September 28th, 2011
09:52 AM ET

Despite negativity, Americans mixed on ideal role of government

By Frank Newport, Gallup.com

Americans have divided opinions when asked to think broadly about the purpose of government. About as many Americans (35%) prefer an activist government that tries in every way to improve the lives of its citizens as prefer a government that provides only the most basic government functions (37%), with the rest placing themselves between these two positions.

2010-2011 trend: Next, I’d like you to think more broadly about the purposes of government. Where would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 means you think the government should do only those things necessary to provide the most basic government functions, and 5 means you think the government should take active steps in every area it can to try and improve the lives of its citizens? You may use any number from 1 to 5.

These attitudes, basically unchanged from a year ago, underscore the complex nature of Americans' views of government. Americans have strongly negative views of the way the nation is being governed and of Congress. They also, as will be reviewed here, have significant concerns about the power of the federal government, believe that government is doing too much that individuals and businesses can do, and prefer fewer services and lower taxes. Yet, in a broad sense, Americans are as likely to prefer a more active government as a more limited one.

Majority Perceives Too Much Government Power

A majority (57%) of Americans believe the federal government today has too much power. Most of the rest say the government has about the right amount of power. Few say the government has too little power. Americans were least likely to be concerned about the government's power in the years immediately after 9/11, but half or more since 2005 have said it has too much power.

2002-2011 trend: Do you think the federal government today has too much power, has about the right amount of power, or has too little power?

Partisan views about government power are highly dependent on which party controls government, and on the political and social environment at the time of the survey. At this point, 77% of Republicans say the government has too much power, compared with 63% of independents and 32% of Democrats - which reflects the current Republican position that there is too much government spending and power in domestic and economic affairs.

Americans Again Call for Compromise in Washington

However, when George W. Bush was president, Democrats were more concerned than Republicans about government power. In Gallup's September 2005 Governance survey, for example, 55% of Democrats said the government had too much power, compared with 50% of independents and 41% of Republicans. At that point, Democrats were almost certainly interpreting this question in terms of government anti-terrorism actions taken after 9/11, including the Patriot Act.

2002-2011 trend: Do you think the federal government today has too much power, has about the right amount of power, or has too little power? By party ID

Majority Perceives Too Much Government Regulation of Business

Half of Americans say there is too much government regulation of business and industry, by one percentage point the highest in Gallup's history of asking this question, dating to 1993. Americans were least likely to say the government regulated business too much in February 2002, just months after 9/11 and at a time when President Bush and Congress were involved in efforts to combat terrorism and had high approval ratings. The "too much regulation" attitude held in the 30% range for most of the rest of the last decade, but jumped after President Obama took office in 2009.

2001-2011 trend: In general, do you think there is too much, too little, or about the right amount of government regulation of business and industry?

Republicans have consistently been more likely than Democrats to say there is too much government regulation of business, but in recent years, the gap between Republican and Democratic views on this issue has widened substantially.

2001-2011 trend: In general, do you think there is too much, too little, or about the right amount of government regulation of business and industry? By party ID

Majority Willing to Trade Off Lower Taxes for Fewer Services

A majority of Americans (56%) say they would be willing to pay less in taxes and accept fewer services, rather than either leaving things as they are now or paying more taxes for more services.

Americans Express Historic Negativity Toward U.S. Government

This supports the general position of some conservatives and libertarians, including GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul. They argue that citizens should want their government to do less, and thus collect fewer taxes. Liberals, on the other hand, have focused on the value of the services the government provides, particularly in terms of creating jobs and providing a social safety net, and the necessity of keeping tax revenue flowing in order to fund those services. Fewer than half of Americans, however, currently want to keep or add to the level of taxes and services they have now.

As would be expected, 81% of Republicans would opt for reduced taxes and fewer services, as would 58% of independents. Democrats have more mixed reactions, but about two-thirds would either keep things as they are now (36%) or would opt for more services and more taxes (30%).

Would you rather have more government services if that meant more taxes, less government services in order to reduce taxes, or services and taxes about as we have them now? 1993, 2011 results

Majority Sees Government Trying to Do Too Many Things

A majority of Americans (56%) believe that government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses, while 39% hold the view that government should do more to solve the nation's problems. Responses to this question have been quite fluid over the two decades in which Gallup has asked the question. In October 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, 50% said government should do more to solve the country's problems - the highest in Gallup's history of asking the question. Sentiment that government should do more was lowest in the 1995-1998 time frame, when only about a third held this view and about 6 in 10 said government was doing too much.

