November 5, 2003

The 2004 Political Landscape

Part 7: Business, Government, Regulation and Labor

The public has long had conflicted attitudes toward the nation’s corporations. There is broad agreement that America’s strength is largely attributable to the success of business. Yet most people also believe corporations are too powerful and more interested in making a profit than in serving the public interest.

These attitudes also have remained fairly stable since the Pew values survey began in 1987. And the recent string of corporate scandals have had only a modest impact on opinions of business.

There has been a small rise in the percentage of Americans who believe corporations make too much profit (62% vs. 58% in 2002). A declining number now say corporations strike a fair balance between making profits and serving the public interest (38% say that now, compared with 45% in 1999). And while there has long been overwhelming agreement that too much power is concentrated in the hands of big companies, a growing percentage completely agree with that statement (40%, compared with 33% in 2002 and 31% in 1999).

For the most part, however, Americans have not looked to the government as the antidote for corporate abuses, although the spate of high-profile scandals involving Enron and other corporations resulted in a sharp, if short-lived, spike in support for government regulation. In 2002, 48% voiced agreement with the statement “Government regulation of business usually does more harm than good.” That marked the first time in the Pew values surveys that this critique of government regulation did not draw majority support.

But in the current survey, the percentage who say government regulation does more harm than good has rebounded to 53%. That is nearly the same level as in 1999 (55%), though still well below levels in the mid-1990s when anti-government sentiment soared.

A similar pattern is evident in other values relating to government. During the early and mid-1990s, as many as seven-in-ten agreed that “when something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful.” The percentage holding the view declined in the latter part of the decade, and decreased even further in the past few years. In the current survey, 57% agree that something run by the government is likely to be inefficient and wasteful.

Still, in an age of terrorism, more Americans voice concern over the prospect of corporations collecting information on them than they do about government scrutiny. In the 2002 survey, fully 77% said they were concerned that “business corporations are collecting too much information about people like me.” When asked in this year’s survey if they had the same concern about government collecting too much personal information, a much smaller majority (57%) agreed.

The public’s ambivalence toward corporations is mirrored in their attitudes toward personal wealth. Nine-in-ten Americans have consistently said that they admire people who get rich by working hard. Yet two-thirds (68%) agree with the statement “Today it’s really true that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.” Still, people were even more dubious about prospects for upward economic movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1991, 80% said they believed the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Despite the long and steady decline in union membership, Americans continue to view unions as an essential advocate for workers. Nearly three-quarters of the public (74%) agrees with the statement “Labor unions are necessary to protect the working person.” That is somewhat higher than in previous surveys, though that sentiment has consistently drawn broad agreement.

Business Attitudes More Polarized

As might be expected, Republicans have long taken a more favorable view of corporations than have Democrats. But differences in attitudes toward the power of corporations ­ and their profits ­ have never been greater largely because Democratic skepticism toward business has grown sharply in recent years. Nearly nine-in-ten Democrats agree (87%) ­ and half completely agree ­ with the statement “There is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies.”

The percentage of Democrats expressing that sentiment has increased nine points since 1999 and four points over the past year. By comparison, a declining percentage of Republicans agree with this statement (62% now vs. 69% in 2002 and 66% in 1999). The partisan gap in these attitudes has doubled over the past four years, from 12% to 25%.

Democrats also have increasingly come to view corporations as greedy. More than seven-in-ten (72%) believe business corporations make too much profit, the highest percentage in a decade (74% in 1993). Fewer than half of Republicans agree (46%), a number that has not changed significantly in recent years.

There also has been a notable increase in the percentage of independents who believe that business corporations make excessive profits. In the current survey, two-thirds of independents say that, compared with 60% last year. In their opinions of whether corporations are too powerful and make too much profit, independents are much closer to Democrats than Republicans.

Partisan differences have even emerged on business issues on which there was broad agreement in the late 1990s. In 1999, about three-quarters in each party, and roughly the same number of independents, agreed with the statement “The strength of this country today is based mostly on the success of American business” (78% of Republicans, 77% of Democrats, 76% of independents). Since then, Republicans and Democrats have moved in opposite directions; 85% of Republicans now believe the country’s strength is tied to business success compared with 73% of independents and 70% of Democrats.

