April 18, 2010

Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor

Section 3: Government Challenges, Views of Institutions

While the public is highly critical of government, there is a widespread acknowledgement that government faces more daunting problems today than it did in the past. The public also puts some blame on itself: Most say Americans are unwilling to pay for the things they want government to do.

For the most part, people do not see themselves as overtaxed by the federal government. Half say they pay about the right amount in taxes, while a smaller percentage says they pay more than their fair share in taxes. The proportion saying they pay more than their fair share has declined modestly since 1997.

The public’s negative opinions about the federal government’s impact on the country are matched by equally abysmal ratings for the impact of major financial institutions and large corporations. And while fewer people say the federal government has a positive effect on people’s daily lives than in the late 1990s, this also is the case for state and local governments.

Government’s Job Seen as Harder

The view that government is now confronting more difficult problems is shared widely – even among those who say they are angry with government and those who agree with the Tea Party movement. Overall, 79% agree with the statement: “Government is facing more difficult problems than it did in the past.” Just 20% disagree with this sentiment.

Fully 70% of those who say they are angry with the federal government acknowledge that the government is facing tougher problems these days. That is only somewhat smaller than the percentages of those frustrated (80%) or content (83%) with the federal government.

Substantial majorities across the demographic and political spectrum agree that the government is facing more difficult problems than it once did. About eight-in-ten Democrats (83%) concur, as do 79% of independents and 74% of Republicans.

Public Seen as Unwilling to Pay

There also is agreement – though not nearly as widespread – that Americans are unwilling to pay for the things they want government to do. A majority (56%) agrees with this statement while 39% disagree.

The belief that the public is unwilling to pay for the things they want government to do also cuts across demographic and political lines. And while clear majorities of those who are content with the federal government and those who are frustrated (59% each) say Americans are unwilling to pay for the things they want from government, only about half of those who are angry with government agree (48%).

Similarly, 49% of those who agree with the Tea Party movement say the American public is unwilling to pay for the things they want government to do; a much higher percentage of those who disagree with the Tea Party (69%) say that people are unwilling to pay for the things they want from government.

Views of Taxation

Currently, 50% of the public says they pay about the right amount in taxes considering what they get from the federal government, while 43% say they pay more than their fair share of taxes; very few people (3%) say they pay less than their fair share. In 1997, a majority (52%) said they paid more than their fair share in federal taxes, while somewhat fewer (45%) said they paid their fair share.

Compared with other attitudes toward government, partisan differences in views of the federal tax burden are modest. Most Democrats (55%) say they pay about the right amount in federal taxes while 38% say they pay more than their fair share. Republicans and independents are more evenly divided, but nearly half in each group say they pay about the right amount considering what they get from the federal government (47% of Republicans, 49% of independents).

Compared with 1997, somewhat smaller proportions of Republicans, Democrats and independents now say they pay more than their fair share in taxes, while more view their federal tax burden as about right.

Notably, a majority of those who are frustrated with government (52%) say they pay about the right amount in federal taxes considering what they get from the government; 44% say they pay more than their fair share. In 1997, most (55%) of those who expressed frustration with government said they paid more than their fair share of taxes.

However, there has been almost no change in opinions among those who say they are angry with the federal government. Currently, 61% of those who are angry with the federal government say they pay more than their fair share of taxes, which is largely unchanged from 1997 (63%).

The public’s views of the taxes paid to state and local governments are similar to its view of the federal tax burden. About half (51%) say they pay the right amount in state taxes considering what they get from their state government; slightly more (55%) say they pay the right amount in local taxes. Opinions about both the state and local tax burdens are little changed from an NPR/Kaiser/Harvard survey conducted a decade ago.

Impact of Government, Other Institutions

Large majorities of Americans say that Congress (65%) and the federal government (65%) are having a negative effect on the way things are going in this country; somewhat fewer, but still a majority (54%), say the same about the agencies and departments of the federal government.

But opinions about the impact of large corporations and banks and other financial institutions are as negative as are views of government. Fully 69% say that banks and financial institutions have a negative effect on the country while 64% see large corporations as having a negative impact.

By contrast, two other business sectors – small businesses and technology companies – are widely seen as having a positive impact on the country. Fully 71% say small businesses have a positive effect while 68% view the impact of technology companies positively. Churches and religious organizations and colleges and universities were the only other institutions that majorities say have a positive impact on the country (63% and 61%, respectively).

