December 17, 2019

In a Politically Polarized Era, Sharp Divides in Both Partisan Coalitions

2. Views of government and the nation

A chart shows wide racial, age and partisan differences on role of government In broad assessments of government, the American public expresses more support for an active – rather than limited – role for government and sees a need for government regulation of business. At the same time, concerns about waste and inefficiency are widely held. Republicans and Democrats are far apart in how they view government, particularly when it comes to how large a role it should play.

Overall, 55% of U.S. adults say that government should do more to solve problems, while 43% say government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.

Large majorities of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (78%) say the government should do more to solve problems; only 21% say it is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. Liberal Democrats (85%) are especially likely to support an active role for government; 72% of conservative and moderate Democrats also say the government should do more.

By contrast, most Republicans prefer a limited role for government: 71% of Republicans and Republican leaners say that government is doing too many things better left to individuals and businesses, compared with 28% who say it should play a larger role. Eight-in-ten conservative Republicans say government is doing too many things better left to others. Views among moderate and liberal Republicans are more mixed: 58% say government is doing too many things, while 40% say it should do more to solve problems.

There are also sizable demographic differences in these views, with large shares of younger adults, blacks and Hispanics saying government should do more to solve problems.

Black and Hispanic adults both overwhelmingly say the government should do more to solve problems; at least seven-in-ten or more in each group say this. In contrast, whites are more divided: 51% say government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals, while 48% say the government should do more to solve problems.

By about a two-to-one margin, adults under age 30 say the government should do more to solve problems (65% vs. 34%). Older adults are more likely to say the government is doing too many things, including 54% of adults 65 years of age and older.

When asked to consider other aspects of government’s role and performance, a majority of Americans say government is inefficient. However, a comparable share also says there’s an important role for government to play in regulating business.

Overall, 56% say government is almost always wasteful and inefficient, compared with 42% who say it often does a better job than people give it credit for. Nearly seven-in-ten Republicans say government is wasteful and inefficient. Views among Democrats are more divided: 47% say the government is almost always wasteful and inefficient, while about as many (51%) say it often does a better job than it gets credit for.

Majority of Americans say government is ‘wasteful and inefficient,’ but a majority also sees its regulation as necessary

A majority of the public (58%) says that government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest; fewer (41%) say government regulation of business usually does more harm than good. The partisan divide in these opinions is even larger than in views of government efficiency: 75% of Democrats say government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest, while 61% of Republicans say it usually does more harm than good.

Views of the reasons for America’s success

About half of U.S. adults (52%) say the United States has been successful more because of its ability to change; a slightly smaller share (46%) says the nation’s success has more to do with its reliance on long-standing principles.

Partisans differ widely in views of why the U.S. has been successfulAmong Republicans and Republican leaners, 63% say reliance on principles has more to do with why the United States has been successful. Democrats and Democratic leaners take the opposite view: 64% say the country has been successful more because of its ability to change.

There are sizable differences in views within both parties by ideology. A large majority of conservative Republicans (75%) say the country’s reliance on principles has more to do with its success, while just 24% say it is more because of its ability to change. Views among moderate and liberal Republicans tilt in the opposite direction: 54% cite the country’s ability to change, while 45% point to reliance on principles.

Among Democrats, 74% of liberals say the nation’s ability to change has more to do with its success than its reliance on long-standing principles; a smaller majority of conservative and moderate Democrats take this view (56%).

Views also differ significantly by age. Adults under age 50 are more likely than those ages 50 and older to say the country’s ability to change has more to do with its success than its reliance on long-standing principles.

Younger adults more likely to link U.S. success to its ability to changeYounger adults in both parties are more likely than older people to say the country’s ability to change is the primary reason the nation has been successful.

About seven-in-ten Democrats under age 50 say the country’s success is attributable to its ability to change. This compares with 59% of Democrats ages 50 to 64 and 45% of those ages 65 and older.

Among Republicans, just 28% of those ages 65 and older say the ability to change has more to do with the country’s success. Larger shares of younger Republicans take this view, though majorities of Republicans across age groups point to reliance on long-standing principles as the bigger reason for the country’s success.

Views of the country’s ability to solve its problems

Republicans more likely than Democrats to say Americans can always find solutions to their problems Overall, 55% of adults say that “as Americans, we can always find ways to solve our problems and get what we want.” A smaller share (44%) says “this country can’t solve many of its important problems.”

