Hypocrisy and Exceptionalism: Trump’s Trade War and Agriculture Subsidies

By: Jennifer Geist Rutledge

At the end of July 2018 the Trump administration offered $12billion in aid to farmers who will lose sales under the trade war Trump is conducting with China. Despite the fact that farmers in the United States happily accept roughly $20 billion in subsidies annually, farmers protested this most recent offering, claiming that what they most want is access to foreign markets and to be able to compete on a level playing field with the agricultural sectors in other countries.

Why did the Trump administration offer this aid to agriculture while refusing to offer any aid to other industries that will also suffer under the terms of his trade war? Why will the farmers accept this aid, despite claiming an aversion to it?


(image via CNN.com)

The answer to the first can be explained by the enduring history of agricultural exceptionalism, which describes the high levels of trade protection historically offered to agriculture in most countries around the world. The answer to the second can be explained by understanding how agricultural exceptionalism has become an embedded normative framework in American politics.

Agricultural Exceptionalism

Agricultural exceptionalism is fundamentally a collection of ideas about the role of agriculture in society. Agriculture is thought to be different from other industries due to its reliance on unique and unstable factors such as the weather and pests or diseases. Therefore state intervention is thought necessary to be necessary for national interests as a stable and secure food supply is seen to be in the public interest (Skogstad, 1998). This has further developed into the idea that agriculture contributes disproportionately to the public sector through the maintenance of biodiversity and rural communities (Daugberg and Swinbank, 2008). Finally, the idea that farmers and the family farm are the bedrock of a democratic society also contributes to the idea of agricultural exceptionalism (Hathaway, 1963). For all these reasons policy has developed to protect agriculture from the vagaries of the global market.

Ideas and Policy

A normative framework is a particularly strong type of idea that helps people make sense of the world. Normative frameworks are the “taken-for-granted assumptions about values, attitudes (and) ideas (Campbell, 2002, 23) or other “collectively shared expectations (Katzenstein, 1996, 7). Normative frameworks limit the options that policy-makers pursue, since they prevent policy-makers from considering solutions that do no align with their previous understandings of the world.

A Necessarily Brief History of Agricultural Subsidies

The idea of agricultural exceptionalism led to the creation of the state assistance paradigm that began in the United States during the Great Depression. Beginning in the 1930s, the United States began to practice price supports and production controls to support agriculture and followed this in the 1950s with export subsidies. This state assistance model was cemented in place when, in 1953, the United States applied for and received an exemption from GATT rules for agricultural products.

While the 1996 Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act removed many of these protections and scholars and politicians both proclaimed the end of agricultural exceptionalism (Skogstad, 1998), this claim was overblown and intervention into agriculture began to creep back into agricultural policy the following year, when market prices declined (Winders, 2009). Ever since the Great Depression, every time agriculture has been threatened, the government steps in to subsidize farmer incomes.1

The Current Subsidies

The extension of the current subsidies to farmers simply follows in a long tradition of agricultural exceptionalism that runs directly counter to otherwise stated goals of free markets. While agricultural exceptionalism might be a long-standing policy in American politics, government aid would seem to conflict with the norms of freedom and individuality of American political culture. What explains the acceptance of this aid, despite the insistence by many farmers that they don’t want this assistance? In part, it is because farmers are self-interested economic actors, and if aid is available they will take it.

The permanence of the idea in the Trump administration and indeed in farmers themselves demonstrates that agricultural exceptionalism has become a normative framework. Simply because agricultural exceptionalism has been the US policy response for the last 80 years, it is accepted as the only possible policy response by both the government and the farmers, despite their protestations that is unnecessary. While the trade war revives largely discredited ideas about protectionism, the $12 billion in farmer subsidies is just business as usual.

Scholarly References:

Campbell, J. L. (2002). Ideas, politics, and public policy. Annual review of sociology28(1), 21-38.

Daugbjerg, C. and Swinbank, A. (2008), Curbing Agricultural Exceptionalism: The EU’s Response to External Challenge. World Economy, 31: 631-652

Hathaway, D. E. (1963). Government and agriculture. Public policy in a democratic society. Government and agriculture. Public policy in a democratic society.

Katzenstein, P. J. (Ed.). (1996). The culture of national security: Norms and identity in world politics. Columbia University Press.

Skogstad, G. (1998), Ideas, Paradigms and Institutions: Agricultural Exceptionalism in the European Union and the United States. Governance, 11: 463-490.

Winders, B. (2009). The politics of food supply: US agricultural policy in the world economy. Yale University Press.

1 This analysis side-steps entirely the issue of who benefits from these subsidies, which tend to focus only on certain crops and farms of a certain (large) size. This policy of agricultural exceptionalism helps large, corporate-run farms much more than the small farm-holders originally envisioned to uphold American democracy.

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