Big Government is Not the Issue

Big Government is Not the Issue

August 19, 2010

By Steven Kull

An abridged version of the following article appeared in Politico. It includes some newly released poll findings that can be viewed here.

Conventional wisdom is that the political pendulum has swung away from the Democrats–driven by a fierce reaction to a “Big Government” agenda. This spawned the tea party movement. But the story is not so simple.

Polls do show that the tea party is striking a chord with many Americans. In fact, 52 percent of Americans feel sympathy with the tea party movement, according to a new poll from and fielded by Knowledge Networks.

But it does not appear that this sympathetic response is connected to the tea party’s warning about Big Government. Only 31 percent of tea party sympathizers say their main concern is that government “is becoming too big.” Rather, 55 percent say their greater concern is that the government “is not following the will of the people.”

Even among the hard core who say that they are very sympathetic to the tea party–one in five overall–only 46 percent cite major concerns about Big Government. More of this group, 47 percent, express greater concern about the lack of democratic responsiveness.

Speakers at tea party rallies regularly invoke the theme that the government is not responding to the will of the people and claim the mantle of representing the people in defiance of the government’s failure to respond. Sarah Palin, at the climax of one speech, said, “This movement is about the people. … Remember, all political power is inherent in the people, and government is supposed to be working for the people.”

Justin Graber echoed, “When it’s [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid vs. the will of the American people, America is on our side.”

These messages resonate. In the new WPO poll, 83 percent of the general public says that the will of the people should have more influence than it does. Those very sympathetic to the tea party are even higher — at 95 percent. Asked whether “this country is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or for the benefit of all the people,” 81 percent of Americans say it is run by big interests; as do 90 percent of the strong sympathizers.

From a political perspective, what really matters is how the tea party message is reaching beyond the Republican base. This reach is substantial.
Among those who are sympathetic to the tea party, only 39 percent are firmly Republican. The remaining 61 percent include those who lean Republican (15 percent), are independents (20 percent), lean Democratic (6 percent), or are firmly Democratic (20 percent).

Among these non-Republican tea party sympathizers, just 23 percent say they are primarily concerned about Big Government, while 59 percent say they are more concerned about the government being unresponsive to the people.

Yet there is little evidence that most Americans have turned to the Republican model of small government. A recent Washington Post poll asked, “Which party do you think has better ideas about the right size and role of the federal government?” A plurality chose the Democratic Party (45 percent) over the Republican Party (40 percent).

At the same time, there is political danger here for the Democrats. When the electorate is feeling frustrated that the government is not being responsive, it puts them in a mood hostile to incumbents — who right now are largely Democrats. It makes them want to reshuffle the deck in hope of getting a better hand.

President Barack Obama was elected on a wave of hope that his administration would change Washington dynamics. There is a growing sense now that, in key ways, the new bums are the same as the old bums.

The Obama administration seems to understand the need to convince the public that they are truly listening and responding. With some fanfare, the White House established an Office of Public Engagement to do just that.

But, while this office’s website lists some interesting activities, which may appeal to the tiny sliver of the public who knows it exists, it has had little effect. WPO asked how much influence the people’s will has on the government, on a scale of 0 to 10: The mean response was 3.8 — no better than the rating President George W. Bush got in a 2008 poll. Asked how much influence the people should have, the mean response was 7.5.

Further, asked how well elected officials in the Federal Government understand the views of most Americans, 67 percent said “not that well” (42 percent) or “not well at all” (25 percent).

To move the needle on the perception of responsiveness is likely to require going to scale in a way that is highly visible to the U.S. electorate.

It has to move well beyond the scale of the Office of Public Engagement. It should also move beyond focusing on the tiny fraction of the public who self-select to express their views. To give voice to the public, it is necessary to scientifically select a representative sample of Americans — just as is done in a standard poll.

Some people in Washington have the impression that the American public have a negative view of policymakers paying attention to polls and thus would not like the idea of anything that involves such a sampling process. This is a major misperception. Even when presented the argument that “when government leaders are thinking about an important decision” they “should not pay attention to public opinion polls because this will distract them from deciding what they think is right,” eight in ten rejected it in favor of the argument that government leaders should pay attention to polls.

But this does not mean that most Americans think that the government should mechanically follow the results of polls, especially when it comes to matters that involve complex information that may not available to most Americans. What an overwhelming number of Americans do agree on (84 percent in the most recent WPO poll) is that “The goal of Congress should be to make the decisions that the majority of Americans would make if they had the information and time to think things over that Congress has.”
Around the country there have been numerous experiments in which representative samples of Americans have been given in-depth and balanced information on public policy issues. In some cases these are conducted over the internet, while in others people are briefed in person and engage in discussions. Finally their views are aggregated and reported to government leaders.

Americans express great enthusiasm for these kinds of processes. They have confidence in the American public and think that government decisions would be better if they were informed by the results of such processes.

Naturally, there is some risk here. Were the administration to take these kinds of processes to scale and really give the citizenry as a whole a voice, it might not always say what the administration wants to hear.

But only when this is done will Americans really have confidence that they are being heard. And until they have such confidence, they are likely to continue to lurch between the parties and applaud the strident messages of groups like the tea party, looking for leaders who will realize the democratic ideals that they learned in school, and despite their disappointments in many elected leaders, still take to heart.

Steven Kull, a political psychologist, is director of and the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.


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