Gallup: Number of Americans who think federal government has too much power reaches record level

As someone on Twitter said yesterday: If only there was a political party of some kind that could capitalize on this increasingly popular sentiment.

Six in 10 Americans (60%) believe the federal government has too much power, one percentage point above the previous high recorded in September 2010. At least half of Americans since 2005 have said the government has too much power. Thirty-two percent now say the government has the right amount of power. Few say it has too little power…

This new high encompasses Republicans (81%), who are now more likely than at any time since 2002 to say the government has too much power, and Democrats (38%), who now are more likely to say this than at any time since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

Republicans, Democrats, and independents have each grown more likely to say government is too powerful this year.

The party trend lines are more interesting than the topline numbers:


Any news showing growing skepticism of big government is good news, but whenever I see data like this suggesting a turn towards restraint, I think of those fantastically bleak Pew polls that ask people which federal programs, specifically, deserve spending cuts. Here’s one that’s barely six months old. It’s a cliche but it’s true: Americans are for small government in the aggregate, as a philosophical matter, and never more so than right now per Gallup, but when you get down in the weeds of starving the beast, they turn into liberals. The only realm of federal spending that Pew finds a plurality in favor of cutting is foreign aid, which is peanuts vis-a-vis the total budget. Once you get to meaty mandatory spending on Social Security and Medicare, you get more than 80 percent saying they either want to maintain current spending or actually *increase* it. Democrats love to laugh at the thought of someone at an ObamaCare protest holding one sign that says “Less government” and another that says “Hands off my Medicare,” but that’s the effect of the Gallup poll vis-a-vis Pew, I think. Ask yourself: How seriously should we take this data when the public’s simultaneously telling other pollsters that they oppose defunding ObamaCare irrespective of a shutdown?

Anyway, a few notes on the graph above. One: As you’d expect, having a Republican president in office keeps the partisan trend lines bunched together while having a Democrat in office creates a giant gap. Under Bush, Democrats were apt to be more skeptical of government power because they distrusted the man but their affinity for government power in principle kept that distrust in check. The opposite was true for Republicans. Once O was sworn in, those checks were gone; distrust of the president personally aligned with ideological tendencies and the two lines diverged sharply. Two: Even so, the percentage of Democrats who say the federal government has gotten too powerful is greater now than it was circa 2003 under Bush. Maybe that’s just the residue of bipartisan goodwill that Bush enjoyed after 9/11, but it’s within 10 points of where Democrats were as late as the end of 2004. Three: Nick Gillespie of Reason says the trend among independents is the most intriguing because it continues to rise without any obvious partisan explanation, signaling a broader ideological (libertarian?) shift. Fair enough, although the trend line among indies reversed shortly before both of Obama’s election victories in 2008 and 2012. Evidently O was able to sell them on bigger government with a full-court messaging press during a campaign, at least for awhile. Last year, the percentage who say the feds have too much power actually dropped to the same level that indies were at circa 2006. Until a few months ago, there were fewer indies objecting to big government than there were in 2010 and 2011.

Fourth and finally: The reason we’re suddenly at a record high seems pretty obvious, no? There’s a sharp spike at the very right-hand edge of the graph, which almost certainly is a reaction to the NSA scandal and, likely to a lesser degree, the revelations about the IRS targeting tea partiers and the DOJ targeting reporters for leaks. Whether that spike can be sustained over time, and especially under a new Republican president, remains to be seen.

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David Strom 9:21 PM on March 24, 2023