In interviews, several of those surveyed expressed skepticism that many Americans would really favor homemade products that cost more over less-expensive imported goods. “Just look at [the business] Wal-Mart does,” said Mark Doornek, a nursing student in Milwaukee. By a ratio of 55 percent to 38 percent, those polled said they would prefer a policy that expanded exports over one designed to reduce imports. “I don’t think outsourcing is the greatest idea,” Doornek said, “but I do believe there are a lot of economic opportunities if we utilize knowledge to start exporting again.”
Responses to two other sets of questions pointed toward the same conclusions. Given three choices for America’s strategy in international economics, just 21 percent preferred a pure free-trade policy of lowering barriers to foreign goods and investment; 35 percent opted for a protectionist strategy of limiting imports, immigration, and foreign investment. The most popular alternative (drawing 38 percent) was an industrial-policy approach in which government created “programs that are designed to help specific U.S. industries that it determines will be important to America’s global competitiveness.”
Similarly, by 62 percent to 34 percent, those surveyed said they would support a government agenda designed to promote advanced manufacturing “with tax incentives, funding for scientific research, and funding for … training.” That option was considerably more popular than an approach aimed at reviving manufacturing through higher tariffs (51 percent supported that strategy, and 45 percent opposed it.) As in an earlier Heartland Monitor survey, targeted government intervention was most popular among minorities and college-educated whites—two groups that don’t often agree.
In practice, policies that aim to nurture specific industries would immediately provoke charges that government is picking “winners and losers,” and would probably face intense resistance from many of the same voters who denounced the General Motors bailout. Even so, this survey, like previous Heartland Monitor polls, suggests that the competition with China’s centrally planned economy may be enlarging the support for policies that would seek to systematically nurture domestic industries that are considered the most promising.
If nothing else, the poll makes clear that a growing number of Americans who were raised on the expectation that they would live better than people anywhere else believe that the nation faces the international equivalent of a knife fight for growth, jobs, and income. Among the victims of the Great Recession, it seems, is any lingering assumption that America’s historic economic advantages will guarantee prosperity in the future. The only future that Americans now believe they are guaranteed, this poll suggests, is unstinting competition from every corner of the globe.
Scott Bland contributed
This article appears in the Dec. 11, 2010, edition of National Journal.