We just got done with an election between Hillary Clinton and a guy who’s pushing tariffs and a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, and Americans are still clinging to the fiction that they’re against big government, huh? If nothing else good comes from this last election, let’s at least have clarity about our priorities.
If you want to nitpick, you could point out that the question doesn’t ask whether big government is a threat, merely which of three options is the most threatening. It may be that big government is the “most threatening” of the three in the same sense that ice cream is the “least appetizing” when given a choice of ice cream, cookies, and cake. But let’s be real: Americans “know” they’re supposed to worry about big government just as they “know” they’re supposed to worry about budget deficits. Ask them if they’re worried and they’ll give you the virtuous answer. Ask them to behave virtuously in their voting preferences and, well, prepare for disappointment.
It’s surprising that big business didn’t score higher as a threat with Trump howling about protectionism and outsourcing on the campaign trail, but maybe that’s a misunderstanding of how people approach polls like this. Note that big business peaked as a threat in 2001 and 2009. What happened business-wise in those years? Well, nothing, really. Big things happened in government, though: 2001 was, of course, the year of 9/11, and 2009 was the year Obama took office. In both cases, for very different reasons, Americans’ usual skepticism of government dipped. The country united behind Bush (briefly) after the attacks and most of the country united (briefly) behind the first black president, who was promising hope and change. It’s not that big business was suddenly a threat, in other words, as much as government suddenly wasn’t as much of a threat, which necessarily meant a higher share in the poll for business.
Plus, the term “big government” ropes in a million different concerns whereas “big business” ropes in comparatively few. If you’re worried about business, you’re worried about outsourcing, monopoly power, and wealth inequality as major corporations pile up profits. If you’re worried about government, you might be worried about entitlements, surveillance, military adventurism, police brutality, crony capitalism, the drug war, abortion regulations, and on and on. It’s a catch-all in ways that the other two aren’t, which is why it’s reliably ahead of the other two. Although, if you’re intent on seeing a kernel of a true preference for smaller government in the American electorate, you might note that perceptions of “big government” as the greatest threat didn’t really start to take off in the graph above until the Reagan era.
In lieu of an exit question, the latest action and reaction from our very small-government president(-elect):
— Evan Rosenfeld (@Evan_Rosenfeld) January 5, 2017