I started this current series to discuss what is wrong with our country and what we need to do to fix it. While I have discussed some of the topics that I will be including in this series, they have been included in other articles. In this series I will concentrate on a single topic. This will also mean that some of the articles may be slightly shorter than my readers have grown accustomed to, however they will still be written with the same attention to detail. This series will have no set number of articles and will continue to grow as I come across additional subjects.
Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government
Broad criticism, but positive performance ratings in many areas
A year ahead of the presidential election, the American public is deeply cynical about government, politics and the nation’s elected leaders in a way that has become quite familiar.
Currently, just 19% say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century. Only 20% would describe government programs as being well-run. And elected officials are held in such low regard that 55% of the public says “ordinary Americans” would do a better job of solving national problems.
Yet at the same time, most Americans have a lengthy to-do list for this object of their frustration: Majorities want the federal government to have a major role in addressing issues ranging from terrorism and disaster response to education and the environment.
And most Americans like the way the federal government handles many of these same issues, though they are broadly critical of its handling of others – especially poverty and immigration.
A new national survey by Pew Research Center, based on more than 6,000 interviews conducted between August 27 and October 4, 2015, finds that public attitudes about government and politics defy easy categorization. The study builds upon previous reports about the government’s role and performance in 2010 and 1998. This report was made possible by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which received support for the survey from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
The partisan divide over the size and scope of government remains as wide as ever: Support for smaller government endures as a Republican touchstone. Fully 80% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they prefer a smaller government with fewer services, compared with just 31% of Democrats and Democratic leaners.
Yet both Republicans and Democrats favor significant government involvement on an array of specific issues. Among the public overall, majorities say the federal government should have a major role in dealing with 12 of 13 issues included in the survey, all except advancing space exploration.
There is bipartisan agreement that the federal government should play a major role in dealing with terrorism, natural disasters, food and medicine safety, and roads and infrastructure. And while the presidential campaign has exposed sharp partisan divisions over immigration policy, large majorities of both Republicans (85%) and Democrats (80%) say the government should have a major role in managing the immigration system.
But the partisan differences over government’s appropriate role are revealing – with the widest gaps on several issues relating to the social safety net.
Only about a third of Republicans and Republican leaners see a major role for the federal government in helping people get out of poverty (36%) and ensuring access to health care (34%), by far the lowest percentages for any of the 13 issues tested. Fully 72% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say the government should have a major role in helping people out of poverty, and 83% say it should play a major role in ensuring access to health care.
Moreover, while majorities of Republicans favor a major government role in ensuring a basic income for people 65 and older (59%), protecting the environment (58%) and ensuring access to high-quality education (55%), much larger shares of Democrats – 80% or more in each case – favor a large government role.
However, these differences are a matter of degree. Overwhelming numbers of Republicans and Democrats say the federal government should have either a major or minor role on all 13 issues tested. Relatively few in either party want the government to have no role in these issues, though 20% of Republicans say the government should have no role in ensuring health care.
Why We Include “Leaners” in the Republican and Democratic Groups
Views of what government does well – and what it doesn’t
At a general level, the public finds the government frustrating and badly managed. Just 20% say the federal government runs its programs well, and 59% say it is in need of “very major reform,” up 22 percentage points since 1997.
These assessments stand in contrast with the public’s more mixed views of government performance at a specific level. In 10 of 13 areas included in the survey, the balance of opinion about government performance is more positive than negative.
In several areas, Democrats and Republicans give the federal government similar ratings: Large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans say it does a good job of responding to natural disasters (82% and 78%, respectively) and setting fair and safe standards for workplaces (79% and 77%, respectively).
Roughly half in each party say the federal government does well in maintaining roads, bridges and other infrastructure (52% of Democrats, 50% Republicans) and ensuring access to high-quality education (54% of Republicans, 52% of Democrats).
However, there are substantial partisan differences in views of government performance on a pair of issues that are likely to be important in the 2016 campaign. Republicans are half as likely as Democrats to say the government does a good job in strengthening the economy (34% vs. 68%). And the gap is as large in perceptions of government performance in ensuring access to health care (40% of Republicans vs. 74% of Democrats).
Notably, neither Democrats nor Republicans give the federal government positive ratings when it comes to helping people get out of poverty. Just 42% of Democrats and 30% of Republicans say the government does well in lifting people out of poverty. For Democrats, the low ratings come on an issue for which there is broad support for large-scale government involvement (72% of Democrats favor a major government role). By contrast, Republicans are highly critical of government performance on poverty, but just 36% say government should have a major role in addressing this issue.
The government gets very negative ratings from members of both parties for its management of the immigration system. Four-in-ten Democrats think the government does well on immigration, compared with 15% of Republicans – the lowest rating among Republicans for the government’s handling of any issue.
Are Republicans now ‘angrier’ at government?
For years, the public’s general feelings about government have tended more toward frustration than anger.
Currently, 22% say they are “angry” at the federal government; 57% are “frustrated,” and 18% say they are “basically content.” These sentiments have changed little over the past year, but two years ago – during the partial government shutdown – a record 30% expressed anger at government.
The share of Republicans and Republican leaners saying they are angry with the government is not as high as in October 2013 (32% now, 38% then). Nonetheless, Republicans are nearly three times as likely as Democrats (12%) to say they are angry with the government. And among politically engaged Republicans and Democrats – those who vote frequently and follow politics on a regular basis – the gap is nearly four-to-one (42% to 11%).
Among both Democrats and Republicans, large majorities say they can seldom, if ever, trust the federal government (89% of Republicans, 72% of Democrats). While trust in government among Republicans has varied widely depending on whether a Republican or Democrat is in the White House, Democrats’ views have shown far less change.
In Barack Obama’s six years as president, 13% of Republicans, on average, have said they can trust the government always or most of the time – the lowest level of average trust among either party during any administration dating back 40 years. During George W. Bush’s presidency, an average of 47% of Republicans said they could trust the government. By contrast, the share of Democrats saying they can trust the government has been virtually unchanged over the two administrations (28% Bush, 29% Obama).
Other general attitudes about the federal government have moved in a more negative direction over the past two decades. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) say the government needs “very major reform,” up from 37% in 1997 during the Clinton administration. Most of the change has come among Republicans – fully 75% say the government needs very major reform, up from 43% in 1997; among Democrats, 44% say the government needs sweeping reform, compared with 31% then.
Republicans also are far more likely than Democrats to say that the government is wasteful and inefficient (75% vs. 40% of Democrats) and to give the government a “poor” rating for how it operates its programs (50% vs. 18%).
In politics, most say ‘their side’ is losing
While overall views of the federal government are very negative, there also are several indications of widespread dissatisfaction with the current state of politics. In politics today, far more people say “their side” – however they perceive it – is losing more often than it is winning.
Overall, nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) say that on the issues that matter to them, their side loses more often than it wins. Just 25% say their side comes out ahead more often.
This sense of “losing” is more widely shared among Republicans than Democrats – large majorities of both conservative Republicans (81%) and moderate and liberal Republicans (75%) say their political side loses more often than it wins.
But while most Republicans feel like they lose more often than they win, most Democrats do not feel like “winners” either. Overall, 52% of Democrats say their side loses more often than it wins, while 40% say it usually wins. Liberal Democrats are divided over whether their side wins or loses more often (46% winning vs. 44% losing) – the only ideological group in which a majority does not think its side is losing.
Cynicism about politics also is reflected in the public’s attitudes regarding money in politics. Fully 76% say that “money has a greater influence on politics and elected officials today than in the past.” Just 22% say the influence of money in politics is little different than in the past.
And, as both parties’ nominating contests continue, 64% of all Americans – including 68% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans – say that the high cost of a presidential campaign “discourages many good candidates from running.” Just 31% overall say that the high cost of presidential campaigns does not discourage good candidates from running.
Increasingly, Americans even express less confidence in their own collective political wisdom. Just 34% say they have a very great deal or good deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions, while 63% have little or no confidence. In January 2007, these opinions were almost the reverse – 57% had at least a good deal of confidence in the political wisdom of the people, while 41% did not.
The loss of confidence cuts across the political spectrum: 36% of Republicans have at least a great deal of confidence in the public’s political wisdom; 61% did so in 2007. The decline has been about as large among Democrats (57% then, 37% now).
Elected officials: ‘intelligent,’ not ‘honest’
Negative views of elected officials are hardly a new phenomenon – for years, large majorities have faulted elected officials for losing touch with Americans and not caring about the views of average people. But with the election approaching, the criticisms of elected officials have taken on an especially sharp edge.
Just 22% of the public say that most elected officials put the interests of the country ahead of their own interests; 74% say they put their own interests ahead of the nation’s.
When asked if certain traits apply to elected officials – as well as to business leaders and the typical American – most people do say the term “intelligent” describes elected officials very or fairly well (67%). However, just as many view the “typical American” as intelligent. Somewhat more (83%) say the term describes business leaders well.
And elected officials receive very low marks for honesty. Just 29% say the term “honest” describes elected officials. That compares with 45% who say business leaders are honest and 69% who say the same about typical Americans.
A large majority of the public (72%) also views elected officials as “selfish” – but that criticism is not unique to politicians. Comparable percentages also say the term applies to typical Americans (68%) and business leaders (67%).
Perhaps the most withering critique of elected officials is the belief – shared by a majority of the public – that “ordinary Americans” could do a better job than they could of solving the nation’s problems.
Most Americans (56%) acknowledge that the problems facing the country do not have clear solutions. Even so, most (55%) also say ordinary Americans could do a better job of solving national problems than elected officials.
There are few meaningful partisan differences in views of elected officials. Nearly identical shares of Republicans and Democrats view elected officials as intelligent, honest and selfish. However, Republicans are somewhat more likely than Democrats to say that ordinary people are more capable of solving the nation’s problems (62% vs. 49%).
Other important findings
‘Anger’ at government and views of GOP candidates. Donald Trump is viewed more favorably by the nearly one-third of Republicans and leaners who are angry at government (64% favorable) than by those who are frustrated or content with government (48%). Other GOP presidential candidates (Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson) also get higher favorable ratings among Republicans who are angry at government than among non-angry Republicans, in part because they are better known among the “angry” group.
In contrast, Jeb Bush’s favorable rating is 18 percentage points lower among “angry” than “non-angry” Republicans (57% vs 39%).
Deep partisan divides among the politically engaged. When it comes to the role of government in specific areas, already-wide partisan gaps grow even wider among politically engaged adults, particularly over government’s role in health care, poverty assistance, education, environmental protection and the economy. For example, fully 90% of politically engaged Democrats say the government should have a major role in ensuring access to health care; just 21% of politically engaged Republicans agree. Among less-engaged Democrats and Republicans the differences are not as dramatic (79% of Democrats vs. 47% of Republicans).
Views of government agencies. Most government agencies continue to be viewed favorably by majorities of the public. Fully 84% have a favorable view of the U.S. Postal Service – the highest rating among 17 agencies and departments tested. But just 39% have a favorable opinion of the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs, and its favorable rating has plummeted 29 percentage points since 2013.
Is politics a contest between right and wrong? Most Americans reject the idea that “politics is a struggle between right and wrong.” However, 53% of conservative Republicans do see politics this way – the highest share of any ideological group.
Opinions of the political parties and governance. Similar shares of the public say the Democratic Party (52%) and the Republican Party (49%) could do a good job managing the federal government. Yet both also are criticized for their approaches to governance: 59% say the GOP is too willing to cut government programs, even when they work; an identical percentage (59%) says the Democratic Party too often sees government as the only way to solve problems.
Young people less confident in the nation’s direction. About four-in-ten adults younger than 30 (38%) say they have “quite a lot” of confidence in the nation’s future. Among those 50 and older, 50% are highly confident in the nation’s future.
