is bad for centrists," Mr. Hanson said. "We've known that political polarization and income inequality track each other, but that pattern is simply a correlation. We've now found a mechanism for how economic changes create further political divisions."

Parker Griffith experienced the move away from the political middle firsthand.

A so-called Blue Dog Democrat who represented Courtland and the rest of Alabama's Fifth Congressional District, he switched to the Republicans in 2009 and metamorphosed into a moderate Republican. But that wasn't enough to save his seat.

Dr. Griffith was beaten in the Republican primary in 2010 by Morris J. Brooks Jr., who has emerged as one of the most right-wing members of Congress.

"If you're under economic stress and you can't provide for your family, the easiest answer is to find someone to blame," said Dr. Griffith. "Mexicans, illegal immigrants, Obama."

Representative Brooks has said that he would consider "anything short of shooting" illegal immigrants to get them out of the country and that he favored imposing heavy tariffs on China to "level the playing field" and punish Beijing for what he sees as currency manipulation.

In the case of the Fifth District, which includes Huntsville and its space- and defense-related industries, as well as more industrial Florence along the Tennessee River, the move has been to the right.

But Mr. Autor and his colleagues found that in districts with heavy minority representation, similar shocks can push more Democratic districts in the opposite direction. While whites hit hard by trade tend to move right, nonwhite voters move left, eroding support for moderates in both parties, the study concluded.

As the South industrialized in the second half of the 20th century, poor Alabamians who once toiled on farms were able to secure a toehold in the middle class. In the shadow of Tennessee Valley Authority dams that supplied cheap power, thousands of workers sewed jeans and T-shirts, and could earn upward of $20 an hour in heavily unionized factories. …

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