About six-in-ten Republicans (62%) are optimistic that Americans can find ways to solve their problems. However, among Democrats, about as many say the country cannot solve many of its important problems (50%) as say it can (49%).

Few Americans say other countries are better than the U.S.

Far more Republicans than Democrats say U.S. ‘stands above’ other countriesMost Americans (79%) say either that the U.S. “stands above all other countries in the world” (24%) or that it is “one of the greatest countries, along with some others” (55%). About two-in-ten (21%) say there are other countries that are better than the U.S.

Four-in-ten Republicans and Republican leaners say the U.S. stands above all other countries in the world; another 51% say it is one of the greatest countries, along with some others. Just 9% of Republicans say there are other countries that are better than the U.S.

Views among Democrats and Democratic leaners are not as positive: Just 10% say the U.S. stands above all other countries in the world, and 58% say it is one of the world’s greatest countries. About three-in-ten Democrats (31%) say there are other countries that are better than the U.S. Liberal Democrats (43%) are about twice as likely as conservative and moderate Democrats (21%) to say there are other countries that are better than the U.S.

Across age groups, older adults are more positive about the United States’ global standing. For instance, 91% of those 65 and older say either that the U.S. stands above all other countries (34%) or is one of the greatest countries in the world (57%). Among those ages 18 to 29, a smaller majority (63%) says the U.S. is the greatest (15%) or one of the greatest (47%) countries in the world.

Long-term opinion trends about government

In recent years, Pew Research Center has transitioned from probability-based telephone surveys to the American Trends Panel, a probability-based online panel. The transition from phone surveys conducted with an interviewer to online self-administered surveys brings with it the possibility of mode differences – differences arising from the method of interviewing.

This section includes opinion measures about government performance and regulation, as well as views of the country’s ability to solve its problems. These questions, which have long-standing telephone trends, were included on a survey conducted in September on the American Trends Panel (ATP), on which this report is largely based, and a contemporaneous telephone survey.

In the online survey, 56% say government is almost always wasteful and inefficient, while 42% say it often does a better job than people give it credit for. There is a 21 percentage point partisan gap, with 68% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents saying that government is almost always wasteful and inefficient, compared with about half of Democrats and Democratic leaners (47%). Views in the phone survey, overall and within both partisan groups, are nearly identical.

Shifting partisan views on government waste and inefficiency

Overall public sentiment about government efficiency has been generally stable for more than a decade, with narrow majorities consistently saying that they view the government as wasteful and inefficient. However, there has been some movement in views among partisans, generally coinciding with changes in party control of the White House.

The share of Republicans saying government is wasteful and inefficient is now somewhat lower than it was during the Obama administration. However, Republicans’ perceptions of government wastefulness during George W. Bush’s presidency were lower than they are today.

Democrats have shifted in the opposite direction since Trump took office and are now somewhat more likely to see government as wasteful and inefficient than they had been in previous years. Still, Democrats offered more critical assessments of government during George W. Bush’s second term than they do today.

Another long-standing trend (dating to 1994) asks about whether government regulation of business “is necessary to protect the public interest” or “usually does more harm than good.”

The American Trends Panel survey finds that 58% say government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest, while 41% say it usually does more harm than good. In the phone survey, 48% say regulation is necessary, while 44% say it does more harm than good. The share offering no opinion is higher on the telephone survey (7%) than on the online survey (just 2%), a commonly observed mode difference.

The partisan gap is similar in the two formats (online: 37 percentage point gap in the share saying government regulation is necessary, telephone: 36-point gap). The telephone trend shows that the partisan gap in these views is relatively unchanged over the last eight years, but is substantially wider than it was in the 1990s (when the question was first asked) and early 2000s.

Most Democrats continue to say government regulation is necessary, while most Republicans say it does more harm than good

Overall, 55% of the public takes the view that “as Americans, we can always find ways to solve our problems and get what we want,” while 44% say “this country can’t solve many of its important problems.” On the telephone survey, 59% are optimistic about Americans’ ability to solve problems, while 37% say the country can’t solve many of its own problems.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say Americans can always find ways to solve their problems; the size of the partisan gap is similar on the telephone and online surveys.

The telephone trend shows that the partisan gap in these views has fluctuated over the last quarter century: In August of 2016, when the question was last asked, Democrats were slightly more likely than Republicans to take the optimistic view, and in 2014 there was no difference between the partisan groups on this question.

Republicans now more likely than Democrats to say Americans can always find ways to solve the nation’s problems