We live in a time of protectionist backlash. U.S. President Donald Trump has started a trade war with China, upended the North American Free Trade Agreement, imposed tariffs on the United States’ closest allies, withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and talked endlessly about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. But the backlash against globalization goes far beyond Trump himself. In fact, his presidency is more a symptom of it than its cause. Even as they may decry Trump’s particular methods, many voters and politicians in both parties approve of his objectives.
By now, it is well known that this backlash followed a dramatic rise in inequality in the United States. Whether one looks at the percentage of income going to the highest earners (the top ten percent earn 47 percent of national income now, versus 34 percent in 1980), differences in income across educational groups (the premium that college-educated workers earn over high-school-educated workers nearly doubled over the same period), or stagnating real wage performance for many workers (the median real weekly wages for men working full time have not grown at all since 1980), the United States has become markedly more unequal over the past four decades. That period was also characterized by rapid globalization and technological change, which, as a large body of research demonstrates, helped increase inequality.
Still, the strength of the backlash continues to take many observers by surprise. That’s because focusing only on the increase in income inequality misses the full extent of the dissatisfaction driving the reaction. For many Americans, a deteriorating labor market brings not just lower wages and less job security; it also cuts to the heart of their sense of dignity and purpose and their trust and belief in their country. That is especially true for those workers who can no longer provide for their family’s basic needs or have dropped out of the labor market altogether. In a series of recent studies we conducted in communities across the
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