Do People Really Want Less Government, or Just Less Politics?

March 25, 2013

Do Americans really want smaller government? Pollster Andrew Kohut recently made that observation in a larger analysis of public attitudes about the Republican Party, but I'm suspicious. I think the numbers reflect a cynicism about politics, and partisanship, but not a desire for fewer government programs and services.

Kohut notes that five years ago the percent of Americans preferring "smaller government and fewer services" was about the same as those preferring "bigger government and more services," 45% for the former and 43% for the latter. By 2012, the gap had widened to eleven percentage points, 51% to 40%. But looking at the political messaging over the last five years -- the true test of what the parties and politicians believe the public wants -- and you see a different story.

Republicans have indeed been pushing for smaller government and fewer services, but in 2010 they attacked Democrats for cutting Medicare (as part of the Affordable Care Act). Their campaign messaging was for less government and, at the same time, protection of that large government program. They knew that the small government rhetoric appealed to voters, but those same people rely on programs like Medicare, so they tried to have it both ways (and did).

I believe voters were actually feeling a distrust and dislike of politics, which they expressed as opposition to "government." But if you were to give them a check list of government programs -- FAA airplane inspection, Social Security, the FBI and military, clean water projects, etc. -- they would demand their preservation. It was an attitude encapsulated in the famous sign which reportedly demanded "Government Keep Your Hands Off My Medicare!"

So why have the numbers changed in the last five years? Cynicism about politics was certainly high during the Bush Administration, too. I think it is the result of a phenomenon in which independent voters -- a notoriously disgruntled group who reject both parties -- tend to lean against the incumbent president when he is fighting for his agenda. They believe the negative attacks of the opposition party and are skeptical of the chief executive's plans and philosophy. When the president was George W. Bush, who was theoretically a small government conservative, independents sided with a more activist approach. Under Obama, they leaned the other way. In other words, their cynicism made them lean against the political philosophy of the incumbent.

So both sides should be cautious about believing the public wants less government. People like the notion of small government, but what they really want is less fighting, partisanship, and dysfunction. Most of them don't actually want less help and support.

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