Released: June 4, 2012
Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years
Trends in American Values: 1987-2012
Section 4: Values About Government and the Social Safety Net
Americans have long been skeptical of the federal government and suspicious of elected representatives as a whole. Roughly eight-in-ten (81%) say elected officials in Washington lose touch with the people pretty quickly, and 62% say “most elected officials don’t care what people like me think.” Just 41% of Americans now say the government is really run for the benefit of all the people. This is down from 49% three years ago, and matches previous lows in the early 1990s.
Concerns about the government’s scope and reach have also resurged. The number saying “the federal government controls too much of our daily lives” fell to 55% in 2009, only to rise again to 62% in the latest poll.
Overall assessments of the government’s performance remain quite negative. On the core question of whether the government is usually wasteful and inefficient, 59% now agree, little different than the 57% who said this in 2009. This is still less critical than views people expressed in the late 1980s and through most of the 1990s. In 1992, 70% said the government was usually inefficient and wasteful.
Public support for a government social safety net has continued to steadily wane. While a majority of Americans has consistently agreed that it is the responsibility of government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves, this has slipped to 59% from 63% in 2009 and 69% in 2007.
None of these negative assessments are unprecedented. Negative attitudes toward government generally rose in the early 1990s – often peaking around 1994 – and then gradually receded over the latter point of that decade.
All of these assessments of government’s scope, responsiveness and performance are deeply divided along partisan lines – and in most cases the schism has grown since Barack Obama took office. Republicans and Democrats have moved in opposite directions in their views of government effectiveness and the responsiveness of leaders – Democrats have become significantly more positive since Obama took office, while Republicans have become significantly more negative. But when it comes to the social safety net, the drop in support has been driven largely by a substantial shift in the values of Republicans and, to a lesser extent, independents. At the same time, views among Democrats have remained relatively constant.
Public ratings of the effectiveness of government are as politically polarized as they have ever been. About three-fourths of Republicans (77%) say when something is run by the government it is usually inefficient and wasteful, matching a previous high in 1994. In contrast, just 41% of Democrats say the same, similar to 2009. Democrats in recent years have been more positive about government than at any point in the past 25 years.
The current 36-point partisan gap on this question is consistent with a pattern of wider polarization during Democratic administrations. Since Democrats are generally less skeptical of government than Republicans, the gap between the parties narrows during Republican administrations, when Democratic criticism rises and Republican criticism falls. The largest partisan gap prior to Obama’s presidency occurred during the early Clinton administration, when Republican criticism peaked at 77% and Democratic criticism fell to 58%. The current divide is larger than in 1994, due to the more positive assessments of government performance among Democrats.
Overall, views among independents about the inefficiency and wastefulness of government are more stable, regardless of which party is in office. About six-in-ten (63%) now say things run by the government are typically wasteful and inefficient, relatively unchanged for most of the past decade.
The growing partisan gap also is reflected in questions about the scope of the federal government. Today, 69% of Americans say the federal government should run only things that cannot be run at the local level. Although views among the population as a whole have been fairly stable, the partisan divide over the issue of federalism has swelled in recent years: 84% of Republicans currently agree with this statement, compared with 56% of Democrats. The gap is now twice as large as it was just three years ago.
Young People Still More Positive about Government’s Performance
Younger Americans have typically been more upbeat in their evaluations of government performance, and that pattern continues. While majorities of those in older age groups say the government is usually inefficient and wasteful, that compares to 47% of 18-29 year olds. This pattern is not unique to the current generation of 18-29 year olds – the Millennials – but was also the case throughout the 1990s, when Gen Xers were 18-29 years old.
However, on some measures of government responsiveness, young people, like the rest of the public, have become more cynical over the last few years. Today, 49% of 18-29 year olds agree that the government is really run for the benefit of all the people, down 10 points from 2009. Other age groups also have become more cynical on this measure.
New People in Washington
A majority (55%) of Americans say they would like to see new people in Washington, even if they are not as effective as experienced politicians. Anti-incumbent sentiment has risen 11 points since 2003, when the question was last asked, and nearly matches the peak seen in 1994 (60%).
On a similar item, 76% now agree with the statement: “it’s time for Washington politicians to step aside and make room for new leaders.” That is up 13 points since 2003, but still somewhat lower than in 1992.
Historically, the appetite for inexperienced leadership generally has been greatest among those in the party not in control of the presidency, and that is still the case today. About two-thirds of Republicans (65%) say we need new political leaders, even if they are less effective than experienced politicians, compared with 45% of Democrats.