Views of other national institutions. The federal government is not the only national institution viewed negatively by the public. A majority (56%) say large corporations have a negative impact on the country, while an identical percentage says the same about the entertainment industry. And nearly two-thirds (65%) say the national news media has a negative effect on the country.
Opinions about taxes and government. While the public expresses a range of negative assessments of the government, there continues to be limited public outcry over personal tax burdens. Slightly more than half (54%) say they think they pay about the right amount in taxes, considering what they get from the federal government. At the same time, 52% say that most Americans demand more from the government than they are willing to pay for in taxes.
1. Trust in government: 1958-2015
The public’s trust in the federal government continues to be at historically low levels. Only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%).
Fewer than three-in-ten Americans have expressed trust in the federal government in every major national poll conducted since July 2007 – the longest period of low trust in government in more than 50 years. In 1958, when the American National Election Study first asked this question, 73% said they could trust the government just about always or most of the time.
The erosion of public trust in government began in the 1960s. The share saying they could trust the federal government to do the right thing nearly always or most of the time reached an all-time high of 77% in 1964. Within a decade – a period that included the Vietnam War, civil unrest and the Watergate scandal – trust had fallen by more than half, to 36%. By the end of the 1970s, only about a quarter of Americans felt that they could trust the government at least most of the time.
Trust in government rebounded in the 1980s before falling in the early to mid-1990s. But as the economy boomed in the late 1990s, confidence in government increased. And in 2001, the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States transformed public attitudes on a range of issues – including trust in government.
In early October 2001, a month after the attacks, 60% said they could trust the government, roughly double the share earlier that year and the highest percentage expressing trust in government in more than 40 years. But the rise in government trust was short-lived – by the summer of 2002, the share saying they could trust the government had tumbled 22 percentage points.
Amid the war in Iraq and economic uncertainty at home, trust in government continued to decline. By July 2007, trust had fallen to 24%. Since then, the share saying they can trust the federal government has generally fluctuated in a narrow range, between 20% and 25%.
Trust in government and partisanship
Currently, 26% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say they can trust the federal government nearly always or most of the time, compared with 11% of Republicans and Republican leaners. Since Barack Obama took office in 2009, higher shares of Democrats than Republicans have expressed trust in government.
Since the 1970s, trust in government has been consistently higher among members of the party that controls the White House than among the opposition party. However, Republicans are much more reactive than Democrats to changes in political power. Republicans express much higher levels of trust during Republican than during Democratic presidencies, while Democrats’ attitudes tend to be more consistent, regardless of which party controls the White House.
During the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency, 47% of Republicans, on average, said they could trust the federal government just about always or most of the time. During Obama’s presidency, average trust among Republicans has fallen to 13% – by far the lowest level of average trust among either party during any administration dating back to the 1960s.
Average trust among Democrats, by contrast, has remained more stable throughout the George W. Bush and Obama years. During the Obama administration, trust among Democrats has averaged 29%, compared with 28% during the Bush administration.
Trust in government – among the public overall, and among both Republicans and Democrats – was much higher during Bush’s first term than his second. Among the public, trust on average fell from 43% in Bush’s first term, which included the post-9/11 spike in trust, to 29% in his second. The decline came among both Republicans, whose average trust declined from 54% to 41%, and Democrats (35% to 21%).
While the falloff in Republican trust in government between the Bush and Obama administrations has been striking, it continues a pattern that has persisted for decades. During Ronald Reagan’s two terms, an average of 52% of Republicans expressed trust in government, and 43% did so during George H.W. Bush’s single term. This compares with 26% average trust among Republicans during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and 25% during Bill Clinton’s. Average trust among Democrats across all four of these presidencies – Carter’s, Reagan’s, Bush’s and Clinton’s – showed far less variance.
Trust in recent times: A closer look
In January 2001, following the contentious 2000 presidential election, a CBS/New York Times poll found that only 31% of Americans said they could trust the government just about always or most of the time. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks eight months later, however, trust rose to 60% among the general public, according to a Gallup poll conducted in early October.
This near-doubling from the start of the year crossed party lines: Fully 67% of Republicans and Republican leaners and 51% of Democrats and Democratic leaners said they could trust the government nearly always or most of the time. But this spike in confidence was short-lived. By December 2001, about half of Americans (48%) said they could trust the federal government; trust remained relatively high among Republicans (60%), while falling to 39% among Democrats.
In July 2003, as opposition to the Iraq War grew, 36% of the public said they trusted government, according to a CBS/New York Times poll. About half of Republicans (51%) trusted government compared with just 25% of Democrats.
As Bush began his second term in 2005, trust in government continued to be deeply divided along partisan lines. In a Pew Research Center survey conducted in September 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, 49% of Republicans and just 19% of Democrats said they could trust the federal government.
Public trust in the federal government declined, especially among Republicans, during the final years of Bush’s presidency. In January 2007, Republicans were almost twice as likely as Democrats to express trust in the federal government (43% vs. 22%). By October 2008, during the financial crisis, just 19% of Republicans and 12% of Democrats trusted the government to do the right thing.
After Obama took office, Republican trust in government – already quite low – sank further. In a Pew Research Center survey in March 2010, amid the contentious debate over the Affordable Care Act, about a third of Democrats (32%) said they could trust the government at least most of the time, compared with just 13% of Republicans.
The bitter debate over the debt ceiling in 2011 eroded Democratic trust in government. In a September 2011 CNN survey, just 20% of Democrats and Democratic leaners expressed trust in the federal government. Even fewer Republicans (10%) trusted the federal government.
With Obama’s re-election in 2012, Democratic trust in government increased, reaching 37% in January 2013; at that time, just 15% of Republicans had confidence in the federal government. But by October 2013, amid a partial shutdown of the federal government, trust in government had fallen 10 percentage points among Democrats, to 27%, and 5 points among Republicans (to 10%).
Since then, trust in government has fluctuated, but the levels of government trust today are about the same as they were in fall 2013: Just 26% of Democrats and 11% of Republicans say they can trust the federal government just about always or most of the time.
Low trust in government across demographic spectrum
Trust in government differs only modestly between demographic groups. No more than about a quarter in any group trusts the federal government just about always or most of the time.
Young people are somewhat more likely than older adults to say they can trust the federal government. About a quarter of adults younger than 30 (27%) trust the government at least most of the time, compared with 19% of those ages 30 to 49 and 15% of those 50 and older.
Whites are slightly less trusting of government – only 15% feel they can always or mostly trust the government – than blacks (23%) or Hispanics (28%). Trust in government among whites is also down from February 2014 when 22% reported largely trusting the government.
While Republicans and Republican leaners generally express very little trust in the federal government, trust is especially low among conservative Republicans. Just 9% say they can trust the government always or most of the time, compared with 14% of moderate and liberal Republicans. Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, comparable shares of liberals (28%) and moderates and conservatives (25%) express trust in government.
And among all politically engaged Republicans, just 6% say they can trust the government; more than three times as many (22%) volunteer they can “never” trust the government. There are no significant differences among Democrats by level of political engagement.
Trust in government by generation
Historically, there have been only modest generational differences in trust in government. Over time, the trajectory of these attitudes has been similar across generations.
As noted, young people are slightly more trusting in the federal government than older people. Currently, 25% of Millennials (ages 18-34) say they can trust the federal government just about always or most of the time. That compares with 19% of Gen Xers (35-50), 14% of Boomers (51-69) and 16% of Silents (70-87).
In 2009 and 2010, the differences across generations were somewhat larger: In August 2009, the three-point moving average of trust in the federal government among Millennials was 36%, compared with about 20% across older generations.
In the early 1990s, Gen Xers – whose oldest members were then in their early 20s – expressed somewhat greater trust in government than did Boomers and Silents, but these differences have diminished over time. Similarly, there were, at most, small differences in trust between Boomers and Silents in the 1970s and 1980s. Most important, the steep downward slide in trust in government that occurred in the 1970s was seen among both Boomers and Silents.
Trust in government and satisfaction with the nation
Trust in government often, though not always, moves in parallel with satisfaction in the overall state of the nation. The periods of especially low trust in the federal government – the late 1970s, the early 1990s, and the years since the financial crisis and Great Recession – have also been characterized by relatively low levels of satisfaction with national conditions.
But during recent periods of rapid economic growth, such as the mid-1980s and late 1990s, national satisfaction increased more dramatically than did trust in the federal government.
Over the course of the 2000s, the two indicators moved in lockstep. Both reached a high in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks and declined over the next several years.
After plunging in October 2013 with the government shutdown, satisfaction in the nation has rebounded somewhat. Currently, slightly more than a quarter of Americans (27%) say they are satisfied in the country. Trust in government has so far lagged behind and remains at historically low levels.
Erosion of trust and diminished belief in government fairness
The long-term erosion of public trust in the federal government has been mirrored by a steep decline in the belief that the government is run for the benefit of all Americans.
The 1960s were a period in which Americans had highly favorable attitudes toward the federal government. In 1964, 64% said that the government was “run for the benefit of all the people,” according to the National Election Study. Just 29% said that the government was “pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves.”
At the same time, an overwhelming majority of the public (77%) said they could trust the federal government just about always or most of the time.
Yet within a decade, trust had plummeted and the share of Americans who said the government was run for the benefit of all had fallen nearly 40 percentage points – from 64% in 1964 to 25% in 1974.
Over the course of the past half-century, the two measures have mapped very closely. Currently, just 19% say the government is run for the benefit of all – and an identical percentage says they can trust the federal government just about always or most of the time.
2. General opinions about the federal government
Since the late 1990s, the public’s feelings about the federal government have tended more toward frustration than either anger or contentment. That remains the case today: 57% feel frustrated with the government, while smaller shares either feel angry (22%) or are basically content (18%).
Yet while the public’s sentiments about government have not changed dramatically, Americans increasingly believe the federal government is in need of sweeping reform. Fully 59% say the government needs “very major reform,” up from 37% in 1997.
Overall attitudes about government – from the feelings it engenders to views of its performance and power – are deeply divided along partisan lines. And, like public trust in government, the partisan tilt of these opinions often changes depending on which party controls the White House. However, it is notable that on several measures, including perceptions of whether government is a “friend” or “enemy,” Republicans are far more critical of government today than they were during the Clinton administration.
More are frustrated than angry at government
Anger at government is more widespread today than it was in the 1990s. Only on rare occasions, however, do more than about a quarter of Americans express anger at the federal government.
During the partial government shutdown in October 2013, 30% said they were angry at the government – the highest percentage in nearly two decades of polling. Since then, the share expressing anger at government has declined; currently, 22% say they are angry at the government.
Since the late 1990s, majorities have expressed frustration with the federal government – with one notable exception. In November 2001, during the period of national unity that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 53% said they were basically content with the federal government, while just 34% expressed frustration (and only 8% said they were angry).
Currently, 32% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they are angry at the federal government, compared with 12% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. The share of Republicans who are angry at government has declined since the fall of 2013 (from 38%); over the same period, anger among Democrats has fallen by about half (from 25% to 12%).
Throughout most of the Obama presidency, a quarter or more of Republicans have expressed anger at the government; during the George W. Bush administration, GOP anger was consistently no higher than 10%. Conversely, Democratic anger at government peaked in October 2006, when 29% expressed anger at government.
Currently, 37% of conservative Republicans express anger at the federal government, compared with 24% of moderate and liberal Republicans. There are no significant differences in the shares of liberal Democrats (11%) and conservative and moderate Democrats (13%) who are angry at the government.
Among demographic groups, whites and older Americans are especially likely to express anger at the government. A quarter of whites say they are angry at the federal government, compared with 17% of Hispanics and 12% of blacks.
Roughly three-in-ten adults ages 50 and older (29%) say they are angry, about twice the share who say they are content with government (13%). Among those younger than 30, the balance of opinion is reversed — just 12% say they are angry with government, while 28% say they are basically content.
