The wide partisan divide over government power — in 1 chart

September 24, 2013

Does the federal government have too much power? Depends on whom you ask and when you pose the question.

Republicans broadly agree that the government has too much power, according to a new Gallup poll released Monday. More than eight in 10 say so. Only 38 percent of Democrats agree with that assessment.

It wasn't always that way.

Take a look at the following chart from Gallup. Until late 2008, the two parties were much closer together for several years. What's more, from 2003-2007, Democrats were the ones talking about a government grown too powerful.


What to make of the data? Three things:

1.The uptick in the GOP belief that that government is too powerful coincides with the beginning of the Obama presidency. Considering that Republicans have railed against policies signed by President Obama like the health-care law and the stimulus as symptoms of an oversized and overreaching government, the jump is not surprising.

2. Considering that Republican George W. Bush was in power from 2003-2007 during the height of the Iraq war, when concerns about the loss of life, escalating violence and mounting costs were widespread -- especially among Democrats -- it's not surprising that the party more concerned about the scope of government power was not the GOP.

3. The percentages of Democrats, Republicans and independents who say the government is too powerful have ticked up this year. (Overall, six in 10 Americans say the government has too much power.) A plausible explanation for the across-the-board-increase: The revelations about government surveillance that together have become one of the biggest developing stories of 2013.

It's all a reminder that questions about the scope of government power are heavily dependent on the circumstances of when the question is asked.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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