Released: April 18, 2010
Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor
The People and Their Government
Section 2: Government’s Performance and Power
When asked how they feel about the federal government, majorities consistently express frustration, while smaller numbers say they are basically content or angry. Anger toward the government has risen in recent years. In the current survey, as in 2006, about as many say they feel angry as content with the government. In earlier surveys, far more said they were content than angry.
While overall opinions of how the government runs its programs have declined only modestly since the late 1990s, far more Americans think that it needs very major reform than did so then. Support for making substantial cutbacks in federal programs also has increased.
Asked about specific criticisms of the federal government, clear majorities say the government is wasteful and inefficent, that its policies unfairly benefit some groups and that it does not do enough to help average Americans. Fewer say the government is too big and powerful or that it interferes too much in people’s lives. However, the idea that government is too big and powerful resonates particularly with Republicans – twice as many Republicans as Democrats see this as a major problem.
Widely Shared Frustration
Majorities or pluralities of those in all demographic groups say that their attitude towards government is best described as frustrated. However, far fewer non-Hispanic blacks (48%) and Hispanics (47%) than whites (60%) say they are frustrated with government. Blacks and Hispanics also are about twice as likely as whites to say they are basically content with government (31% black, 30% Hispanic vs. 14% white).
Age also is a factor in sentiment about government. More than a quarter of those younger than 30 (28%) say they are basically content with government, the highest proportion of any age group. By contrast, about a quarter of those age 50 and older (26%) express anger with government, compared with 17% of those under 50.
Three-in-ten Republicans (30%) say they are angry with government, and an additional six-in-ten (60%) say they are frustrated; just 9% say they are basically content with the federal government. Democratic opinion is the reverse: just 9% of Democrats say they are angry, while 58% are frustrated and 27% say they are basically content.
Agreement with the Tea Party movement is one of the strongest correlates of anger with government. More than four-in-ten of those who agree with the movement (43%) say they are angry with government, compared with just 8% of those who disagree with Tea Partiers and 15% of those who have no opinion or have not heard of the movement.
Growing GOP Anger
Republican anger with the federal government is now at its highest point over the last decade, but this sentiment extends beyond those who consider themselves Republicans. Independents and others who lean towards the GOP express anger with the government at even higher levels than do self-identified Republicans (37% vs. 30%).
There is little difference between the levels of anger seen among conservative Republicans and their moderate and liberal counterparts (32% angry vs. 27% angry).
Overall Republican anger today is on par with the level of Democratic anger in October 2006 (30% of Republicans express anger today, compared with 28% of Democrats in 2006). But a smaller proportion (32%) of conservative Republicans express anger with the government today than did liberal Democrats in 2006 (44%). (For more detailed breakdowns on feeling about the federal government, see table on pg. 84)
Overall views of the federal government’s performance have not changed dramatically since 1997. As was the case then, about a quarter of Americans say the federal government does an excellent or good job in running its programs (25% then, 23% today). However, somewhat more say the government does a poor job (from 21% in 1997 to 28% today); fewer rate the government’s performance as only fair (53% then, 46% today).
Notably, the increasing belief that the federal government does a poor job is almost entirely driven by partisanship. Fully 44% of Republicans say the government does a poor job in running its programs, up from just 28% in 1997 during Bill Clinton’s second term. By contrast, there has been virtually no change in the percentage of Democrats giving the government poor ratings (10% then, 11% today).
Half of independents who lean Republican rate the government’s performance as poor, up from just a third (33%) in 1997. Opinions among independents who lean to the Democratic Party, like those of Democrats themselves, are largely unchanged from 1997.
Not surprisingly, there is a strong relationship between expressing anger at the federal government and holding negative views of government performance. Fully 62% of those who are angry with the federal government say it does a poor job of running its programs; that compares with 52% in 1997. Those who are frustrated with government (24%) and basically content (4%) are far less like to rate the government’s performance as poor and their opinions are largely unchanged from 1997.
More Say Sweeping Change Is Needed
A majority of Americans (53%) say that the federal government needs very major reform, up sharply from 1997, when 37% expressed this view. Fewer than half (45%) think the government needs only some reform or not much change at all; in 1997, 62% said the government needed only some or little reform.
