Changing Perceptions of Government’s Power?

Posted on September 24, 2013 by

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Gallup Government Power PollGallup recently released polling data that suggests Americans are becoming more concerned with government’s power. The figure above shows the steady increase in the percent of respondents who see a problem and a similar decline in those who see government as having just the right amount of power. Notice, also, the relatively unchanged number of respondents who see government as having too little power.

For those of us who prefer a more limited government, one constrained by our Constitution or, at least, some sense of financial propriety, this may seem like good news. However, Gallup also published the partisan breakdown of these numbers. Here, the picture gets a little more complex according to the figure below. In some ways, Republicans and Democrats have merely swapped places throughout the past ten years. Republicans, secure in George Bush’s use of the Patriot Act, were less concerned with government’s power, while Democrats were outraged. Now, Republicans are outraged at the IRS, the NSA, and the Affordable Care Act and Democrats are now, unsurprisingly, less concerned with President Obama. Although, to be fair, the distance between the two parties was fairly minimized during the Bush presidency, at least when compared to the Obama years, where we have seen more extreme polarization.

Too much power_partisan

What do we take away from this?  So much of what we evaluate in the political world is actually, for most people, filtered through the lens of partisan attachment and/or political personality. The average voter has a difficult time separating their attitudes toward a particular politician or their party loyalty from a relevant political issue or idea. In some ways, this is unsurprising given the relative power of parties and candidates as interpretive symbols. At the same time, it is interesting that Independents have more closely mirrored Republican trends in the last five years as opposed to Democratic trends, especially if we remove the election year of 2012. There is almost a 30 percent gap between how Democrats and Independents perceive government’s power, with the Independents far more likely to be suspicious.

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