Biggest problem with government? Congress, politics cited most often
Asked to name in their own words the biggest problem with the government in Washington, 13% specifically mention Congress, including 11% who cite gridlock or an inability to compromise within the institution. Nearly as many (11%) name politics and partisanship, while 7% mention the size or scope of government and 6% cite corruption.
Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are more likely to name Congress than are Republicans: 17% of Democrats say this, compared with 10% of Republicans.
Among those who call out politics as the biggest problem, several specifically mention those in the opposing party: 9% of Republicans name Barack Obama, Democrats or a “liberal agenda” as the main problem, while 7% of Democrats point to Republicans or a “conservative agenda.”
The size of government and corruption are mentioned more frequently by Republicans than Democrats: 11% of Republicans say government plays too big a role, compared with 4% of Democrats. And while 10% of Republicans mention corruption, just 3% of Democrats do so.
Overall, just 5% of the public cites debt or overspending as the biggest problem with the federal government, while 4% each mention the economy or jobs and health care.
More Republicans (8%) than Democrats (4%) name the deficit and fiscal irresponsibility as the leading problem, while Democrats are somewhat more likely to mention health care (6% vs. 1%).
Most say the government needs sweeping reforms
In 1997, most Americans (62%) said the federal government was “basically sound” and needed only minor reforms or said it needed very little change. Far fewer (37%) said it needed “very major reform.” By 201o, those attitudes had flipped – more said the government needed major reform (53%) than said it was sound or needed little change (45%).
Today, 59% say it needs very major reform, while only 39% say the federal government needs little or no change.
Most of the change since the late 1990s has come among Republicans: Fully 75% of Republicans and leaners now say the federal government needs very major reform, up from 43% in 1997 and 66% five years ago. The share of Democrats saying the government is in need of sweeping reform has risen more modestly since 1997 – 44% now, 31% then – and has barely changed since 2010 (42%).
The public’s overall rating of the government’s performance also has become more negative. Most Americans now say the federal government is doing either an only fair (44%) or poor (33%) job running its programs; just 20% give it an excellent or good rating on this measure.
In 2010, 28% gave the government a “poor” rating for handling programs and 20% did so in 1997. As is the case in views of government reform, the increase in poor ratings for government performance have come almost entirely among Republicans.
Half of Republicans and Republican leaners (50%) now say the government does a poor job running its programs, compared with 46% who said this in 2010 and just 29% who did so in 1997. Conservative Republicans and Republican leaners are particularly likely to rate the government’s performance as poor. About six-in-ten conservative Republicans (59%) say this, compared with 36% of moderate and liberal Republicans. However, moderate and liberal Republicans are not particularly positive about government either: 49% rate its performance as only fair, and just 14% say it is doing an excellent or good job.
Among Democrats and leaners, only 18% currently say the federal government does a poor job running its programs, which reflects just a 7-percentage-point increase since 1997. Half of Democrats (50%) rate government’s performance as only fair, while 30% say it does an excellent or good job.
Is government a ‘friend’ or ‘enemy?’
Asked to place themselves on a scale from 1 to 10 “where ‘1’ means you think the federal government is your enemy and ‘10’ means you think the federal government is your friend,” 27% of registered voters say they think of government as an enemy (1-4), up 8 points since 1996. The share of voters who place themselves in the middle of the scale (5-6) has declined from 44% to 39%. A third (33%) currently say they view the government as a friend (7-10), little changed from 36% in 1996.
Today, 35% of Republican voters view the federal government as an enemy, up from 22% in 1996. Similarly, 34% of independents take this view, a 13-point increase from 19 years ago.1
In 1996, Republicans were somewhat more likely to view the government as a friend (34%) than as an enemy (22%). Today, that balance of opinion is reversed: 21% say they see it as a friend, while 35% see it as an enemy.
Half of all Democrats (50%) see the government as a friend; only 12% see the government as an enemy. These views are similar to opinions among Democrats in 1996.
Few think the government is run ‘for the benefit of all people’
About three-quarters of the public (76%) say the federal government is “run by a few big interests,” while only 19% say the government “is run for the benefit of all the people.” This view is little changed over the past five years, and is on par with views in the early 1990s.
The sense that the government is run by a few big interests has long been the view of most Americans, with majorities consistently saying this for much of the past 15 years (one exception is in 2002, about a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, and a time of relatively high trust in government). Public views of the influence of big interests have largely tracked with movements in public trust in government.
The belief that government is run by a few big interests spans all demographic and partisan groups. Majorities in both parties now say that a few big interests run the government, though this view is somewhat more widely held among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (81% say this) than among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (71%).
Size and scope of government
Currently, 53% favor a smaller government that provides fewer services, while 38% prefer a bigger government with more services. These opinions have changed little in recent years, but on several occasions in the 1990s, 60% or more favored smaller government.
The partisan divide over the size of government is not new, though it is particularly wide today. Eight-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (80%) favor a smaller government, 15 points higher than did so in January 2007, while Democratic views have remained largely unchanged (31% favor a smaller government, compared with 32% in 2007).
There also are ideological divisions within each party. Nearly nine-in-ten conservative Republicans (87%) prefer a smaller government, while a smaller majority (71%) of moderate and liberal Republicans say this. And among Democrats, two-thirds (67%) of liberal Democrats prefer a bigger government with more services, but a narrower 53% majority of conservative and moderate Democrats say this (36% prefer a smaller government, with fewer services).
By more than two-to-one (62% to 27%), whites prefer a smaller government that provides fewer services. A majority of blacks (59%) – and an even larger share of Hispanics (71%) – favor a larger government with more services.
About half of 18- to 29-year-olds (52%) would rather have a bigger government providing more services; only a quarter of those ages 65 and older (25%) say this. The gap between older and younger people is seen within parties as well: 35% of younger Republicans favor a bigger government, compared with 6% of Republicans 65 and older. Younger Democrats are more supportive of bigger government than older Democrats (65% vs. 48%).
Lower-income households stand out for their support of bigger government: 49% of those with family incomes of less than $30,000 prefer larger government, the highest share of any income category.
A separate question frames the issue of the scope of government somewhat differently: Should government “do more to solve problems,” or is it “doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals?” The public is evenly divided, as it has been since the question was first asked in 2010: 47% say the government should do more to solve problems, while 48% say it is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.
There is a wide partisan gap in views of how much the government should do. Two-thirds of Democrats (66%) say the government should do more to solve problems; 71% of Republicans say it is doing too many things better left to others.
Government viewed as ‘wasteful and inefficient’
The perception of government as wasteful and inefficient has endured for decades. But partisan views of government wastefulness, like trust in government, change depending on which party controls the White House.
Overall, 57% of Americans say that “government is almost always wasteful and inefficient,” while 39% say it “often does a better job than people give it credit for.” This balance of opinion is largely unchanged over the past decade.
Currently, three-quarters of Republicans fault the government for being wasteful and inefficient. That is little changed from recent years, but higher than the share of Republicans who described government as wasteful during George W. Bush’s administration. Republicans are now about as likely to criticize the government for being wasteful as they were in 1994, during Bill Clinton’s administration (75% now, 74% then).
Just 40% of Democrats view the government as wasteful and inefficient, which is in line with previous measures during Obama’s presidency. Democrats were more likely to say government was wasteful during the Bush administration. However, Democrats were less likely to view the government as wasteful during Bush’s presidency than Republicans have been during most of the Obama and Clinton administrations.
As with other questions about the government’s performance, there are internal ideological divisions within each party in views of government efficiency. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, there is a 15-percentage-point gap between the proportion of conservatives (81%) and moderates and liberals (66%) who say the government is always wasteful and inefficient. And liberal Democrats (64%) are more likely than conservative and moderate Democrats (52%) to say the government does a better job than it gets credit for.
As a career, government viewed as more appealing than politics
Though many Americans express anger or frustration about the federal government, nearly half (48%) say if they had a son or daughter finishing school they would like to see them pursue a career in government.
The share saying they would like a child to pursue a career in government is down 8 points since 2010, but careers in government continue to be seen as more appealing than careers in politics: Just 33% say they would like to see a child enter into politics as a career.
Since 1997, Democrats have viewed both political and governmental careers more favorably than Republicans. Though just 38% of Democrats and Democratic leaners would like to see a son or daughter pursue a career in politics, that number falls to 29% among Republicans and Republican leaners.
But partisans are further apart on views about a career in government. Today, a 58% majority of Democrats say they would like to see a child work in government, while just 38% of Republicans say this, a wider partisan divide on this question than in the past.
3. Views of government’s performance and role in specific areas
Amid a climate of deep distrust and frustration with government, the public’s ratings of the federal government’s performance in a range of areas stand out for being relatively positive. In 10 of the 13 areas tested in the survey, half or more say the federal government is doing a very good or somewhat good job.
Large majorities say the federal government is doing a very or somewhat good job responding to natural disasters (79%), setting fair and safe standards for workplaces (76%), keeping the country safe from terrorism (72%) and ensuring that food and medicine are safe (72%).
More also say the federal government is doing a good rather than a bad job protecting the environment (59% vs. 38%), ensuring access to health care (56% vs. 40%), maintaining roads, bridges and other infrastructure (52% vs. 46%) and ensuring access to high quality education (52% vs. 44%).
On the economy, evaluations are mixed: Slightly more say the federal government is doing a good (51%) than a bad (47%) job strengthening the economy. However, more emphatic ratings of government performance tilt negative: 22% say the federal government is doing a very bad job strengthening the economy, compared with just 9% who say they are doing a very good job.
The federal government receives low marks for its performance in two other key areas: managing the nation’s immigration system and helping people get out of poverty. Overall, 68% say that the government is doing either a very bad (38%) or somewhat bad (30%) job managing the nation’s immigration system; just 28% say it is doing a good job.
Ratings are nearly as negative when it comes to the job the government is doing to help people get out of poverty: 61% say the government is doing a bad job, compared with far fewer (36%) who say it is doing a good job.
The survey also asks people about the role the federal government should play in these 13 areas. Overwhelming majorities say the government should have a role – either major or minor – in all 13. But there are clear differences in opinions about the extent of government involvement across these issues.
Americans are nearly unanimous in favoring a role for the federal government in keeping the country safe from terrorism: 94% say it should play a major role, while 5% say it should play a minor role.
Overwhelming majorities of more than 90% also say the federal government should play a major or minor role in other areas, including responding to natural disasters (98%), protecting the environment (96%), managing the immigration system (96%) and strengthening the economy (95%). For each of these areas, seven-in-ten or more say the federal government should play a “major” role, with far fewer saying it should play a “minor” role.
Yet there is less support for the federal government to have a large role in other areas – notably ensuring access to health care, helping people get out of poverty and advancing space exploration. About six-in-ten (61%) say the government should have a major role in ensuring access to health care; 38% say it should have a minor role and 10% want it to have no role at all.
Fewer (55%) want the government to have a major role in helping ameliorate poverty, and only about half (47%) want the government to play a major role in advancing space exploration. About one-in-ten (9%) say the government should have no role in advancing space exploration.
On several issues, relatively high performance ratings correspond with broad majorities who say the government should play a major role in that same area. For example, 79% say the government is doing a good job responding to natural disasters and 88% say it should play a major role in this area. Keeping the country safe from terrorism and ensuring that food and medicine are safe are two other areas where large majorities say the government is doing well and should play a major role.
For most measures, however, performance ratings lag the share saying the government should play a major role. Majorities of about seven-in-ten or more want the government to have a major role in maintaining infrastructure (76%), protecting the environment (75%), strengthening the economy (74%), ensuring access to quality education (70%) and ensuring a basic income for those 65 and older (69%).