Education, Income Influence Business Views

Well-educated, high-income Americans have consistently taken a more favorable view of business than do those with less education and lower incomes. Fewer than half of college graduates (48%) say business corporations make excessive profits compared with more than seven-in-ten (72%) of those with a high school education or less. There is a comparable gap between those in the top half of family incomes (currently $50,000 annually) and those in the lower half (55% vs. 72%).

But over the past decade, an increasing percentage of college graduates have come to believe that too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few big companies. Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) now say that, compared with 60% in 1993. Roughly eight-in-ten of those with a high school education (79%) say big corporations have amassed too much power, a number that has changed little over the past decade. Income is less of a factor in these attitudes, as those on both ends of the spectrum tend to agree that corporations have become too powerful.

But Race Less of a Factor

Whites and African Americans hold similar attitudes toward business. About the same percentage of whites and blacks think companies make too much profit (62%, 64% respectively). Somewhat more African Americans agree that too much power is concentrated in a few big companies but the differences there are modest (82% of blacks agree, 76% of whites). And solid majorities of both races feel the strength of the country is based on the success of business (69% of blacks, 76% of whites).

There also are no major racial differences in attitudes toward people who achieve wealth through hard work. Roughly nine-in-ten in both races say they admire such people (88% of blacks, 91% of whites), although more African Americans than whites completely agree (60% vs. 53%).

Where the races diverge is over the question of whether it is true that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Many more African Americans than whites agree with this aphorism (81% vs. 65%), although fewer members of both races agree with the statement that did so a decade ago. African American attitudes on this issue are linked to a greater sense of economic pessimism. Far fewer blacks than whites say they are satisfied with their current financial situation (43% of blacks, 66% of whites).

GOP Shifts on Government Regulation

The fluctuations in public opinion on government regulation of business over the past decade have been mostly due to shifts among Republicans and independents. In 1994, as GOP anti-government sentiment hit its peak, 73% of Republicans agreed with the statement “Government regulation of business usually does more harm than good.” Eight years later, with a Republican in the White House and corporate scandals increasing, just 53% of Republicans agreed with that sentiment.

Yet the softening Republican opposition to government regulation of business proved to be temporary. In the current survey, 65% of Republicans say they think government regulation of business does more harm than good ­ an increase of 12% over the past year. Political independents also became more opposed to government regulation of business in the early-to-mid 1990s. In 1994, nearly two-thirds of independents (65%) said regulation did more harm than good. But the percentage of independents endorsing that statement subsequently declined and ­ in contrast with Republicans ­ has not rebounded. In the current survey, half of independents say they believe regulation does more harm than good while 43% disagree.

Democratic views of government regulation of business have shown less movement over this period. Democratic criticism of government regulation peaked in 1992 at 59% and subsequently declined in the latter part of the 1990s. The percentage of Democrats who believe government regulation usually does more harm than good decreased again by seven points from 1999 to 2002 (from 50% to 43%) before climbing back to 49% in the current survey.

College Grads Less Critical of Regulation

The anti-government mood in the mid-1990s was evident in the views of nearly every demographic group. For example, college graduates and people with a high school education were equally critical of government regulation of business (60% of college graduates, 62% of high school graduates).

Since then, differences among educational groups have grown, as college graduates have become notably less supportive of the idea that government regulation of business usually does more harm than good. Fewer than half say that now (45%), a 15-point decline since 1994. People with a high school education also are less likely to view government regulation as harmful, but a majority (54%) still says government regulation of business does more harm than good.

Business Snooping More Bothersome

Many more Americans express concern that business is collecting information on them (77%) than say the same about excessive government scrutiny (57%). This difference is related to conflicting partisan attitudes: Republicans, Democrats and independents have roughly comparable levels of concern over business collecting too much information. But there is a huge split in concerns over the government collecting too much personal information.

Fewer than half of Republicans (43%) agree they are concerned over excessive government scrutiny while 53% disagree. By comparison, nearly two-thirds of Democrats (65%) and nearly as many independents worry that the government is collecting too much information on them. There is a comparable partisan gap in other attitudes related to civil liberties and the war on terrorism (see Part Three, pp. 27-37).