What does it mean when fewer than 1 in 5 Americans say they are satisfied with the federal government? Over the last few years, survey researchers have fielded dozens of questions that seem to show the public’s contempt for the federal government. In a Pew poll last year, just 12 percent of Americans said they were “basically content” with the federal government, while 30 percent were angry about it, and 55 percent were frustrated. Just 19 percent of the public says it trusts the government in Washington to do what is right most of the time. It’s a stunning number. When Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy were in office, that number was above 70 percent. But if so many Americans are so dismissive of government, then why were so many of us appalled by the government shutdown last fall? Is this just further proof that Americans will happily indulge in anti-government rhetoric, but that they really like government and what it does for them? Or are there more complex and consequential questions lying beneath the surface—questions that deserve much more careful analysis and discussion? Here is a quick tour of some of what lies beneath.
- People’s exasperation with government seems to be earnest, and it certainly warrants attention; but it doesn’t apply to all parts of government equally. True, approval ratings for Congress are in the basement, and the President and Supreme Court get lackluster ratings as well, but agencies like the CDC, FBI and NASA are viewed favorably by about 6 in 10 Americans. Meanwhile, the military has been one of the country’s most trusted institutions for more than a decade. The “government” is a multi-faceted endeavor, and Americans give different parts of it very different grades.
- Perhaps it’s the size and scope of government that’s feeding public distrust? That’s certainly a common takeaway. However, there’s actually a pretty large division in the country over whether the government should be smaller and provide fewer services (51 percent) or larger and provide more (40 percent). And public thinking here can be inconsistent. Even though half of Americans say government is doing too much, surveys show that fewer than 1 in 4 would agree to cut spending on defense, health care, energy, education, agriculture, or Social Security. And sometimes, people seem very unhappy with what government has done, but for very different reasons. Asked about government’s role in regulating financial institutions and financial markets, for example, 43 percent of the public says government has gone too far, while 49 percent say it hasn’t gone far enough.
- There's government – and then there's politics. Then there’s the frustration factor—the sense that government has a crucial role to play, but that it’s just too bollixed up with politics to meet its responsibilities. This sentiment comes up forcefully in Public Agenda and Kettering research and the National Issues Forums. When citizens gathered in NIF forums a few years ago to discuss options for addressing the federal debt, many were honestly perplexed by the government’s inability to solve the problem. “Never in my 57 years have I seen our government so dysfunctional,” a man in Kansas said. “Everyone seems to be pointing fingers and calling each other names and not working together to compromise.” This participant wasn’t suggesting doing away with government. He was making a plea for government to function.
The fact is that public attitudes about government are mixed, multi-faceted, and to some degree unresolved. What’s more, Americans’ lack of resolution about what government can and cannot do — and what it should and should not do — lies at the very heart of debates on the economy, the budget, health care, education, and other key issues.
"Americans’ lack of resolution about what government can and cannot do — and what it should and should not do — lies at the very heart of debates on the economy, the budget, health care, education, and other key issues."
This comes through clearly in the recent Public Agenda/Kettering Foundation work on curbing health care costs. Some people in our focus groups opposed and feared government action to contain costs, while others saw government as an institution that could help protect patients from insurers or providers who got greedy. When surveys show Americans voicing disdain for government, it’s easy to jump to dramatic, but misleading conclusions—that large swaths of Americans want to roll back long-standing federal programs or that people always prefer local or private sector solutions for the problems we face. In some very important respects, public dissatisfaction is real, and that’s worrisome. But there’s also ample evidence that most Americans want government to play an effective role in solving the country’s problems, even though many haven’t fully sorted out their expectations or priorities. Our view is that opinion research should lead to more than sloganeering and hand wringing. It should point us to topics and themes that we as a people need to talk about and think through together. In this case, polls suggest that the U.S. is in dire need of a more detailed and far less categorical discussion about what we expect from the government and what costs and trade-offs we’re willing to accept to make it work. Beyond the Polls is a joint endeavor of Public Agenda, the National Issues Forums, and the Kettering Foundation. Sign up to receive an email update when we have a new Beyond the Polls post.