However, no more than about six-in-ten rate government performance positively in any of these areas (59% for protecting the environment). Only about half say the government is doing well in the other areas: infrastructure (52%), economy (51%), education (52%) and ensuring a basic income for older adults (48%).
The widest gap between public assessments of the federal government’s performance and role is seen on the issue of immigration. Just 28% say the federal government is doing a good job in managing the immigration system – more than twice as many (68%) say it is doing a bad job. Government involvement in immigration is widely seen as necessary. An 81% majority says the federal government should play a major role managing the nation’s immigration system.
Partisan gaps on performance and role of federal government
There are significant differences in how Republicans and Republican leaners and Democrats and Democratic leaners rate the performance and role of the federal government. On some key issues, Republicans offer more negative performance ratings and see less of a role for government than Democrats. But these differences do not extend across all issues, and there are notable areas of partisan consensus.
When it comes to the performance of the federal government, partisans hold opposing views of how the government is doing in strengthening the economy and ensuring access to health care.
Nearly three-quarters of Democrats (74%) say the government is doing a very or somewhat good job ensuring access to health care. By contrast, Republicans are much more negative: Just 40% say the government is doing a good job.
A similar pattern is seen on the economy. Most Democrats and Democratic leaners say the federal government is doing a good job strengthening the economy (68%), but just 34% of Republicans and Republican leaners agree.
On the issue of defense from terrorism, there is a 25-percentage-point gap between the performance ratings Republicans and Democrats give the government. Nevertheless, majorities in both parties say the government is doing a good job: Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, 85% say the government is doing a good job keeping the country safe from terrorism, compared with a smaller 60%-majority of Republicans and Republican leaners.
Though Republicans hold particularly negative views, neither party thinks the government is doing a good job managing the nation’s immigration system. Just 15% of Republicans and leaners say the federal government is doing a very or somewhat good job managing the immigration system, compared with 40% of Democrats and leaners.
On other issue areas, there are only modest differences between how Democrats and Republicans rate federal government performance. For example, Republicans and Democrats are about equally likely to say the federal government is doing a good job ensuring that food and medicine are safe (73% each), setting fair and safe workplace standards (77% of Republicans vs. 79% of Democrats) and responding to natural disasters (78% vs. 82%).
There also are modest differences on performance ratings for some issues areas where partisans likely hold different policy preferences. For example, similar percentages of Republicans and Republican leaners and Democrats and Democratic leaners say the government is doing a good job protecting the environment (62% of Republicans vs. 58% of Democrats) and ensuring access to quality education (54% vs.52%).
When it comes to the role of the federal government, there are large partisan differences in the share who think the federal government should play a “major role” across several high-profile issue areas, with Republicans more likely to see a limited role for government than Democrats. However, for all 13 areas tested, three-quarters or more of Republicans and Republican leaners say the federal government should have at least a minor role, with no more than 20% saying the federal government should play no role at all on any single issue.
Ensuring access to health care is the issue area with the largest partisan divide in the share saying the government should play a major role. Republicans and Republican leaners (34%) are 49 points less likely than Democrats and Democratic leaners (83%) to say the federal government should play a major role in this area. While just 34% of Republicans want government to play a major role, 45% say it should play a minor role; just 20% say it should play no role at all.
Helping people get out of poverty is another area where fewer than half of Republicans and leaners (36%) say the government should play a major role, compared with a far larger majority of Democrats and leaners (72%).
There are other large partisan differences over where the government should play a major role, on issues such as protecting the environment (31 points), ensuring access to quality education (29 points) and strengthening the economy (20 points); but on these issues, majorities of Republicans and Democrats alike see a major role for government, with the opinion gap reflecting how broadly the view is shared among the two groups.
There are several areas where Republicans and Democrats are unified in seeing a major role for the federal government. There is little to no disagreement between partisans that the federal government should play a major role keeping the country safe from terrorism, managing the immigration system and responding to natural disasters. Partisan opinion gaps also are relatively modest when it comes to the view that the government should play a major role keeping food and medicine safe and maintaining roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
Republicans’ views of government role and performance
The widest gap among Republicans and Republican leaners in their views of government performance and role is seen on immigration. Just 15% of Republicans say the federal government is doing a good job managing the nation’s immigration system. Fully 85% say the government should play a major role in managing the nation’s immigration system.
A similar pattern is seen when it comes to keeping the country safe from terrorism, strengthening the economy and maintaining the country’s infrastructure. In all three areas, a sizable majority of Republicans say the government should play a major role, but far fewer say the government is currently doing a good job. For example, while 64% say the government should play a major role in strengthening the economy, just 34% give it good marks in this area.
The pattern is much different when it comes to the federal government helping people get out of poverty and ensuring access to health care. On these issues, low performance ratings correspond with small percentages of Republicans seeing a major role for the federal government. For example, just 30% of Republicans and leaners think the government is doing a good job helping people get out of poverty and a similarly small share (36%) think the government should play a major role in this area. In only one area, setting workplace standards, do a greater share of Republicans rate the government’s performance highly (77%) than say it should play a major role (54%).
Democratic views of government role and performance
As with Republicans, Democratic views of government role and performance differ the most over the issue of immigration. Just four-in-ten Democrats and leaners say the federal government is doing a good job managing the nation’s immigration system, among the lowest performance ratings Democrats give the federal government in a policy area. Yet a wide 80% majority sees a major role for government in this area.
This pattern generally holds across the issues where Democratic ratings of government performance are relatively low or mixed. For example, fewer than half (42%) say the government is doing a good job helping people get out of poverty, but 72% say the government should play a major role in this area. Ensuring access to quality education and maintaining infrastructure are two other areas where Democratic evaluations of government performance are tepid but support for government playing a major role remains high.
Among Democrats, advancing space exploration stands out as the one issue for which there is not majority support for a major government role. Democratic performance ratings on this issue fall roughly in the middle of the 13 areas tested (58% say the federal government doing a good job); nonetheless, 50% say the government should play a major role, 22 points less than say the same about any other issue, and on par with Republican views.
Republican ideological divides on government role and performance
Among Republicans and Republican leaners, those who describe themselves as conservative are more critical of government performance than those who describe their political views as moderate or liberal.
The largest ideological gap among Republicans is over the job the government is doing strengthening the economy. Overall, 46% of moderate and liberal Republicans and Republican leaners say the government is doing a good job strengthening the economy. By contrast, conservative Republicans and leaners are 20 points less likely to hold this view (26%).
Conservative Republicans are less likely than moderates to say the government is doing a good job on a range of other issues, including keeping the country safe from terrorism (15 points), helping people get out of poverty (9 points) and managing the nation’s immigration system (8 points). But on poverty and immigration, fewer than half of both groups say the government is doing a good job.
There are no issues for which moderate and liberal Republicans are more critical of government performance than conservatives. However, there are several issues for which there are hardly any ideological gaps among Republicans, including protecting the environment and ensuring safe food and medicine.
With regard to views of the federal government’s role, across many issues, conservatives are less likely than moderates and liberals to say the government should play a major role. Though these ideological gaps over the government’s role do not always correspond to the differences in performance ratings
Nearly three-quarters (74%) of moderate and liberal Republicans say the federal government should play a major role protecting the environment, compared with about half (48%) of conservative Republicans and leaners. This 26-point gap is the widest seen across issues among Republicans, despite the absence of an ideological gap within the GOP over the government’s performance on the issue.
Ensuring access to quality education is another area where most moderate and liberal Republicans say the government should play a major role (66%), but no more than about half (49%) of conservatives say the same.
Conservative Republicans are at least 10 points less likely than liberals and moderates to see a major role for government helping people get out of poverty (31% vs. 45% among liberals, moderates) and ensuring access to health care (29% vs. 42%).
Managing the nation’s immigration system is the one issue for which a somewhat larger share of conservative Republicans and leaners (88%) than of moderates and liberals (81%) say the government should play a major – though this view is widely held among both groups.
Democratic ideological divides on government role and performance
Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, liberals are more critical of government performance than moderates and conservatives on some issues central to the party, such as protecting the environment, ensuring access to education and helping people get out of poverty. On other key issues, such as strengthening the economy and managing immigration, there are no significant divides between the two groups.
Half of liberal Democrats and leaners (50%) say the federal government is doing a good job protecting the environment, compared with a majority (63%) of conservative and moderates who say the government is doing a good job.
Similarly, 46% of liberals rate the government positively for the job it is doing ensuring access to quality education, compared with a larger share of conservatives and moderates (56%) who think the government is doing a good job.
Among Democrats and leaners, neither group thinks the federal government is doing a particularly good job helping people get out of poverty, but liberals are somewhat more negative (36% good job) than are conservatives and moderates (45% good job).
Seeing a major role for government across most issue areas is a defining view among Democrats and one that is held widely both by liberals and by conservatives and moderates in the party.
On ensuring access to health care and helping people get out of poverty, liberal Democrats and leaners (93%) are more likely than moderates and conservatives (77%) to say the federal government should play a major role; however, large majorities of both groups want major government involvement in these areas.
Across most other issues included in the survey, similar majorities of both liberal Democrats and conservatives and moderates say the federal government should play a major role. For example, 91% of liberals and 87% of conservatives and moderates say the federal government should play a major role in protecting the environment.
Advancing space exploration is one area where smaller shares of Democrats and leaners say the government should play a major role: 54% of liberals say this, as do 48% of conservatives and moderates.
4. Ratings of federal agencies, Congress and the Supreme Court
As in the past, the public expresses favorable opinions of a wide range of federal agencies and departments, but there are some notable exceptions. Currently, majorities give favorable assessments of 13 of the 17 agencies and departments tested; by contrast, fewer than half express favorable opinions of the Justice Department, the Department of Education, the IRS and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Congress remains very unpopular with the public: Just 27% of the public views Congress favorably, while 69% have an unfavorable opinion. Favorable opinions of Congress have not surpassed 30% in more than four years.
Opinions of the Supreme Court have changed little since July, when negative opinions of the court reached a 30-year high. Currently, 50% view the court favorably, while 42% express an unfavorable opinion.
Among the government agencies and departments included in the survey, the U.S. Postal Service is viewed most favorably; fully 84% have a favorable opinion of the Postal Service, while just 14% have an unfavorable view.
Two-thirds or more also have favorable impressions of the National Park Service (75%), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC (71%), NASA (70%) and the FBI (68%). No more than about one-in-five express negative views of any of these agencies.
By about two-to-one, the public also has favorable views of the Department of Homeland Security (64% vs. 30% unfavorable), the Defense Department (63% vs. 29%) and the CIA (57% vs. 27%). The National Security Agency is viewed less positively – about half (52%) have a favorable impression of the NSA, while 31% view it unfavorably.
Of the 17 agencies and departments in the survey, the Department of Justice (46%), the Department of Education (44%), the IRS (42%) and the VA (39%) receive among the lowest favorability ratings. Roughly half have unfavorable impressions of all four organizations.
In general, the federal government continues to be viewed less favorably than state and local governments. Currently 32% say they have a favorable impression of the federal government, while nearly twice as many (63%) view it unfavorably. By contrast, majorities say they have favorable opinions of their own state government (56%) and their local government (65%). These attitudes have changed little in recent years. The last time the federal government was viewed as favorably as state and local governments was in the period after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and during the early phase of the Iraq War.
As with other attitudes toward the federal government, there continue to be deep partisan differences in favorability: 45% of Democrats and Democratic leaners have a favorable view of the federal government, compared with 18% of Republicans and Republican leaners.
But there are virtually no partisan differences in the public’s assessments of local and state governments. More than half of Republicans and Republican leaners (57%) and Democrats and Democratic leaners (59%) say they view their state governments favorably, while even larger majorities of both partisan groups say they view their local governments favorably (64% among Republicans and Republican leaners, 69% among Democrats and Democratic leaners).