Similarly, during Bill Clinton’s first term in office in 1994, more Republicans than Democrats agreed with this statement (65% vs. 54%). But the reverse was evident as Ronald Reagan’s second term was coming to an end (when 58% of Democrats and 43% of Republicans wanted new leaders in Washington) and during George W. Bush’s first term in 2003 (when 47% of Democrats and 32% of Republicans wanted new leaders).
Older people have consistently expressed higher levels of anti-incumbent sentiment than younger Americans over the last 25 years. Today, about six-in-ten (62%) of those 65 and older want new people in Washington, compared to 47% of 18-29 year olds.
Eight-in-ten (80%) Americans now agree with the statement: “I like political leaders who are willing to make compromises in order to get the job done,” and support for compromise –framed in this way – is little changed over the last 15 years.
Today, an overwhelming majority of Democrats (90%) find compromise appealing in a political leader, as do 68% of Republicans. Over the past 15 years, more Democrats than Republicans have preferred political leaders who compromise.
Support for the Safety Net Falls
Support for a government social safety net declined in 2009 and has continued to decrease since then. Support for government programs to aid the poor now nears the 25-year lows seen in 1994. Today, just 43% agree that the government should help more needy people, even if it means going deeper in debt, down from 48% in 2009 and 54% in 2007.
Similarly, although a majority (59%) says that it falls to the government to take care of those who cannot care for themselves, this is down 10 points from 2007.
Since 2007, Republican support for the safety net has declined significantly even as Democrats continue to support government assistance to the poor and needy as they have over the last 25 years. As a result, although the safety net has long been one of the areas where the opinions of Republicans and Democrats most diverge, the current party gap is now larger than ever.
Majorities of Republicans now say they disagree that the government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep (36% agree, 63% disagree) and take care of people who can’t take care of themselves (40% agree, 54% disagree). As recently as 2009, Republican opinions on these questions were more evenly divided.
Republicans also have consistently disagreed with the statement that: “the government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper in debt”; 76% now say they disagree, an increase of 15 points since 2007.
At the same time, Democratic positions on these items have been relatively stable over the last quarter century. Three-fourths (75%) now agree that the government should take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. Similarly, 78% say basic food and shelter should be government guarantees and 65% think more support for the needy should be provided, even in the face of increased debt.
Independent views on the safety net are nearly evenly divided between those of Democrats and Republicans, reflecting a recent conservative turn. Backing of each of the safety net items among independents is now as low as it was in the mid-1990s. While majorities continue to say the government should help those who cannot help themselves (59%) and guarantee minimal food and shelter (58%), just 39% now agree that greater assistance to the poor should be provided even it means additional debt.
Safety Net: Beyond Party
In addition to the partisan divide, there are gaps among demographic groups on views of the social safety net. But these gaps have been largely stable over the past 25 years and are now much smaller than the partisan gap. African Americans have consistently been more supportive of a government safety net than whites and remain more supportive today. Currently, 78% of blacks support government guarantees of food and shelter, compared with 52% of whites. Support also is high among Hispanics: 78% now agree that the government should guarantee people food and shelter.
In addition, people with lower incomes are far more supportive of the social safety net than those with higher incomes. Women also have consistently been more supportive of the social safety net than men. In the current poll, 64% of women and 54% of men support the government guaranteeing all citizens food and shelter. There are modest age and education differences on views of the social safety net, but these have changed little over the last 25 years.
See the interactive database for detailed demographic breaks on this and all of the other long-term values items in this report.
Government Involvement in Health Care
The public remains conflicted about the government’s role in the health care system. Today, 59% agree that they are concerned about the government becoming too involved in health care. In 2009, during the early stages of debate about what would become the Affordable Care Act a year later, 46% expressed concern about growing government involvement in health care. Yet, even as concern about government involvement has grown, an overwhelming majority (82%) continues to agree that the government needs to do more to make health care affordable and accessible.
And the partisan gap, already large in 2009, has only grown larger. Today, 88% of Republicans express a concern about the government becoming too involved in health care, compared with 37% of Democrats. This 51-point gap between Republicans and Democrats is the single largest partisan divide of the 79 items included in the current survey.
There also are divisions on this question within each party; conservative and moderate Democrats are twice as likely as liberal Democrats to express concern about government involvement in healthcare (46% agree vs. 23% agree, respectively). And although clear majorities of Republicans agree that they are concerned with growing government involvement in healthcare, there is less unanimity among moderate and liberal Republicans (79%) than among conservatives (92%).
A majority of independents (61%) now say they are concerned about government involvement in health care, up from 44% in 2009. Just 37% disagree with the statement, down from 53% three years ago.