Skip to main content

Pols and Public Divided on Wielding Tariffs to Get Tough on China

President-elect Joe Biden stands to inherit a deeply unpopular trade war with America’s leading global competitor.

For more than two years, a prolonged dispute between the U.S. and China has raged on. And while President Trump has made incremental concessions, like January’s Phase One trade deal, as well as adding continuously to the list of China-made goods excluded from punitive tariffs, the fashion industry and the American public are tiring of the tension.

According to research from Columbia University political science PhD candidates Richard Clark and Don Casler, politicians on both sides of the aisle have come together in recent years to adopt a tough-on-China stance. The country stands accused of continuously pilfering America’s intellectual property, engaging in currency manipulation, enslaving ethnic and religious minorities in the service of its supply chains, draining U.S. industry, and being less than forthcoming with information about the Wuhan-born coronavirus that could have saved lives across the globe.

Despite these damning charges—and China’s generally acknowledged unpopularity with the American public—U.S. consumers are less enthusiastic than politicians about levying tariffs as a means of curbing China’s influence and punishing its misdeeds.

That’s because the effects of those increased duties impact them directly, Clark and Casler wrote in their white paper entitled “Trade Rage: Audience Costs and International Trade.”

The researchers surveyed 1,415 U.S. respondents, asking subsets to read hypothetical newspaper articles about U.S. trade issues with other countries including China, Canada, or an unspecified nation. Some read that the president had threatened tariffs and later chose to impose them, while others read that the president threatened duties but later decided to pull back, maintaining the status quo.

While Americans generally prefer that their president stand his ground when it comes to national security, following through on stated actions to protect American interests abroad or at home, opinions differ when it comes to trade. “Americans sanction the president for issuing a threat to raise tariffs,” the researchers wrote, and “they generally support backing down.”

Related Stories

This is because trade policy—unlike military intervention, for example—“carries well-defined economic consequences for domestic publics in the issuing country,” they said. Citizens tend to face increased costs at retail due to heightened tariffs on trade partners. “We believe that citizens prioritize economic self-interest considerations over reputational concerns” on the world stage, they added.

While Americans aren’t always well-versed in the ins and outs of trade policy, the researchers noted, the trade war with China has been a focal point of the Trump administration. With the issue dominating airwaves for a considerable period of time, Clark and Casler wrote, “we anticipate that respondents should have been able to connect tariffs to [their own] welfare.” At the time of the survey in January 2019, “the U.S. and China had been engaged in a costly trade war for just over one year, generating substantial public debate and economic reverberations.”

The results of the survey showed the threatening and issuing of tariffs to be widely unpopular across respondent demographics. “We do not find evidence that low-skill workers or those employed in import-competing industries approve more strongly of tariff aggression than others,” they wrote, adding that the “relatively indiscriminate consumer costs associated with tariff hikes” informed similar responses across the board.

The same aversion to tariff threats and follow-through also rang true whether the hypothetical news story involved a Democrat or Republican president, and whether the supposed tariffs were threatened or levied against China, Canada or an unnamed country.

“Americans revise their opinions of the president downward when he issues threats to impose tariffs,” they wrote. The survey showed a 12-percent decline in presidential approval when respondents were informed of a threat from the president to levy duties.

While “Americans broadly disapprove of the president issuing trade threats in the first place,” Clark and Casler wrote, “they are not likely to sanction him if he fails to implement the threatened tariffs.” In fact, when informed that a president had backed down on a threat to impose tariffs, the official saw a 3 percent bump in approval.

While President Trump acted as the motivation for the researchers’ “experiment,” the study’s results indicated that responses were not “merely the result of respondents projecting his image onto our hypothetical president.” In fact, only 10 out of 1,415 respondents (0.007 percent) mentioned Trump in their responses at all, instead choosing to focus on the ramifications that tariffs pose to their personal economic wellbeing and the U.S. economy.

“Though respondents do sometimes worry about the president looking weak for backing down,” the researchers wrote, “consumer cost concerns appear to overwhelm these considerations.”