VA’s problems take a toll on its image
Favorable ratings for the IRS have changed little in recent years. But the VA’s favorability has plummeted over the past two years, while several other agencies – including the Justice Department, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Defense Department and Department of Education – also are viewed less positively.
Currently, just 39% view the VA favorably – a decline of 29 percentage points since October 2013, during the partial government shutdown. The VA has faced intense criticism over problems with its health care services for veterans, and last year Gen. Eric Shinseki, the agency’s embattled secretary, resigned under pressure.
The Justice Department is viewed less favorably than it was during the 2013 government shutdown: 64% now view the department favorably, down 15 points from two years ago. However, the current measure is comparable to the department’s favorable rating in 2010 (51%). Favorable ratings for the FDA (down 14 points), EPA (10 points), Defense Department and Department of Education (9 points each) also have declined significantly since October 2013.
Partisan differences in views of federal departments and agencies
There are substantial partisan gaps in the views of several federal departments and agencies. Roughly two-thirds of Democrats and Democratic leaners have favorable impressions of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS (68%), and the EPA (67%). Only about four-in-ten Republicans and Republican leaners view these agencies favorably (both 39%).
And more than twice as many Democrats (58%) as Republicans (24%) have a favorable opinion of the IRS.
Democrats also view several other departments and agencies more favorably – including the Department of Education (51% of Democrats vs. 36% of Republicans), the FDA (59% vs. 46%), the Social Security Administration (62% vs. 50%) and the Department of Homeland Security (70% vs. 59%).
Members of both parties view the Justice Department less favorably than in 2013: 36% of Republicans and Republican leaners currently view the department favorably, down from 50% two years ago. Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, the decline has been comparable (to 58% from 71%).
The shift in Republicans’ views has come almost entirely among conservative Republicans. Just 28% now view the Justice Department favorably, down 21 percentage points from October 2013. By contrast, about half of moderate and liberal Republicans (52%) have a favorable impression of the department, about the same as did so two years ago (54%). Among Democrats, the decline in favorable opinions has come among both liberals (14 points) and the party’s conservatives and moderates (9 points).
Notably, the steep decline in the VA’s favorability ratings has come across the partisan and ideological spectrum. Today, just 41% of Democrats and 34% of Republicans view the VA favorably, down 29 points and 34 points, respectively, since October 2013.
Views of Congress and the Supreme Court
Opinions about Congress remain overwhelmingly negative. Just 27% have a favorable opinion of Congress, while 69% have an unfavorable view. Views of Congress have changed little over the past four years. (This question was asked in late September, as John Boehner announced he was resigning as House speaker. Rep. Paul Ryan was elected speaker Oct. 29.)
Despite Republicans controlling both the House of Representatives and Senate, just 23% of Republicans and Republican leaners view Congress favorably, compared with 31% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. This marks the first time – in data reaching back about two decades – that members of the party with a majority in both houses of Congress have expressed less favorable views of the institution than members of the minority party.
In July, unfavorable opinions of the Supreme Court reached a 30-year high of 43%, following the court’s contentious, end of-term rulings on the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage. Since then, opinions about the court are largely unchanged: 50% view the court favorably, while 42% view it unfavorably.
Just 38% of Republicans and Republican leaners view the Supreme Court favorably, up slightly from an all-time low of 33% in July. By contrast, 64% of Democrats and Democratic leaners have a favorable impression of the high court, little changed from July (61%).
5. Political engagement and views of government
As has been the case throughout the Obama presidency, Republicans hold considerably more critical views of government than Democrats across multiple measures. Today, 32% of Republicans and Republican leaners say they are angry with government; just 12% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say the same. And while three-quarters (75%) of Republicans say the federal government needs major reform, a much smaller share (44%) of Democrats say this.
Similarly, on a core question about government performance, a 57% majority of Democrats say “government often does a better job than people give it credit for,” while 40% say it is “almost always wasteful and inefficient.” In contrast, Republicans say the government is wasteful by about three-to-one (75% vs. 22%).
But these partisan divides over government, already wide, are particularly stark among those who are most politically engaged.
Across the board, politically engaged Republicans and Republican leaners – the nearly half (48%) of Republicans who are registered to vote, do so regularly and say they follow politics most of the time — are far more critical of the government than are less politically engaged Republicans.
The differences between politically engaged Democrats and those who are less engaged are not as pronounced. However, in several cases politically engaged Democrats and leaners (who make up 34% of all Democrats and Democratic leaners) are more positive about government than others in their party.
Fully 42% of politically engaged Republicans say they are angry with government (compared with 23% of the less engaged). And though about two-thirds (65%) of engaged Republicans say the government does a poor job running its programs, only about half as many (37%) less-engaged Republicans say this (a 46% plurality of the less-engaged rate the government’s performance as “only fair”).
Similarly, though majorities of both engaged and less-engaged Republicans say the government is wasteful and inefficient (84% and 67%, respectively) and that it does “too many things better left to businesses and individuals” (84% and 60%, respectively), these views are more widely held among politically engaged Republicans than less-engaged Republicans
By contrast, while only 24% of politically engaged Democrats say government is “doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals,” a slightly larger minority (32%) of less-engaged Democrats say this. But on many measures there are, at most, modest differences between these two groups. For instance, just 11% of engaged Democrats, along with 13% of less-engaged Democrats, say they are angry with government.
The end result is that partisan cleavages over government are even more pronounced among those who are the most likely to participate in the political process, echoing a growing link between engagement and broader ideological polarization.
This dynamic is not new – engaged Republicans have consistently been more critical of government than other Republicans – but it is as pronounced as ever. On the question of whether government is wasteful and inefficient or does a better job than people give it credit for, there is now a 50-percentage-point partisan gap among engaged partisans, compared with a 23-point gap between less-engaged Democrats and Republicans.
Politically engaged also divided over role and performance of government
In several opinions about the role and performance of government, the divisions between politically engaged Republicans and Democrats are substantial – and dwarf the differences among less-engaged partisans. In most cases, this larger gap is the result of far more negative evaluations of government’s performance among engaged Republicans than less-engaged Republicans, with little difference in ratings between engaged Democrats and less-engaged Democrats.
For example, while 70% of politically engaged Democrats say the government is doing a good job strengthening the economy, just 23% of engaged Republicans say this, a 47-point gap. Among those who are less engaged, that gap narrows to 24 points, largely the result of more positive assessments of government performance on this dimension among less-engaged Republicans.
Similar patterns are at work when it comes to government’s performance on health care and terrorism. This is also seen, to a lesser extent, on views of the government’s handling of immigration, space exploration, poverty and ensuring a basic income for older Americans.
Notably, ratings of the government’s performance maintaining roads, bridges and other infrastructure follows a very different pattern, a result of much lower ratings of government performance among the politically engaged in both parties – particularly Democrats.
But the extent to which engaged partisans are more divided than those who are less engaged is even more apparent when it comes to the role the government should play in each of these 13 areas. In five of the 13 areas asked about in the survey, there are gaps of 40 percentage points or more between engaged Democrats and engaged Republicans.
By comparison, the largest gap between less-engaged partisans is a 32-point gap over ensuring access to health care (79% of less-engaged Democrats say the government should play a major role, while 47% of less-engaged Republicans say this). On this same issue, there is a 69-point partisan gap among the politically engaged: 90% of engaged Democrats vs. just 21% of engaged Republicans see a major role for government in health care.
Education, the environment and workplace standards also stand out as areas on which majorities of both Democrats and Republicans generally see a major role for government, but this is not the case among politically engaged partisans. For example, just 38% of engaged Republicans say government should play a major role in ensuring access to high-quality education (in contrast to 68% of less-engaged Republicans and more than 80% of both engaged and less-engaged Democrats). Similarly, 68% of less-engaged Republicans say government should play a major role in protecting the environment, compared with 47% among politically engaged Republicans.
However, on several key areas of government activity, there is broad agreement even among engaged partisans that government should play a major role: Two-thirds or more of Republicans and Democrats, engaged and less-engaged alike, say government should play a major role in keeping the country safe from terrorism, managing the immigration system, responding to natural disasters, ensuring the safety of food and medicine and maintaining the nation’s infrastructure.
6. Perceptions of elected officials and the role of money in politics
A major factor in the public’s negative attitudes about the federal government is its deep skepticism of elected officials. Unlike opinions about government performance and power, Republicans and Democrats generally concur in their criticisms of elected officials.
Asked to name the biggest problem with government today, many cite Congress, politics, or a sense of corruption or undue outside influence. At the same time, large majorities of the public view elected officials as out of touch, self-interested, dishonest and selfish. And a 55% majority now say that ordinary Americans would do a better job at solving the nation’s problems than their elected representatives.
The 2016 campaign is on pace to break records for campaign spending. A large majority of Americans (76%) – including identical shares of Republicans and Democrats – say money has a greater role on politics than in the past. Moreover, large majorities of both Democrats (84%) and Republicans (72%) favor limiting the amount of money individuals and organizations can spend on campaigns and issues.
Few say elected officials put the country’s interests before their own
Just 19% say elected officials in Washington try hard to stay in touch with voters back home; 77% say elected officials lose touch with the people quickly.
A similar 74% say most elected officials “don’t care what people like me think”; just 23% say elected officials care what they think.
The public also casts doubt on the commitment of elected officials to put the country’s interests ahead of their own. Roughly three-quarters (74%) say elected officials put their own interests ahead of the country’s, while just 22% say elected officials put the interests of the country first.
These views are widely held across the political spectrum, though conservative Republicans and Republican leaners are particularly likely to say elected officials are self-interested: 82% say this, compared with 71% of moderate and liberal Republicans, and similar proportions of conservative and moderate (69%) and liberal (73%) Democrats.
Negative views of politicians on these measures are nothing new, though the sense that politicians don’t care what people think is more widely held in recent years: Today, 74% say this, up from 69% in 2011, 62% in 2003, and a narrower 55% majority in 2000.
Majorities across party lines say politicians don’t care much about what they think, though as has been the case since 2011, more Republicans than Democrats currently say this (78% vs. 69%). In 2004, when both the presidency and Congress were held by the GOP, Democrats (71%) were more likely than Republicans (54%) to say elected officials in Washington didn’t care much about them. Throughout much of the late 1990s, there were no significant partisan differences in these views.
Top problems of elected officials
When asked to name in their own words the biggest problem they see with elected officials in Washington, many Americans volunteer issues with their integrity and honesty, or mention concerns about how they represent their constituents.
The influence of special interest money on elected officials tops the list of named problems; 16% say this. Another 11% see elected officials as dishonest or as liars. These concerns are named by similar proportions of Republicans and Democrats.
One-in-ten respondents (10%) say elected officials are out of touch with Americans, and another 10% say they only care about their political careers. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are slightly more likely than Democrats to name these as problems.
In contrast, Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to volunteer that the biggest problem with elected officials is that they are not willing to compromise (14% vs. 7%).
Elected officials seen as ‘intelligent,’ not ‘honest’
To the general public, elected officials in Washington are not much different from the typical American when it comes to their intelligence or their work ethic, but they are viewed as considerably less honest, somewhat less patriotic and somewhat more selfish.
Two-thirds (67%) say that “intelligent” describes elected officials at least fairly well, the same share that says this about the typical American. Business leaders, by comparison, are seen as more intelligent (83% say this describes them at least fairly well).
About half of Americans say elected officials (48%) and average Americans (50%) are lazy; just 29% say this about business leaders.
But assessments of elected officials’ honesty are far more negative. Just 29% say that “honest” describes elected officials at least fairly well, while 69% say “honest” does not describe elected officials well. Business leaders are viewed more positively: 45% say they are honest. And nearly seven-in-ten (69%) consider the typical American honest.
About six-in-ten (63%) view elected officials as patriotic, a larger share than says this about business leaders (55%). Still, far more (79%) view ordinary Americans as patriotic than say this about elected officials.