Republicans and Democrats respond to this question in extremely different ways, with 88% of Republicans saying the government is doing too much, while 66% of Democrats say the government should do more. Independents tilt toward the "too much" view.

1992-2011 trend: Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country's problems. Which comes closer to your own view?

This question produces somewhat different results from those of the 1- to 5-point-scale question on the ideal purpose of government reviewed earlier. One reason may be that this question provides an explicit alternative to the "government doing too much" position - namely, that the things the government does not do should be left to individuals and businesses.

Implications

Americans currently give the federal government and their representatives in Congress very negative reviews. Americans are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed, have record-low confidence in the legislative branch of government, believe that the government has too much power, and that individuals and businesses should be doing more and government less.

Americans Want Leaders to Follow Public's Views More Closely

Some of these negative views are related to the dismal ratings of the economy. Americans no doubt find it hard to be positive about their political leadership when they perceive that the fundamentals of the national economy are moving in the wrong direction.

Additionally, some of Americans' negative views of the government are related to their perceptions of the efficiency and effectiveness of what the government is doing. They on average believe that 51 cents of every tax dollar is wasted, which may explain some of the negative views and concerns about too much government power. Americans also give the federal government the lowest positive rating of any of 25 business and industry sector rated in August, further suggesting that the people don't think the government works well.

Some of the negative views of government are related to politics. The fact that Democrats were more concerned about government power when Bush was president and Republicans are more concerned about it with Obama as president shows that some people will be negative about the government simply because of political partisanship. Additionally, there are clear philosophical and ideological differences in views of the government that create the dynamic tension that exists in any democratic system, with conservatives generally favoring less government and liberals favoring more government.

One finding in the present review is the degree to which Americans are spread out across the spectrum when asked broadly about their views of the ideal role of government. The results show that the majority of Americans recognize that government has a role and purpose in society. The challenge for elected leaders is to determine which roles and purposes are appropriate and which are not.

Read more at Gallup.com.

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Topics: Governance • Politics • Poll • United States

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    One can't have everything – to be the superpower No. one and to have a lean government at the same time.
    On the one hand there are the GOP and Libertarians who, "prefer a government that provides only the most basic government functions". They want lower taxes and fewer public services. They are well-to-do and have their means to pay for private services. On the other hand there are those don't haves who demand their social security rights from government. One has to be heartless to govern, as it's damned difficult to keep everybody happy!

    September 28, 2011 at 11:28 am | Reply
  2. Onesmallvoice

    As Pres. Abraham Lincoln once said, "the job of the government is to do for the people what the people cannot do for themselves". The irony here is that Abraham Lincoln founded the Republican party in 1854 but today the same political party in dominated by self-serving right-wing fanatics who care only for themselves!

    September 28, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Reply
    • theprez98

      Might want to re-read those history books. Abraham Lincoln was not the founder of the Republican Party.

      September 28, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Abraham Lincoln was the Chairman of the short-lived National Union Party – a bogus party of the Republicans to attract Democrats during the Civil War, who wouldn't vote for the Republicans.

      September 28, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Reply
  3. johnny

    Change the entire political system. Its not working for Americans sakes. 'Rich Wall Street's executives and, speculators, corporate chiefs are getting richer whilst common Americans are still struggling to survive. The American system is faulty and manipulated to benefit the rich and wealthy.

    October 2, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  4. Kweg Yung

    Corporate America's expansion into China was paid for by the American taxpayer. Bush's “tax cuts for the rich” policy helped to fund this transition. That's why no American jobs were created but a lot of Chinese jobs were. Republican politicians represent the corporate rich, the 'job creators'. When was the last time you saw a job created in the U.S.? The rich don't pay tax in this country and their corporations are physically based in communist China; where, by the way, SOCIALIZED healthcare and SOCIALIZED education are the norm and ALL the banks are state owned. These former American companies only pay tax in China, supporting a growing communist government and military. Republican politicians sold us (U.S.) out. These guys aren't batting for us (U.S.) anymore.

    October 13, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Reply

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