The public is divided over the impact of the Obama administration – 45% say it is positive while the same percentage sees it as negative. This opinion closely resembles Barack Obama’s job approval in April (48% approve, 43% disapprove).

Most Americans feel that the national news media (57%) and the entertainment industry (51%) have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country. A plurality (49%) says the same about labor unions.

Critical of Government, Critical of Business

Predictably, people who say they are frustrated or angry with the federal government take a very dim view of government’s impact on the country. Yet they also offer critical views of the impact of a number of other institutions, particularly banks and large corporations.

Just 18% of those who feel frustrated with the government – and 16% of those who are angry – say that banks and financial institutions have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country. About the same percentage of the frustrated group (22%) says the federal government has a positive effect. Those who are angry, however, are less likely to give positive ratings to the federal government (7%) than to banks (16%).

Similarly, only about a quarter (24%) of those angry with government – and about the same percentage of those who are frustrated (23%) – think that large corporations have a positive effect on the country.

People who say they are basically content with the federal government not only are far more likely to say that the government has a positive effect, they also view the impact of other institutions more positively as well. For instance, 39% of those who are content with government say that banks and other financial institutions have a positive effect, roughly double the proportions of the frustrated and angry groups.

With a handful of exceptions, the “angry” group gives the institutions in the survey – government and non-government alike – the lowest positive ratings. Differences among the three groups are large in assessing the effects of the Obama administration and also in assessing the impact of colleges and universities. Just 42% of those who are angry at the federal government say that colleges and universities have a positive effect on the country, far lower than the percentages of those frustrated (64%) or basically content (81%) with government who express positive views.

Government’s Personal Impact

The proportion of Americans saying that the federal government’s activities, such as laws enacted, have a major impact on their day-to-day lives has changed little since October 1997. Currently, 89% say the federal government’s activities have a great (41%) or some (48%) effect; in October 1997, 90% said the government had a great (36%) or some (54%) effect. Similarly, opinions about how much the activities state and local governments affect people’s daily lives are about the same now as 13 years ago.

While the share who say government – at the federal, state or local level – has at least some effect on their day-to-day lives has changed little, the balance of opinion has become more negative toward the impact of all levels of government.

Overall, 38% of those who say the federal government has some effect on their day-to-day lives say that it has a positive impact; slightly more (43%) say the federal government’s activities have a negative personal impact. In 1997, half (50%) said the federal government’s impact was positive while 31% viewed it as negative.

Among Republicans, 60% see the impact of the federal government on their daily lives as negative while fewer than half as many (24%) see it as positive. In 1997, more Republicans said the government’s actions affected them positively rather than negatively (by 47% to 36%).

A narrow majority of Democrats (52%) says the federal government has a positive impact on their day-to-day lives, down from 60% in 1997. There has been comparable decline in positive views among independents (from 45% then to 36% today).

In 1997, those who said they were angry with the federal government overwhelmingly viewed its personal impact as negative (by 64% to 17%). Today, fully 75% see the government’s impact on daily life as negative while just 11% see it as positive. Among those frustrated with government, 44% see the federal government’s effect on daily life as negative, while 38% see it as positive; that is almost the opposite of their opinions in 1997 (45% positive, 36% negative).

State Governments Also Viewed More Negatively

In October 1997, nearly three times as many people who said their state government’s activities had an effect on their daily lives described the impact as positive rather than negative (62% vs. 21%). Today, just 42% say the personal impact of their state’s government is positive while nearly as many (39%) see it as negative.

The rise in negative opinions about the impact of state government activities has been most pronounced among Republicans: just 39% of Republicans say their state government has a positive effect on their day-to-day life, compared with 66% in 1997. Yet there also have been sizeable declines in positive views among independents (down 21 points) and Democrats (14 points).

People living in the West also assess the impact of state government actions more negatively than they did 13 years ago. In 1997, more than twice as many Westerners viewed the impact of state government’s activities as positive compared to negative (58% vs. 25%). Currently, only about a third (34%) of Westerners see the impact of their state government’s actions as positive while 48% see it as negative; the West is the only region where negative opinions significantly outnumber positive ones.

Views of Local Government

More people (51%) see local government’s activities as having a positive effect on their day-to-day lives than say that about the state or federal governments. Still, positive ratings also have declined since 1997 for local governments (from 64%).

More Republicans who say that local governments have a personal impact see that effect as positive rather than negative (by 48% to 33%). Still, positive evaluations of the effect of local governments have fallen from 70% in 1997. There have been smaller declines in positive views among Democrats (nine points) and independents (eight points).