And the public overwhelmingly thinks of elected officials as selfish: 72% say this describes them at least fairly well, including 41% who say this trait describes them “very well.” Though similar shares say the term “selfish” applies at least fairly well to both business leaders (67%) and the typical American (68%), fewer say it describes those groups very well.
Majorities of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, and Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, see elected officials as intelligent, patriotic and selfish, though there are modest differences in the ratings of elected officials across party lines.
Only about a third of Democrats (34%) and even fewer Republicans (25%) say “honest” describes elected officials. Similarly modest gaps are seen on other traits, with Democrats consistently viewing elected officials more positively (and less negatively) than Republicans.
There are few differences between Democrats and Republicans on views of the typical American. Majorities in both parties rate the typical American as intelligent, honest and patriotic, albeit selfish.
Republicans express more positive views of business leaders than do Democrats. More Republicans than Democrats say “patriotic” describes business leaders very or fairly well (66% vs. 48%). And while Democrats rate elected officials and business leaders similarly on honesty (respectively, 34% and 39% say each is honest), Republicans are twice as likely to call business leaders honest than to say this about elected officials (55% vs. 25%).
Views of elected officials and views of government
Just 12% of Americans have attitudes across a variety of measures that suggest they view elected officials positively (tending to rate elected officials as honest, intelligent, in touch with and concerned about average Americans, and putting the country’s interest above their own self-interest), while 57% largely view elected officials negatively (tending to take the opposing view on these measures); about three-in-ten (31%) hold about an equal mix of positive and negative views of politicians.
These views of elected officials are strongly correlated with overall attitudes about government. Among those with positive views of politicians, 53% say they trust government all or most of the time; among those with negative views, just 7% do. And while 42% of those with positive views say they are “basically content” with the federal government and just 4% express anger, just 9% of those with negative views of elected officials say they are content and fully 29% express anger.
Compromising with the other party
The public is also divided over the extent to which elected officials should make compromises with people with whom they disagree. While 49% of the public say they like elected officials who compromise, 47% say they prefer those who stick to their positions.
Among partisans and leaning independents, though, there is a clearer preference. Nearly six-in-ten Republicans and Republican leaners (59%) like elected officials who stick to their positions. The preference is especially strong among conservative Republicans, 65% of whom say this.
In contrast, 60% of Democrats and Democratic leaners prefer elected officials who make compromises over those who stick to their positions. Two-thirds of liberal Democrats (67%) agree. This ideological divide over compromise in principle is little different today from in recent years.
More people blame lawmakers than the political system
As was the case five years ago, more Americans blame problems with Congress on the members themselves, not a broken political system. Overall, 53% say the political system works just fine, and that elected officials are the root of the problems in Congress; 37% say most members of Congress have good intentions, and it’s the political system that is broken (37%).
There are only modest partisan or demographic differences on this question, though moderate and liberal Republicans and leaners are somewhat more likely than other partisan and ideological groups to say problems are systemic (47% say this, compared with no more than 38% of those in other ideological groups).
Views of the role of money in politics
The vast sums of money flowing into the 2016 presidential election have once again brought attention to the issue of campaign finance.
This issue resonates broadly with the public: 77% of Americans say there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations can spend on political campaigns and issues. Just 20% say that individuals and organizations should be able to spend freely on campaigns.
The perception that the influence of money on politics is greater today than in the past is also widely shared. Roughly three-quarters of the public (76%) believe this is the case, while about a quarter (22%) says that money’s influence on politics and elected officials is little different today than in the past.
And as the presidential campaign continues, nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) say that the high cost of running a presidential campaign discourages many good candidates from running. Only about three-in-ten (31%) are confident that good candidates can raise whatever money they need.
Broad concerns about money in politics – and the specific worry that costly campaigns discourage worthy candidates – are not new. In a January 1988 face-to-face survey, 64% said the high cost of campaigns acts as a barrier to many good candidates.
Most Americans, including majorities in both parties, believe that new laws would be effective in reducing the role of money in politics. Roughly six-in-ten overall (62%) say that new laws would be effective in limiting the role of money in politics; 35% say new laws would not be effective in achieving this goal.
Bipartisan support for limiting campaign spending
Opinions on campaign finance and its effects on the political system are widely shared; majorities across demographic and partisan groups say there should be limits on campaign spending, that money’s impact on politics has increased and that the high cost of campaigns is driving away good candidates.
Partisan differences on all three measures are modest. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (72%) are less likely than Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (84%) to say that there should be limits on campaign spending. However, support for spending limits is high even among conservative Republicans and leaners –roughly two-thirds (68%) think there should be limits on how much individuals and organizations can spend.
Democrats and leaners are somewhat more likely to say that the high cost of campaigns today discourages good candidates: 68% say this compared with 62% of Republicans and leaners.
While most Americans believe that new laws would be effective in reducing the role of money in politics, there are educational and partisan differences in how widely these views are held.
Fully three-quarters of those with post-graduate degrees say new laws would be effective in this regard, compared with 57% of those with no more than a high school education.
More Democrats and leaners (71%) than Republicans and leaners (58%) say that new laws would be effective in limiting the influence of money in politics. Nonetheless, majorities across all educational and partisan categories say that new laws could be written that would effectively reduce the role of money in politics.
7. Views of the political parties and how they manage government
The public continues to view the Democratic Party more favorably than the Republican Party. But neither party has a significant advantage when it comes to opinions about which could better manage the federal government.
In addition, both parties are criticized for how they deal with the size and scope of government. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) say the Republican Party is too willing to cut government programs even when they work. An identical percentage says the Democratic Party too often sees government as the only way to solve problems.
The favorable rating for the Democratic Party has changed little since the start of the year: Currently, 45% view the Democratic Party favorably, while 50% view it unfavorably. Meanwhile, the GOP’s image has improved somewhat since July, when just 32% viewed the party favorably – among the lowest favorability ratings in two decades of polling. Still, in the current survey, just 37% view the Republican Party favorably, while 58% view it unfavorably.
The percentage saying they have unfavorable views of both parties has been growing in recent years. Fully 24% now say they have unfavorable views of both parties, up from 12% in 2008 and just 6% in 2002.
Most of the growth in unfavorable opinions of both parties has come among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, and among the 13% of the public that does not lean to either political party.
About a quarter of Republicans and Republican leaners (27%) say they have an unfavorable opinion of both parties. That is down slightly from July (32%) but one of the highest percentages since 1992. By comparison, just 16% of Democrats and Democratic leaners have a negative opinion of both parties.
Independents without partisan leanings are the group most likely to have negative views of both parties. Close to half (46%) of non-leaning independents now say they have an unfavorable view of both the Republican and Democratic parties. That is almost double the percentage who said this in 2008 (25%).
Nonetheless, Republicans and Republican leaners make up the largest share of those who view both parties unfavorably. Close to half (45%) of those who have unfavorable views of both parties are Republicans or Republican leaners; 30% are Democrats or Democratic leaners, while 25% are independents who do not lean toward either party.
Predictably, those who have a favorable view of one party and an unfavorable one of the other are overwhelmingly partisans and partisan leaners. Among the small share of the public (11%) that sees both parties favorably, Democrats make up the largest share (48%).
Views of the parties’ approaches to government
The public has similar views of each party’s ability to manage the federal government. About half (52%) say the Democratic Party can do a good job managing the federal government, while 44% say it cannot. A comparable percentage (49%) says the Republican Party can do a good job of managing the government, while 45% disagree.
As in the past, more Americans view the Republican Party as “too extreme” (54%) than say that description applies to the Democratic Party (39%).
The survey also asks about specific criticisms of the parties’ approaches to governing. A majority (59%) says that the Democratic Party “too often sees government as the only way to solve problems,” while an identical percentage says that the Republican Party “is too willing to cut government programs, even when they work.”
As might be expected, Republicans and Democrats in large numbers give their own party positive ratings for dealing with the federal government.
Most Democrats and Democratic leaners (83%) say the Democratic Party can do a good job managing the government, compared with just 30% who say the Republican Party could do a good job. Among Republicans, 75% say their own party could manage the government effectively, while just 18% say the same about the Democratic Party.
However, Republicans are more likely to view the GOP as “too extreme” than Democrats are to say the same about their own party. A quarter of Republicans say the GOP is too extreme; 14% of Democrats say the same of their party.
When asked if the Democratic Party too often sees government as the solution to problems, 43% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say this is the case. When asked to judge whether the GOP is too quick to cut working programs, a somewhat smaller share of Republicans and Republican leaners (34%) say this is true of their party.
To be sure, much larger proportions of Republicans and Democrats are critical of the other party in assessing these characteristics. About seven-in-ten Republicans (69%) say that the Democratic Party is too extreme and an overwhelming majority of Democrats say that the GOP is too extreme (81%). Similarly, about eight-in-ten Republicans (79%) say that the Democratic Party too often relies on government solutions, while 82% of Democrats say that the Republican Party is too quick to cut effective programs.
For their part, independents who do not lean to either party offer similar assessments of the Republican and Democratic parties on all of the items tested. On the critiques of each party’s approach to government, for instance, non-leaning independents are as likely to say that the GOP is too quick to cut effective government programs as they are to say that the Democratic Party is too reliant on government to solve problems (51% each).
Among the 22% of the public that is angry with the federal government – a largely Republican group – 44% say, in effect, that only the GOP can do well in managing the government; they say the Republicans can do well and the Democrats cannot. Yet nearly a third of those angry at government (31%) say neither party can do well in managing the federal government. Relatively few say the Democratic Party, but not the Republican Party, can do a good job managing the government (16%).
Among the majority of the public (57%) that is frustrated with government, there is no clear preference about which party can do better in management. Among those who are “basically content” with the government (18% of the public), 44% say the Democratic Party, but not the Republicans, can do well in managing the government, while 36% say both parties can do a good job and just 11% say the Republican Party, but not the Democratic Party, can do a good job running the government.
Differences between the two major parties
The share of Americans who say there are major differences between the political parties, while little changed from early last year, remains as high as it has ever been.
Currently, 45% say there is “a great deal” of difference in what the parties stand for; 32% say there is a “fair amount” of difference and 19% say there is “hardly any difference” between the Republican and Democratic parties. The share saying there are wide differences between the parties is as high as it has been in the past three decades.
Conservative Republicans and Republican leaners (51%) are more likely than the party’s moderates and liberals (40%) to see a great deal of difference between the parties. Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, 52% of liberals say there are big differences between the parties, compared with 44% of moderate and conservative Democrats.
Among independents who do not lean to a party, just 31% say there are big differences between the parties; nearly as many (33%) say there are hardly any differences.
Overall, a majority (56%) of politically engaged adults say there are substantial differences between the parties, compared with 38% of those who are less politically engaged.
Most see a politically divided nation
An overwhelming majority of Americans say that the country is now more politically divided than in the past – and few expect these divisions to go away anytime soon.
Currently, 79% view the country as more politically divided, little different from surveys in 2013 (81%) and 2012 (80%), but as high as at any point since the question was first asked more than 10 years ago. In January 2009, shortly before Barack Obama took office, just 46% said the country was more politically divided than it had been in the past.
When asked to look five years ahead, 78% say that either the country will be just as politically divided as it is now (42%), or more divided (36%).
There is broad agreement across partisan and demographic groups that the country is more politically divided, and that these divisions will persist – or deepen – over the next five years.
Comparable percentages of Republicans and Republican leaners (82%) and Democrats and Democratic leaners (78%) say that the country is more politically divided than in the past. A slightly smaller share of those who do not lean toward either party (72%) say the same.
8. Perceptions of the public’s voice in government and politics
Though the public is unhappy with government generally, Americans are largely divided on key measures of their ability to influence how it runs, including the impact of voting on government and the ability of motivated individuals to influence the way government works.
