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.

What I learned this semester–3%

Microphones on a table

By Prof. Brian Arbour

One of the joys of teaching in political science is that our ideas, theories, and thoughts about the world are constantly tested against the reality of contemporary politics. This semester, I taught our department’s course on Media & Politics. Doing so forced me to examine recent trends in the news media and, in particular, coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign.

The most striking thing that I learned was that the mainstream news media dedicated a scant 3% of their coverage of the 2016 general election campaign to the issue of experience/leadership.  

This fact comes from a report issued by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Policy and Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. My students read this report as part of our discussion of campaign coverage in the 2016 campaign. The report examined news reports from 5 television news broadcasts (ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, Fox) and 5 newspapers  (Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post). Each story was coded by a team of experienced coders at the firm Media Tenor.

That the media gave only 3% of its general election coverage to issues of experience and leadership is but one small factoid. The Shorenstein Center did not feature it as a key element of its report.

Yet, to me, it says so much. One, it is a stunning indictment of media performance in the 2016 campaign. The media focused, as the always do, first on the horserace, with 42% of coverage. 17% of coverage focused on controversies, with only 10% on policy,  and 4% on the personal traits of the candidates. In many ways, these numbers make it look like a normal election held between normal candidates.


But of course,  one of the candidates was not normal. Donald Trump had never served in government or the military–no other president is similarly inexperienced. A candidate could overcome these deficiencies, but Trump certainly has not. He has demonstrated that he lacks a sufficient knowledge of policy, a detailed understanding of the workings of government, or an ideological core to measure ideas against. He is woefully unprepared for the office and has shown little or no inclination to learn any of these basic requirements of the job.

Yet the political media did not find these deficiencies compelling enough to address with anything more than cursory coverage. The media worked under the assumption that Trump was basically like any other party nominee–evidence be damned.

The 3% statistic helps explain another puzzle from the 2016 election. The exit poll run by the major television networks asked voters “Do you think Donald Trump is qualified to serve as President?” Only 38% of voters answered yes. Yet 46% of voters chose Donald Trump to be president. These voters who did not think that Trump was qualified to be president but voted for him anyway made the difference on election day. Without them, Trump would not have won.

How did 10% of voters choose that a candidate’s lack of qualifications was not important enough to disqualify that candidate.  Perhaps they were just following the cues provided to them by the media coverage of the campaign–knowledge and experience are not important for a president.  Let’s pray they are right.