Poll: Share of Americans who think government should do more reaches highest point in more than 20 years

Populism usually trends towards authoritarianism and we live in an age of populism on the left and the right. No surprises from this latest WSJ/NBC poll, then. When Americans are asked whether government should do more or whether government is already doing too much, they split 58/38 — statistically identical to last April’s 57/39 divide but technically the highest number recorded by this poll since they began tracking the question in 1995. That year, by the way, the split was 32/62 in the aftermath of the House takeover by Newt Gingrich’s Republican majority. In October 2010, a month before the GOP swamped Democrats and took back the House, it was 45/50. Before last year, the last time the share who thought government should do more reached 55 percent was in September 2007, the same year the new Democratic majorities in Congress were seated. This metric, in other words, isn’t a bad rough gauge for measuring which party happens to be in vogue at a given moment. With the midterms less than 10 months away, it’s pointing emphatically at the big(ger)-government party.

I’d be ready to pronounce the tea party dead over this if it hadn’t died already in July 2015.

Here’s the most interesting part. If you’re wondering which party is clamoring for more proactive government — Democrats, independents, or Republicans — the answer is yes, yes, and yes.

In eight years, the share of Republicans eager to see government do more is up 16 points, essentially double what it was in 2010. (If you look at McCain voters versus Trump voters instead of Republicans then and now, the share has exactly doubled.) Among indies support has gone from a minority position of 34 percent to a majority of 52 percent. And Democrats are creeping up from supermajority support in 2010 towards total unanimity now, reaching 81 percent this month in favor of more proactive government.

It may be that this is a blip. One factor pushing Republican numbers upward, certainly, is the right’s comfort level with a federal government that’s totally controlled by Republicans. If Congress flips this fall and Trump is tossed out in 2020, that comfort will collapse completely and we might see a minor tea-party revival in the next decade. The Democratic numbers are more ominous, though, as they’re peaking in support for proactive government despite the other party running the show. That might — might — be explainable as a reaction to Trump too: POTUS has governed as a more or less orthodox Republican and has outsourced most of his domestic agenda to smaller-government conservatives like Ryan and McConnell. Democrats, having bristled at the congressional GOP’s efforts to blow up ObamaCare, may be reacting to the fact that the Trump era is an era of (slightly) smaller government and are pushing back on that by insisting on something more robust. Again, if and when Democrats take back control of part or all of government, that pressure will ease. By the start of the next decade, we may end up with numbers approximating Obama-era levels of support on this question among both Democrats and Republicans.

But I’m skeptical. The jury’s out on whether the right’s drift towards nationalism is a sustainable movement or really just a byproduct of Trump’s cult of personality, with a reversion to a smaller-government model of Republicanism in the cards once Trump has retired. The left, though, really does appear to be drifting further left on policy. The party is more radical on abortion and much more radical on immigration than it was during the Clinton era. We’re well on our way to single-payer being the stated preference of all Democratic presidential candidates. It’s not inconceivable that of the two populist movements that rocked politics in 2016, Bernie Sanders’s losing left-wing version will have more legs than Trump’s victorious right-wing version. I think there’s more suspense surrounding how the right will react to that than there is whether Democrats will revert to a more centrist Clintonian approach to government anytime soon.

In lieu of an exit question, here’s another poll on left and right policy preferences in America. The story of the WSJ/NBC poll is Democrats and Republicans growing a bit more in sync on proactive government. The story of this one from Pew is Democrats and Republicans growing further apart on foreign policy:

The *overall* level of support for Israel versus the Palestinians is nearly the same today as it was 40 years ago but the composition of that support is radically different. In 1978 there was scarcely any difference between the parties. Today Republican support for Israel has skyrocketed while Democratic support has collapsed. In fact, Democrats are now about as likely to sympathize with the Palestinians (25 percent) as they are with Israel (27 percent). There are partisan factors in that too: Bibi Netanyahu’s hawkish right-wing Likud party has controlled the government of Israel for nearly a decade, which has alienated some American left-wingers. A left-wing takeover in Israel might scramble the American numbers a bit. My sense, though, is that the partisan trends here are more durable than that, and that Democrats’ drift towards the Palestinian side may be a permanent shift as the party drifts left on basically everything. Not good.