When asked which statement comes closer to their own views, most Americans (58%) say that “voting gives people like me some say about how government runs things,” while fewer (39%) say “voting by people like me doesn’t really affect how government runs things.”
The public is somewhat more skeptical when it comes to the ability of ordinary citizens to influence the government in Washington. Half (50%) say ordinary citizens can do a lot to influence the government in Washington, if they are willing to make the effort, while about as many (47%) say there’s not much ordinary citizens can do to influence the government.
Can ordinary people have an impact?
Majorities of Democrats and Democratic leaners as well as of Republicans and Republican leaners say that voting gives people some say in government, though this view is somewhat more widely held among Democrats (63%) than Republicans (56%).
Democrats are similarly more likely than Republicans to say ordinary citizens can influence the government in Washington: 55% of Democrats say ordinary citizens can make an impact, while 42% say there is not much ordinary people can do. About as many Republicans and leaners say ordinary citizens can influence the government in Washington (47%) as say there’s not much ordinary citizens can do (51%).
Among the 13% of the public that does not identify or lean toward either party – a group that is far less likely to be registered to vote – just 44% say voting gives people some say in how government runs things, while 49% say it doesn’t really affect how government runs things.
Seven-in-ten of those with a post-graduate degree (70%) and 65% of those with a college degree say voting gives people some say in government; somewhat smaller shares of those with only some college experience (58%) or those with no more than a high school diploma (51%) say the same.
Unlike views on voting, there are no educational differences in the shares saying ordinary people can influence government if they make the effort.
Blacks (58%) and Hispanics (57%) are more likely than whites (47%) to say that ordinary citizens can influence the government in Washington, if they’re willing to make the effort. There are no racial differences in views of the impact of voting.
These two measures of opinion on the impact of voting and on ordinary citizens’ ability to influence the government in Washington can be combined to create a scale of political efficacy. Those who rank “high” on the scale say both that voting gives people some say in how government runs things and that ordinary citizens can do a lot to influence the government in Washington, if they are willing to make the effort. “Medium” political efficacy includes those who hold only one of the two views, while “low” political efficacy describes those who do not hold either view.
Overall, 39% of the public falls into the high political efficacy category, while 33% have medium political efficacy and 28% have low political efficacy.
Political efficacy is higher among those with more education. For example, 47% of those with a post-graduate degree rank high on the scale of political efficacy, compared with 33% of those with no more than a high school diploma.
Across political groups, Democrats and leaners are somewhat more likely to have high political efficacy (44%) than Republicans and Republican leaners (36%)
And high political efficacy is somewhat more widespread among the politically engaged (registered voters who vote regularly and follow news about government) than among the less engaged (43% vs. 36%).
Having high political efficacy – the feeling that voting and individuals can influence government – is associated with more positive views of government across realms.
While trust in government is low across all groups, those with high political efficacy (27%) are more likely than those with medium (17%) or low (10%) levels of efficacy to say they trust the government to do what’s right always or most of the time.
Similarly, just 16% of those with high political efficacy are angry with government, compared with 22% of those with medium political efficacy and 30% of those with low levels of efficacy.
On other overall assessments of government, those with high political efficacy stand out for holding the least negative views. For example, among those with high political efficacy, as many say the government often does a better job than people give it credit for (48%) as say it is almost always wasteful and inefficient (48%). Among those with lower levels of political efficacy, more describe the government as almost always wasteful and inefficient (60% of those with medium political efficacy and 67% of those with low efficacy).
When it comes to the amount of reform the federal government needs, those with high levels of political efficacy (48%) are much less likely than those with medium (59%) or low (74%) efficacy to say the government is in need of very major reform. As many as 48% of those with high political efficacy say the federal government is basically sound and needs only some reform.
Levels of political efficacy also are tied to views of elected officials. While the public is broadly critical of elected officials on several key character traits, those with high levels of political efficacy hold the least-negative views. For example, those with high political efficacy are 19 percentage points more likely than those with low political efficacy to say that elected officials are honest; nonetheless, just 36% of those with high political efficacy say the term honest describes elected officials.
A similar pattern is evident within partisan groups: Among Republicans and Republican leaners, as well as Democrats and Democratic leaners, those with a higher sense of political efficacy tend to be less critical of government and elected officials, though in many cases views remain quite negative.
Public’s assessment of country’s problems, own ability to address them
Amid high frustration with the government, most Americans see the challenges facing the country as difficult to solve, but most also say that ordinary Americans would do a better job solving the country’s problems than elected officials.
Overall, 56% say that most big issues facing the country today do not have clear solutions; 41% say there are clear solutions to most big issues facing the country today.
At the same time, 55% think that ordinary Americans would do a better job solving the country’s problems than elected officials, while 39% say they would do no better than those currently in elected office.
The public’s view that ordinary Americans would do a better job than elected officials likely reflects the low regard in which officials are held and is not entirely an endorsement of the public’s competency. A separate measure included in the survey finds that just 34% say they have either a very great deal or good deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions, significantly lower than in 2007 (57%) and 1997 (64%).
Among the 41% of the public who say there are clear solutions to the big issues facing the country, fully 63% say they think ordinary Americans would do a better job than elected officials solving the country’s problems. By comparison, about half (49%) of those who say there are not clear solutions to the county’s problems think regular Americans could do a better job than elected officials.
Across most demographic and political groups, majorities reject the view that the country’s problems have easy solutions.
Just 38% of Democrats and leaners say there are clear solutions to most big issues; 60% say there are not. Republicans and leaners are somewhat more likely to see clear solutions (46% say there are, 52% say there are not).
Politically engaged Republicans are one of the few groups in which a majority says the country’s problems have clear solutions (56% vs. 43%). As a result, the partisan difference on this question is significantly larger among the politically engaged public (17 points, compared with 8 points overall).
By a 60%-36% margin, women say most big issues facing the country today do not have clear solutions. Among men, opinions are more divided: 51% say most issues do not have clear solutions, while 47% say they do.
There are only modest differences on this question across levels of educational attainment, with narrow majorities of all groups saying there are not clear solutions to the country’s top problems.
By nearly two-to-one, more Republicans and GOP leaners say that ordinary Americans would do a better job than elected officials solving the country’s problems (62%) than say ordinary people would not do a better job (32%). Democrats have less confidence that the public would have more success than politicians: 49% of Democrats and leaners say ordinary Americans would do better, while nearly as many (45%) say they would not.
The view that ordinary people could do a better job is particularly prevalent among politically engaged Republicans: Nearly seven-in-ten (68%) say this. Views among engaged Democrats and leaners on this question (48% better job) are little different from those of less-engaged Democrats.
Those with higher levels of education are more skeptical that ordinary Americans would do a better job solving the country’s problems than elected officials: Among those with a post-graduate degree, 45% say the public would do better than politicians, while 49% say they would not. Those with a college degree are slightly more likely to say ordinary Americans would do better than elected officials (50% vs. 44%). Clear majorities of those with only some college experience (55%-38%) and those with no more than a high school diploma (58%-36%) say ordinary Americans would do a better job solving the country’s problems than elected officials.
Among adults under age 30, about as many say ordinary Americans would do a better job than elected officials (49%) as say they would not (47%). Among those in older age cohorts, larger percentages say the public would do a better job solving problems than elected officials. For example, 62% of those ages 50-64 say this, compared with just 32% who say the public would not do better than elected officials.
While most think ordinary Americans would do a better job than elected officials, independent assessments of the public’s political wisdom are relatively negative, and have fallen in recent years.
Overall, just 34% say they generally have a very great deal or a good deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions; a far greater share (63%) say they have not very much confidence or none at all. Confidence in the public’s political wisdom is down 23 points from 2007, when it stood at 57%. In 1997, nearly two-thirds (64%) said they had confidence in the public’s political wisdom.
There is no difference in views of the public’s political wisdom across party lines: Just 37% of Democrats and leaners and 36% of Republicans and leaners express at least a good deal of confidence. Similarly, the decline in confidence in the public’s ability to make political decisions over the past 18 years has occurred about equally among Republicans and Democrats.
On important political issues, most see their side as ‘losing’
For many Americans, generally negative feelings toward government are accompanied by the view that on the important issues of the day their side has been losing more often than winning.
Overall, 64% say that on the issues that matter to them in politics today, their side has been losing more often than it’s been winning. Only a quarter (25%) say they feel their side has been winning more often than losing; 11% volunteer that their side has been winning as often as losing, that they don’t think about politics in this way, or that they don’t know.
The feeling that one’s side has been losing on the issues is widespread across demographic and political groups. In fact, clear majorities of nearly all groups – with the exception of liberal Democrats and leaners – say they feel like their side has been losing more than winning.
About eight-in-ten Republicans and Republican leaners (79%) say they feel their side has been losing on the important political issues, while just 14% feel they’ve been winning. Comparably large majorities of conservative (81%) and moderate and liberal (75%) Republicans feel their side has been losing more than winning.
Among all Democrats and Democratic leaners, views are more mixed: 52% say their side has been losing more than winning on important political issues, while 40% say they’ve been winning more often. Among Democrats, there is a significant divide in views across ideological lines. By a 58%-35% margin, more conservative and moderate Democrats say their side has been losing more than winning on the issues that matter to them. Liberal Democrats are as likely to say their side has been winning (46%) as losing (44%) more often. This mixed rating among liberal Democrats is the most positive view of any group in the survey.
Across levels of educational attainment, the view that one’s side has been losing more often than winning is particularly widespread among those with no more than a high school diploma (67%) and those with only some college experience (66%). Somewhat smaller majorities of college graduates (59%) and post graduates (56%) also say their side has been losing more often than winning on important issues.
Views on winning and losing in politics are tied to overall feelings toward government. Among the share who say their side has been winning on issues more often than losing, more say they are content with the federal government (34%) than say they are angry (9%), while 55% say they are frustrated. Among those who say their side has been losing more often than winning, a greater share is angry with government (27%) than content (9%), while 61% say they are frustrated.
Most say politics not a struggle between right and wrong
Although there has been a marked rise in partisan antipathy – the dislike of the opposing party – in recent years, most Americans do not go so far as to say they view politics as a struggle between right and wrong.
Overall, while 44% say they think about politics as a struggle between right and wrong, 54% say they do not see politics this way.
The view that politics is a struggle between right and wrong is more common among blacks (57%) than among Hispanics (47%) or whites (40%).
Those with higher levels of educational attainment are particularly unlikely to see politics in these stark terms: Just 30% of those with post-graduate degrees and 34% of those with college degrees, say politics is a struggle between right and wrong. By comparison, 51% of those with no more than a high school diploma and 44% of those with some college experience say this.
Conservative Republicans and leaners are more likely than those in other partisan groups to say they view politics as a struggle between right and wrong: 53% say this, compared with just 38% of moderate and liberal Republicans, 45% of conservative and moderate Democrats, and 37% of liberal Democrats.
9. Views of the nation, how it’s changing and confidence in the future
The public continues to express mixed opinions about the United States’ standing in the world. About half (52%) say the U.S. is “one of” the world’s greatest nations, while 32% say it “stands above” all others. Relatively few (15%) say there are countries that are better than the United States.
Most Americans are not highly confident in the nation’s future. Fewer than half (45%) express quite a lot of confidence in the future of the U.S. Overall confidence in the future of the U.S. is at about the same level as it was 20 years ago, but is substantially lower than during the 1970s.
Opinion about the United States and its future prospects are associated with other attitudes about government. The small minority of Americans who have little or no confidence in the nation’s future (15% of the public) are more likely to feel angry with the federal government than are those who feel more optimistic about the future of the U.S.
