The Pew Poll on "Trade" Doesn’t Pass the Sniff Test

Drawing on poll numbers gathered last year, the influential Pew Research Center for the People and the Press waited until the recent trade summit in Miami to put out a report under headlines that proclaimed “Support for Free Trade” and “Miami Protests Do Not Reflect Popular Views.” But a much more fitting headline would have been: “Report Conclusions Do Not Reflect Actual Data.”

The first sentence of the Nov. 20 report claimed direct relevance to current disputes over proposals for a Free Trade Area of the Americas: “The anti-globalization protesters who have clogged the streets of Miami voicing opposition to negotiations to create a free trade area in the Western Hemisphere are not speaking for the strong majorities throughout the region who believe trade is both good for their countries and for them personally.”

Interesting. But true?

Both of the survey questions cited by the report asked people in 10 nations of the hemisphere about “the growing trade and business ties” between their country and other countries. But the report overlaid the replies about generic commerce onto particular types of trade arrangements — “free trade” deals such as the proposed FTAA.

After contacting the Pew Research Center about this evident disconnect, I heard back from Bruce Stokes, a columnist for the National Journal and former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He’s now a Pew Research Center fellow.

Stokes responded that “we did not poll on the issue of the ‘rules’ of trade and so did not report results to that effect. Nor did we report people’s views about ‘free trade.’ We merely reported that people generally think greater trade is better for their countries and their families.”

Yet the report went far beyond merely gauging attitudes toward generic trade. From the outset, it referred to protesters “voicing opposition to negotiations to create a free trade area” — and equated support for “trade” with support for “free trade.”

The equation is more than a little skewed. “Most people I know weren’t in Miami to discuss the abstract issue of trade, but rather the very concrete set of rules contained in the FTAA,” said Karen Hansen-Kuhn, trade program coordinator at The Development GAP. “To suggest that the anti-corporation globalization movement is anti-trade is completely off-base,” said Sarah Anderson, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies who has been following FTAA negotiations since 1994.

“Yes, there is a tiny subset that calls for less global trade, based primarily on the argument that long-distance transport of goods has detrimental environmental impacts,” Anderson noted. “But the vast majority of people in the streets in Miami and at similar protests around the world are not opposed to international trade and investment. They just want different rules to ensure that the benefits of this economic activity actually benefit ordinary people instead of the rich.”

Similar comments came from author Edward S. Herman, an economist and media analyst who is professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. “What is super-deceptive about the Pew questions is the conflating of ‘growing trade’ with ‘free trade’ agreements, which is like conflating ‘fighting against crime’ with support of capital punishment,” he said.

Herman added: “The critical failure of the Pew questions is that they don’t ask about the rules that are installed in ‘free trade’ agreements like NAFTA and the proposed FTAA agreement — that subordinate national sovereignty to the demands of foreign investors and traders, impose rules like honoring patent monopoly rights and limit government rights to tax or regulate foreign investors. A more honest question would ask about tradeoffs between national sovereignty and the rights of foreign investors and traders, not one that asks, essentially, if you favor more rather than less trade.”

The FTAA is highly controversial in Brazil — one of five South American countries highlighted in the report from the moneyed Pew Research Center. But Maria Luisa Mendonca, director of the Network for Social Justice and Human Rights, based in Brazil, told me that the survey’s research “has nothing to do with the FTAA.”

Brazil is a crystal-clear example of how the Pew report obscures key realities. In early November, Brazil’s president “traveled to Africa to increase trade and also cultural and political relations with African countries,” Mendonca points out. “There were no protests in Brazil against that. On the other hand, a grassroots plebiscite that included over 10 million people last year showed that over 98 percent of the voters were against the FTAA and wanted the Brazilian government to leave the negotiations.”

Without any tally of people’s views about “free trade” arrangements, the Pew report was incapable of backing up its lead assertion — that “free trade” opponents “are not speaking for strong majorities throughout the region who believe trade is both good for their countries and for them personally.”

Any difference that may exist in public attitudes toward “trade” and “free trade,” Stokes acknowledged, is “a distinction that we did not poll on.” But, in that light, how could the report base its conclusions on the assumption that no such distinctions significantly exist?

In a response via email, Stokes said it was “fair for us to say that many of the protesters did oppose trade, that that is certainly how many were perceived by the media and that we were merely pointing out that such opposition to trade is not shared by publics in the region.”

Let’s unpack that statement: Without any supporting data in a report headlined “Support for Free Trade,” the spokesperson for the Pew Research Center contends that “many of the protesters did oppose trade,” not only what’s known as “free trade.” In effect, the report — while accepting without any hard evidence the media stereotype of protesters as simply anti-trade — found that the public does not identify favorably with views that media have imputed to the protesters.

The next time a pollster, journalist or politician equates all “trade” with corporate-friendly trade pacts, you might recall the “Through the Looking-Glass” words of Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

* Background link: Pew Research Center report — “Support for Free Trade: Miami Protests Do Not Reflect Popular Views


Norman Solomon is the national director of and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His latest book, War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine, is published by The New Press.