Book chapter

Labor and Trade Protection in Comparative Perspective (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


Research on the domestic politics of trade typically begins with a theory about who benefits from trade and who is harmed by it. The actors—for instance, firms, workers, or industries—who benefit from trade are expected to support liberalization while those who are harmed are expected to oppose liberalization. For individuals, exposure to globalization through the labor market—including the type of job, firm, or industry—is likely to be an important determinant of individuals' preferences over policies governing the global economy. To understand the domestic politics of trade with respect to labor, therefore, it is important to ask two key questions.First, what explains the preferences of workers? Broadly, scholars can be divided between those that argue different economic factors (i.e., labor market consequences) explain attitudes toward free trade and those who argue that noneconomic factors (e.g., values, information) are the main drivers of attitudes. Empirical tests of these theories rely on survey data. Second, how do trade pressures influence elections and when do workers' interests influence policy outcomes? Research on mass politics shows that workers' interests with respect to trade shape not only support for incumbents in elections but also whether elected officials support free trade. Domestic institutions also play an important role in this process, with research suggesting that democracies and left-leaning governments implement trade policies that are more favorable to workers.Yet trade in the 21st century looks very different from trade 30 years ago. It no longer involves only (or even primarily) the exchange of final goods but also trade in intermediate goods and services. Trade is also closely linked to the production strategies of multinational firms, including offshoring. These fundamental changes in the nature of global economic activity have important implications for the how the interests of workers relate to those of their employers, and by extension the politics of trade. As a result, scholars are increasingly incorporating new models of trade into analysis of politics at the individual and aggregate levels.