Since 2000, the United States has entered into major trade agreements with nearly 20 countries spread out across Central and South America, Asia, and the Middle East. This dramatic shift towards trade expansion can be explained both on economic and foreign policy grounds. On the economic front, trade liberalization has opened new markets and allowed American exporters to sell more U.S. goods abroad than ever before. In turn, increased imports into the U.S. have raised the overall standard of living for consumers, who are afforded more choices at lower prices. From a foreign policy perspective, bilateral and/or multilateral trade agreements have and continue to be used by U.S. policymakers as a “soft” form of diplomacy to export American standards and values abroad to countries not sharing as stringent regulatory requirements protecting consumers, workers and the environment.
Despite nearly 40 years of commitment to trade liberalization, free trade has emerged as a contentious topic of debate on both sides of the political spectrum this election cycle. Much of the focus on trade can be attributed to voter unease over the state of the U.S. economy combined with presidential election year politics. More specifically, polling shows that Americans are deeply concerned about the direction of the country and the pace of economic recovery. These sentiments are buttressed by data illustrating that many rank-and-file Americans are still struggling to recover from the 2008 recession, while Wall Street and corporate America are recording near record profits. Presidential contenders and down ballot House and Senate candidates on both sides of the aisle have tapped into corresponding voter anxieties and modeled their campaign messages accordingly in bids to secure their party’s respective nomination. This has, among other outcomes, lead to the politicization of free trade and thrust the issue to the forefront of the debate.