If you wanted to explain the popular understanding of America’s partisan divide over economics to a (precocious) child, you’d probably explain that Republicans believe in allowing the “free market” to generate prosperity, while Democrats support government intervening in the market to promote fairness, equality, and the public interest. (Of course, this framing has always been dubious, since markets cannot exist without government regulation — and the party of “free markets” supports all sorts of interventions aimed at affluent voters and powerful interest groups, like the mortgage-interest deduction and pharmaceutical patents, to name just two — but few small children will enjoy a bedtime reading from Dean Baker’s blog.)
Or, at least, that’s what you would have told a small child, before a populist protectionist won the Republican nomination and then the presidency. In fact, three weeks after Donald Trump won the White House, Republicans have lost faith in the invisible hand.
In the wake of Trump’s deal to keep Carrier from relocating one of its Indiana-based plants to Mexico, YouGov decided to take the temperature of voters’ sentiments toward the free market. The pollster asked respondents if they they agreed with the statement, “The free market has been sorting [the economy] out and America’s been losing.”
Fifty-seven percent of Republicans — and 55 percent of self-identified conservatives — said yes. By contrast, only 33 percent of Democrats — and 31 percent of liberals — said the same.
There are a few ways of explaining this finding. On the one hand, YouGov’s statement contains two very distinct premises:
1. The free market has been sorting the economy.
2. America has been losing because of this.
Perhaps, since Democrats venerate the Obama administration’s interventions in the economy, they’re disproportionately likely to call the bluff on premise No. 1.
Separately, it’s important to note that the free market in question is framed as a global one. If you asked Americans to evaluate the statement, “The free market has been sorting the economy out, and poor people are losing” — or, more directly, “free markets hurt poor people” — it’s possible you’d see a more conventional partisan breakdown.
Still, before Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign, Republicans were broadly sympathetic to free trade. Now they aren’t.
Trump has strongly indicated that on most policy fronts, he plans to govern more like a conventional Republican than like the idiosyncratic populist he occasionally campaigned as. But YouGov’s poll is another indication that the GOP base’s support for conservative economic orthodoxy is quite thin — and that President Trump could probably bend it in a new direction, if he wanted to.