Record- or near-record-high percentages of Americans are critical of the size and scope of government, as measured by four Gallup trend questions updated in September. This sentiment stretches to 59% of Americans now believing the federal government has too much power, up eight percentage points from a year ago.
Americans were asked to rate each of 11 government functions on a 5-point scale, anchored at one end by the view that the federal government should have no responsibility for a given function, and on the other end by the view that the government should have total responsibility for the function.
Americans tend to use the middle 2, 3, and 4 points on the 5-point scale in their answers, avoiding the two extreme end points. This suggests that Americans are not monolithically set in stone in their views of the role of their federal government, but instead recognize that the government has some responsibility, even if limited, in most areas of society.
Overall, a majority of Americans give a 4 or a 5 rating for 7 out of the 11 functions tested, meaning that their views for each of these range toward the “more responsibility” end of the scale rather than the “less responsibility” end. These seven functions include foreign threats, protection against unsafe products, preventing discrimination, protecting the environment, developing and maintaining the nation’s transportation system, making sure Americans have healthcare, and making sure all who want jobs have them.
The same picture emerges from the recent Washington Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey discussed by Jon Cohen and Dan Balz here. Here is one example:
Nearly half of the 2,054 adults polled say the federal government threatens their personal liberties. There is a creeping sense – now shared by one in five Americans – that it is not possible for the federal government to be run well, given all the problems in the country.
Even as Americans generally hold Washington in low regard, they still like much of the work it does. Support for government action on such issues as national defense, health care and fighting poverty remains high, in some cases just where it was a decade ago.
And there are large partisan gaps as well, so trying to characterize “American” attitudes toward government probably obscures more than it reveals.
It’s a fool’s errand to try to generalize about the ideological proclivities of the American public—right, center-right, center-left, etc. The most salient fact is that most Americans don’t have political ideologies similar to those of many political elites. Instead, their attitudes toward something like the role of government are more often ambivalent.