Book Project

Commerce, Coalitions, and Geography:

How Local Economies and Geographic Mobility Shape Domestic Political Conflict

Why is class sometimes more salient than regional identities in domestic politics? I offer a new perspective to this old debate in political economy. I use tools from economic geography—local labor markets and geographic mobility—to outline conditions under which one type of political conflict is more likely than the other. I focus on the case of trade policy, an issue that cuts across class and geographic cleavages.

I argue that class conflict is more likely within regions that experience trade-induced urbanization. In contrast, location-based identities predominate where trade hollows-out once thriving regions. This asymmetric structure of political conflict between urbanizing and declining regions emerges because of geographic mobility, or the varying ability of factors of production (owners of capital and labor) to migrate between local economies. Within declining regions, mobile factors pick up and leave. The immobile capitalists and workers who are left behind put aside their class differences to unite against a common enemy: the trade policies that benefit other regions at their expense. Meanwhile, within trade’s benefactor regions, inflows of workers and capital increase the cost of living. This creates class conflict between wealthy capitalists, who continue to benefit from globalization, and increasingly cost-burdened laborers. Overall, the theory offers an economic geography perspective on how the international economy affects domestic political conflict.

I support this theory with one of the first measures of individual geographic mobility applied to survey data from over three decades as well as an analytical narrative of US trade coalitions over the 19th and 20th centuries. The first empirical chapter expands the analysis from my job market paper. Within regions that lost economically from local trade shocks, mobility-constrained voters homogeneously supported trade barriers and anti-trade populism, regardless of their factor class or industry. A second empirical chapter analyses public opinion and vote data within localities advantaged by globalization where internal migrant inflows increased the cost of living. The third empirical chapter conducts an analytic narrative of US regional coalitions on trade policy over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.