Unlike the rise in poor ratings for government performance, the belief that the federal government needs sweeping reform has increased among virtually all demographic and political groups. More non-Hispanic whites (55%) than non-Hispanic blacks (44%) say the government needs very major reform, but this view has increased among both groups since 1997.
Fewer than half of those under age 30 (44%) see very major reform as needed, the lowest percentage in any age group but more than the percentage of young people expressing this view in 1997 (35%). Majorities in older age groups now say the government needs very major reform, up substantially from 13 years ago.
Nearly two-thirds of Republicans (65%) say the government needs very major reform, up 23 points from 1997. Just four-in-ten Democrats (41%) agree. But even among Democrats, the share has grown by 11 points, from 30% in 1997.
A majority of independents (54%) say they think the government needs very major reform, compared with 39% in 1997. The increase among Republican-leaning independents (24 points) has been as large as among self-identified Republicans (23 points). Fewer than half of Democratic-leaning independents (43%) and non-leaning independents (48%) say government needs major reform.
Views of Government Power
Attitudes toward the scope of the federal government have undergone a significant change among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Two-thirds of Republicans (67%) and 70% of Republican-leaning independents say federal programs should be greatly reduced to reduce the power of government while fewer than half as many say they should be maintained. In 1997 modest majorities of both groups (53% and 54%, respectively) favored cutting back government programs.
By contrast, Democratic views about the size of government mirror opinions in 1997: 70% say federal programs should be maintained to deal with important problems. And there also has been little change since then in opinions among Democratic-leaning independents (67% programs maintained compared with 69% in 1997).
Beyond partisanship, the current survey shows that majorities of higher-income Americans (55% of those with family incomes of $75,000 or more), whites (53%) and men (52%) say that federal programs should be cut back to reduce the power of government. By contrast, most lower-income people (57% of those with incomes of $30,000 or less), Hispanics (66%), blacks (64%) and women (55%) say federal programs should be maintained to address important problems. There also are age differences in these opinions, with those under 30 the only group in which a clear majority (58%) says federal programs should be maintained.
Specific Criticisms of Government
The familiar complaint that the government is inefficient resonates widely with the public. Fully 70% say the criticism that “the government is wasteful and inefficent” represents a major problem; this view is shared by majorities across most political and demographic groups.
More than six-in-ten (62%) contend that it is a major problem that “government policies unfairly benefit some groups,” while smaller majorities say that about the criticism that “the government doesn’t do enough to help average Americans” (56%), and government “is too big and powerful” (52%). Fewer than half (46%) say the claim “government interferes too much in peoples’ lives” is a major problem with government.
While there are partisan differences in opinions about the government’s inefficiency, fairness and whether it does enough for average people, these are dwarfed by the enormous partisan divide over whether the government is too big and powerful.
More than twice as many Republicans (70%) as Democrats (34%) say the criticism that the government is too big and powerful is a major problem. And six-in-ten Republicans (61%) see the government interfering too much in people’s lives as a major problem compared with just 33% of Democrats.
Republicans (81%) also are more likely than Democrats (58%) to see government’s wastefulness and inefficiency and the claim that policies unfairly benefit some groups (66% and 55%, respectively) as major problems. More Democrats (63%) than Republicans (50%) say the criticism that the government fails to do enough to help average Americans is a major problem.
There are substantial differences by education when it comes to most of these questions, particularly the two criticisms concerning the federal government’s involvement in people’s lives. Fully 61% of those without college degrees say it is a major problem that the government doesn’t do enough to help average Americans; that compares with 43% of college graduates. And half (50%) of those without degrees see excessive government interference in people’s lives as a major problem compared with 37% of college graduates.
Whites are more likely than blacks to say several of these criticisms are major problems, although much of these racial differences are attributable to partisanship. Blacks are, however, as likely as whites to say that government interference in people’s lives is a major problem (47% of whites and 53% of blacks). Even when partisanship is controlled for, blacks are much more likely than whites to say this; fully 49% of black Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents see government’s interference in people’s lives as a major problem, compared with 28% of white Democrats and Democratic leaners.
