Federal Government Less Popular than Ever

There's a seeming inconsistency in contemporary American politics: at the same time the central government's size and power have reached unprecedented heights, a smaller percentage of the public view the government in Washington favorably than at any time in the last half-century.  

What does this seeming inconsistency says about big government and public opinion in the United States?

Anyone who doubts that the central government's power and reach have grown tremendously since America became independent should read the late James Sterling Young's The Washington Community, 1800-1828, published in 1966 and reissued twenty years later.  Young presents a detailed analysis of the people and institutions in the nation's capital during the Jeffersonian Era.  Reading this Bancroft prize-winning book, one realizes that America's central government did so little at that time that ordinary people could safely ignore happenings there.  Most did.

Today, however, Washington shapes virtually every aspect of our lives.  Now that Obamacare has taken effect, Washington will control nearly three-fifths of America's Gross Domestic Product.  America is well on the way to being a nanny state.

Many polls demonstrate just how negative are Americans' opinions about the central government.  Even more important, these polls are conducted by different organizations.  A few questions which have been asked in the same wording show that public opinion about Washington has grown increasingly jaundiced.

One such item, for example, asks respondents "how much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right, just about always, most of the time, or only some of the time?"  (Respondents could volunteer "never" or "none of the time.")  This query has been asked by several polling organizations over half-a-century.  An early appearance was on the University of Michigan's American National Election Study survey in 1964.  Then, 76% of the public replied either "just about always" (14%) or "most of the time" (62%), 22% replied "only some of the time," and the equivalent of a chemical trace element (0.1%) volunteered "never" or "none of the time."    These days, pollsters report only about 2% say "just about always," roughly a quarter reply "most of the time," about half say "some of the time," and about one-fifth say something like "none of the time/never" or "hardly ever."  Moreover, the trend is toward ever more cynicism.

Other questions also reveal a cynical public.  A December 16-17, 2013 poll by Rasmussen Reports, for example, found 68% of "likely voters" view the national government at least somewhat unfavorably, and only 29% have a favorable opinion.  Moreover, a Rasmussen Reports poll from November 17-18, 2013 found that 55% of "likely voters" believed the government is a threat to their constitutional freedoms, and only 30% viewed the government as a protector of individual rights.  Not surprisingly, a Gallup Poll from December 5-8, 2013, found that 72% of the public thinks big government will be "the biggest threat to the country in the future," which is the highest percentage expressing that opinion since Gallup began asking that question in 1965.

One could cite additional polls showing jaundiced opinions about Washington among the public, but that would add little.  (If one desires more evidence, go to the Pollingreports.com website and click on "the way the nation is governed.")

What accounts for the inconsistency between government's growth, especially during the Bush #43 and Obama presidencies, and public cynicism?  Undoubtedly several factors are at work, but four merit consideration. 

One factor that very likely impinges on the public's tendency to take a jaundiced view of the central government is the sizable, and growing, disconnect between what the central government is doing and what people say they want it to do. 

Liberals cite polls showing that more people say that government spending for X, Y, or Z program should be increased than say spending on X, Y, or Z program should be reduced.  Those questions, however, almost never ask people if they would pay additional taxes for X, Y, or Z programs or which other programs they want curtailed to enable these programs to be expanded, so questions like those can be discounted.

If we restrict attention to questions that plumb whether people think the national government is too powerful or not powerful enough, or whether the government in Washington should be bigger and provide more services, or smaller and provide fewer services, polls from a variety of organizations, such as Gallup, the Pew Research Center, and ABC News/The Washington Post point in the same direction.  Gallup polls between late 2008 and mid-2013, for example, have found between half and three-fifths of the public opine that the central government "has too much power," and less than one-tenth believe it has "too little power."  Similarly, polls for the Pew Research Center and ABC News/The Washington Post from January, 2002 to September, 2013 find that roughly half the public prefers a smaller government providing fewer services, while two-fifths opt for a bigger government providing more services.