The Pew Research Center has just released a fascinating deep-dive on how Americans feel about government. The report is nearly 200 pages long, but one finding stands out: Even if Americans don’t trust the government, they still want the government to do a whole bunch of stuff.
The low level of trust in government is not surprise. The public is generally pessimistic about the economy and the direction of the country, and there is no major foreign policy crisis to rally the public around the president and other institutions of government. Small wonder, then, that only 19 percent of Americans interviewed in this Pew survey said that they trusted the government always or most of the time.
But when given along list of issues, most Americans still wanted government to have a “major role” in handling those issues. The vast majority (94 percent) thought government should help keep us safe from terrorism. About three-quarters said that it should have a major role in strengthening the economy, protecting the environment and maintaining the nation’s infrastructure. Majorities also wanted the government to play a major role in helping the poor and seniors.
In fact, what’s striking is that majorities of both Republicans and Democrats felt this way on most of these issues. Here’s a graph from Pew:
There are clear partisan divides on some issues, such as ensuring access to health care. But on other issues there is a substantial bipartisan consensus.
If there is one good generalization about Americans’ attitudes toward government, it is this: Americans hate government, but they like what it does.
This has been amply documented in public opinion research at least since Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril’s classic 1967 book “The Political Beliefs of Americans.” They describe a public that is “ideologically conservative” but “operationally liberal” — a fact confirmed in recent research by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson. Or, as David Sears and Jack Citrin put it in their study of California’s tax revolt of the late 1970s, people’s attitudes toward government are “generally negative but specifically favorable.”
This generalized negativity helps explain why, in the Pew report, there is less support for, and far more partisan polarization, about “government.” You can see this on questions that ask whether “government needs reform” or whether “government is doing too many things that should be left to businesses and individuals.”
But when you list a bunch of those “too many things,” it turns out that Americans want government to be doing them after all. This is why it’s so hard to find an area of government spending that people — even Republicans — want to cut.
For more on this, see my interview with political scientists Marc Hetheringon and Thomas Rudolph about their new book on political trust.