Blacks are also more likely to say the criticism that the government doesn’t do enough to help average Americans is a major problem with government (71% vs. 53% of whites), and this racial gap persists within Democrats.
More Say Government has Wrong Priorities
While the belief that the government is inefficient is widespread, a growing percentage of the public says that the government’s priorities, rather than its inefficiency, are the bigger problem. Currently, 50% say the bigger problem with government is that it has the right priorities but runs its programs inefficiently, while 38% say the bigger problem is that it has the wrong priorities. In 1997, by more than two-to-one (61% to 29%), more saw inefficiency as the bigger problem.
In 1997, whites by two-to-one (60% to 30%) said that government’s bigger problem was that it had the right priorities but was inefficient. Today, whites are divided, with fewer than half (47%) citing inefficiency and 42% saying it has the wrong priorities. Opinions among African Africans are largely the same as in 1997 (63% inefficient, 24% wrong priorities).
A majority of Republicans (54%) now say that wrong priorities are government’s bigger problem; in 1997, most Republicans (57%) said government had the right priorities but was run inefficiently. By contrast, about six-in-ten Democrats (61%) say government’s bigger problem is inefficiency, which is little changed from 13 years ago (65%).
Regulation of Business, Interference with States
There continues to be broad public support for the stricter government regulation of major financial companies. However, a majority (58%) also says that
the government “has gone too far in regulating business and interfering with the free enterprise system.” An identical percentage (58%) thinks the “federal government is interfering too much in state and local matters.”
The belief that the government has gone too far in regulating business is on par with opinions in 2000 (60%) and 1997 (56%). In 1995, however, nearly three-quarters (73%) agreed that the federal government was going too far in regulating business.
Fully 79% of Republicans say the government has gone too far in regulating business, up from 67% in 1997. The proportion of Democrats agreeing with this statement has slipped slightly since then (from 45% to 39%). Consequently, the partisan gap, already 22 points in 1997, has increased to 40 points.
The modest partisan gap among independents who lean to either party also has ballooned. Currently, 78% of Republican-leaning independents say government regulation of business has gone too far, compared with 43% of Democratic-leaning independents. In 1997, the differences in opinion between independents who lean Democratic and independents who lean Republican was just 10 points (59% vs. 49%).
Too Much Attention to Wall Street, Too Little to Middle Class
Fully half of the public (50%) says Wall Street gets more attention than it should from the federal government and nearly as many (45%) see business leaders receiving too much attention. Conversely, two-thirds (66%) say middle class people in this country get less attention than they should from the government, and that figure is up 12 points from 1997. A majority (69%) also sees small businesses getting too little attention from the federal government.
The belief that Wall Street gets too much government attention is shared across political lines: Identical majorities of Republicans and Democrats (52% each) say that Wall Street gets more attention than it should from the federal government, as do 47% of independents.
Somewhat more Democrats (49%) than Republicans (41%) say that business leaders get more attention than they should from the federal government. A plurality of independents (47%) also takes this view.
There also is considerable – and increasing – agreement that the middle class in this country gets less attention than it should from the federal government. Notably, about two-thirds of Republicans (68%), Democrats (67%) and independents (65%) say the middle class receives too little government attention; smaller majorities expressed this view 13 years ago.
Most people (56%) also say that poor people in this country get less attention than they should; but in contrast with opinions about the middle class, fewer say the poor gets too little attention than did so in 1997 (65%).
Slightly more than half of whites (52%) now say that poor people get too little attention, down from 62% in 1997. There has been less change among African Americans, who continue to overwhelmingly say that the poor gets too little attention (81%).
In the current survey, fewer Republicans say the poor get too little attention than did so in 1997 (39% now, 49% then); Democratic views are virtually unchanged. A slim majority (53%) of independents now say the poor get too little government attention, down from 70% in 1997. There have been comparable declines among Republican-leaning (20 points) and Democratic-leaning independents (19 points). However, Republican leaners continue to be far less likely than Democratic leaners to say the poor receive too little attention (38% vs. 63%).