(Note: We at GovBeat don’t actually think states are for losers.)

Beliefs about the role of the federal government may not run all that deep.

It was a debate central to the founding of the nation — one routinely rehashed — but a new report on public opinion on gay marriage suggests that attitudes on the role of the federal government may be more about pragmatism than philosophy. When there’s majority support for the things you believe in, you want the feds in charge. When you’re losing in the court of public opinion, let the states run things.

The report, from the Public Religion Research Institute, charts the stunningly fast reversals in attitudes toward same-sex marriage over the past decade, on display in the chart below. No poll showed support for same-sex marriage above 50 percent in 2006 — most found backing to be in the 30 percent to 40 percent range. By last year, most polls showed support north of 50 percent.


Roundup of public opinion on gay marriage. (Public Religion Research Institute)

And it seems that the shift in public opinion was also matched by a shift in attitudes toward who should be calling the shots on gay marriage.

“There is some evidence, however, that preferences about federal versus state solutions are more pragmatic than principled,” the report’s authors write. “As support for same-sex marriage has risen, supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage have reversed their preferences for federal versus state solutions.”

When they were winning in the court of public opinion in 2006, opponents of same-sex marriage (the left chart below) favored a federal approach to the issue (in green). But by last year, they were in the minority and their views flipped completely. The opposite happened to supporters (right chart). When they were the minority, states were the way to go (orange). When they felt empowered by most of the public being on their side, they said they favored a federal approach.

Federalism and gay marriage. (Public Religion Research Institute)
(Public Religion Research Institute)

Pew found some similar findings in a 2012 report on views on federal and state governments. By six months into President Obama’s first term, favorability toward the federal government had totally switched: It doubled among Democrats and was halved among Republicans, Pew found. 


And, in the same way, views of the state government depended on who was in charge. In states with unified party control, people of that party had highly favorable views of state government. When the other party was in charge, the favorability dropped. In an all-Republican state, favorability of the government in that party was at 70 percent. In a Democratically run state, Republican favorability of the state government fell to 33 percent.


The Pew polls reflect the obvious: When your party is in power, you think government is being better run. But it also suggests something about our attitudes toward the role of government, according to J. Wesley Leckrone, assistant professor at Widener University:

The Pew polling seems to reinforce the notion that federalism is a secondary value to the ideological predispositions of Americans. While Americans have a tendency to support decentralized government, they are also prone to vary their support for different levels of government depending on the congruence between officials in power and their own partisanship.

In terms of pragmatism it makes sense — the federal government offers a larger platform to pursue a policy goal. If you’re in the majority, why not use the larger stick to enforce what you think is right? But it also suggests that Americans are not strict about their political philosophies. Thoughts on the role of federal government, it seems, are less about a belief in the role of government and more about a political calculation.