As recent Pew Research Center surveys have found, more Americans say immigrants strengthen the country (53%) than say they are a burden on the United States (38%). And most (57%) say the country’s increasing ethnic diversity makes it a better place to live. Attitudes about immigrants and growing ethnic diversity also are linked to views about government: Anger with the federal government is more widespread among those with negative views of immigrants and increased diversity than among those with more positive attitudes.
U.S. standing in the world, confidence in the future of the country
As in the past, there are wide age and ideological differences in views of the United States’ world standing.
While roughly half or more across age categories take a middle-ground view – that the U.S. is one of the greatest countries – older adults are more likely than younger people to say that the U.S. stands above all other nations.
Among those 65 and older, 45% say the U.S. stands above other nations, the highest share of any age group. Just 19% of those under 30 say the same. By contrast, young people are much more likely than those 65 and older to say there are other nations better than the United States (25% vs. 6%).
Nearly half of conservative Republicans and Republican leaners (48%) say the U.S. stands above all other nations – by far the highest share among ideological groups. No more than about a third of those in any other group (32% of moderate and liberal Republicans) view the United States’ global standing so positively.
Just 17% of liberal Democrats say the United States stands above all other nations, the lowest percentage among ideological groups. Most liberal Democrats (60%) say the U.S. is among the world’s greatest nations, while 22% say other nations are better than the United States.
Confidence in the future of the U.S. is lower today than it was in the mid-1970s. For example, a 1975 survey by Gallup found that 60% had quite a lot of confidence in the future of the U.S. The share expressing a lot of confidence in the future of the U.S. fell to 48% in 1994 and is at about the same level today (45%).
More Republicans than Democrats view the United States as “exceptional” – standing above all other nations – but fewer Republicans express strong confidence in the nation’s future.
Half of Democrats and leaners say they have quite a lot of confidence in the nation’s future, compared with 40% of Republicans and leaners.
Young adults – who have a less positive view of the U.S.’s global standing than do older adults – are also less likely to have a high degree of confidence in the nation’s future. Just 38% of those younger than 30 have quite a lot of confidence in the future of the U.S., the lowest of any age group. Among those 50 and older, about half have a lot of confidence in the nation’s future.
Feelings of political efficacy and confidence in the nation’s future
Overall, people who feel like they can influence politics and government express greater confidence in the nation’s future than do those who say they have less ability to influence government.
Among people with a relatively high degree of “political efficacy” – those who say their vote matters and that ordinary citizens have the capacity to affect government – 57% have quite a lot of confidence in the future of the U.S.
Among those who respond affirmatively to only one of the political efficacy questions – that is, they say either that voting matters or that citizens can influence government, but not both – 40% have a high degree of confidence in the nation’s future. And among those with low efficacy (those who respond negatively to both questions), just 32% have quite a lot of confidence.
This pattern holds within both parties. Republicans and Republican leaners with high political efficacy are more likely to have quite a lot of confidence in the country’s future (52%) than are those with medium (35%) or low (29%) levels of political efficacy.
Similarly, 62% of Democrats and Democratic leaners with high political efficacy have a lot of confidence in the country’s future compared with 46% of those with medium levels of efficacy and 35% of those with low political efficacy.
Views of the nation’s future and opinions about government
People who are most confident about the nation’s future have much less animosity toward the federal government than do those who are less confident.
Frustration is the public’s dominant feeling toward government, irrespective of people’s confidence about the nation’s future.
Nonetheless, among those highly confident in the future of the U.S., 29% are “basically content” with the federal government, while only about half as many feel “angry” (15%).
The most intensely negative feelings toward government are seen among those with little or no confidence in the country’s future (15% of the public): Just 6% in this group say they are content with the federal government, while 39% say they are angry. This level of anger is more than twice the level seen among those who have a lot of confidence in the country’s future (15%).
Views of the roots of the country’s success
There are substantial differences of opinion about the factors behind the nation’s success. About half say the U.S. has been successful more because of its ability to change, while 43% attribute the success of the United States more to its adherence to long-standing principles.
There are wide partisan differences on this question. Six-in-ten Republicans and Republican leaners (60%) say the country’s success has more to do with its reliance on principles than its ability to change (including 70% of conservative Republicans and leaners). By contrast, a 66% majority of Democrats and Democratic leaners say the country has been successful more because of its ability to change; this view is even more widely held among liberal Democrats and leaners (74%).
These attitudes also differ sizably by age. By nearly two-to-one (65% to 33%), those younger than 30 say the U.S. has been successful more because of its ability to change. Those 50 and older are divided: 48% attribute the country’s success more to its reliance on principles, while 44% link it more to its ability to change.
Views on the reasons for the country’s success are tied to a range of opinions toward the federal government. In general, those who see the country’s ability to change as the bigger reason for its success are more likely to hold positive views of government than those who say reliance on principles is the bigger reason why the U.S. has been successful.
Among those who say the country has been successful because of its ability to change, more say they are basically content with government (26%) than say they are angry (15%); 57% say they are frustrated. By contrast, among those who say the country has been successful because of its reliance on principles, more express anger toward the federal government (30%) than say they are basically content (14%), while 54% say they are frustrated.
Half of those who cite change as the bigger reason for the country’s success say the government often does a better job than people give it credit for, while 47% say it is almost always wasteful and inefficient. Views are much more negative among those who cite reliance on principles as the bigger reason for the country’s success: Fully 71% in this group say the government is almost always wasteful and inefficient, and just 28% say government does a better job than it gets credit for.
A similar pattern is seen on a general question about the scope of government. Most (59%) of those who credit the ability to change for the country’s success say government should do more to solve problems. Those who say reliance on principles is the main reason the country has been successful take the opposite view: About two-thirds (65%) say government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.
The relationship between views of the country’s success and views of government are statistically significant within both political parties.
Views of diversity, immigrants and government
On balance, the public takes a positive view on immigrants and increasing diversity in the United States.
Overall, 57% say having an increasing number of people of many different races, ethnic groups and nationalities makes the United States a better place to live, compared with just 8% who say it makes the country a worse place to live and 34% who say it doesn’t make much difference either way.
About two-thirds of Democrats and Democratic leaners (65%) say diversity makes the U.S. a better place to live, while 30% say it doesn’t make much difference and just 5% say it makes the country a worse place to live. Republicans and Republican leaners are less positive: Most (52%) say diversity makes the country a better place to live, compared with 35% who say it doesn’t make much difference and 10% who say it makes the U.S. a worse place to live.
Across demographic groups, those with a post-graduate degree (76%), college graduates (72%), Hispanics (63%) and younger adults under age 50 (61%) are among the most likely to say diversity makes the U.S. a better place to live.
Views also tilt positive when it comes to overall assessments of immigrants’ impact on the country today. Overall, 53% say that immigrants today strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, while fewer (38%) say that immigrants today are a burden on the country because they take jobs, housing and health care.
There are wide differences on this question across partisan and ideological lines. Nearly eight-in-ten (79%) liberal Democrats and leaners and 63% of conservative and moderate Democrats and leaners say that immigrants strengthen the country through their hard work and talents, rather than burdening the country.
Among conservative Republicans and Republican leaners, more say that immigrants today are a burden on the country (57%) than say they strengthen it (31%). Moderate and liberal Republicans and leaners are divided: 45% say they think immigrants today are a burden, while about as many (44%) say they strengthen the country.
There also are wide differences across age groups. Those ages 18-29 are more likely to say immigrants strengthen rather than burden the country by a 69%-26% margin. Among those 65 and older, slightly more view immigrants as a burden (47%) than say they strengthen the country (42%).
Hispanics hold highly positive views of immigrants. About eight-in-ten Hispanics (81%) say they think of immigrants as strengthening the country, while just 14% say they are a burden. Views of immigrants are much more mixed among blacks (52% strengthen vs. 40% burden) and whites (46% vs. 44%).
These overall assessments on how diversity and immigrants impact the country are connected to feelings toward government.
Those who view the impact of diversity and immigrants on the country negatively are more likely to express anger toward the federal government.
Among those who say immigrants strengthen the country, just 13% say they are angry with government. Anger is more than twice as high among those who view immigrants as a burden on the country: 34% say they are angry with the federal government.
A similar pattern is seen in views of diversity. Among those who say diversity makes the country a better place to live, just 17% say they are angry with the federal government. This percentage rises to 24% among those who say diversity doesn’t make much difference in the country either way and reaches 42% among those who say an increasing number of people of many different races, ethnic groups and nationalities make the U.S. a worse place to live.
10. Government and taxes
While the public expresses a range of negative assessments of the government generally, there continues to be limited public outcry over personal tax burdens. At the same time, a majority say that most Americans want more from the government than they are willing to pay for in taxes.
Paying their ‘fair share’
Slightly more than half (54%) say they think they pay about the right amount in taxes, considering what they get from the federal government; 40% say they pay more than their fair share, while just 4% say they pay less than their fair share.
There are significant demographic and political differences when it comes to assessments of individual tax burdens.
Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, as many say they pay more than their fair share in taxes as say they pay about the right amount (both 48%), with no significant differences in views between conservatives and moderates and liberals.
Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, 60% say that they pay about the right amount in taxes, considering what they get from the federal government, while only about half as many say they pay more than their fair share (33%).
Across age groups, the oldest and youngest adults are more likely than others to say they pay about the right amount of taxes. Two-thirds of those 65 and older (66%) and 58% of those ages 18-29 say they pay about the right amount of taxes. By contrast, fewer of those ages 30-49 (50%) or 50-64 (47%) say they pay the right amount.
Those with greater family incomes are somewhat more likely than others to say they pay more than their fair share. About half (51%) of those with annual family incomes of $100,000 or more and 48% of those with incomes between $75,000 and $99,999 say this, compared with 40% of those with incomes between $30,000 and $74,999 and just 34% of those with lower incomes. Similarly, those with post-graduate (45%) or college degrees (44%) are more likely than those who have not attended college (36%) to say they pay more than their fair share.
Among blacks, 49% say they pay more than their fair share, while about the same proportion (46%) say they pay about the right amount. Both Hispanics and whites are more likely to say they pay about the right amount than to say they pay more than their fair share.
Those who say they pay more than their fair share in taxes are somewhat more angry with government, and less trusting, than those who say they pay about the right amount or less than their share in taxes. Wider attitudinal differences emerge between the two groups over general assessments of government performance and impressions of government waste.
Among those who say they pay more than their fair share of taxes, considering what they get from the federal government, more say they are angry with government (31%) than content (13%), while 54% say they are frustrated. Views are less intensely negative among those who say they pay about the right amount or less than their share in taxes: just 17% of this group says they are angry with government compared with 25% who are content and 57% who are frustrated.
Similarly, the percentage who volunteer that they never trust the government to do what’s right is somewhat higher among those who think they pay more than their share in taxes (21%) than among those who say they pay the right amount or too little (9%).
When it comes to an overall assessment of how well the federal government runs its programs, nearly half of those who say they pay more than their share of taxes (48%) say the government does a poor job running its programs, while 39% say they do an only fair job and just 12% say they do an excellent or good job. By contrast, 47% of those who say they pay about the right amount or less than their share in taxes say the government does an only fair job running programs; about as many say they do an excellent or good job (26%) as a poor job (25%).
Nearly seven-in-ten (69%) of those who say they pay more than their share in taxes view the government as almost always wasteful and inefficient, while just 28% say government often does a better job than people give it credit for. Views are much less negative among those who say they pay about the right amount or less than their fair share in taxes: 50% say the government is almost always wasteful and inefficient, while 47% say it often does a better job than people give it credit for.
Among both Republicans and Republican leaners and Democrats and Democratic leaners, the patterns on these questions are significant: Those who feel they pay more than their fair share in taxes are more critical of government than those who do not.
Does public demand more from government than it is willing to pay for?
When it comes to taxes and government services, many say Americans aren’t willing to pay for all the things they want government to do.
Overall, 52% say that most Americans demand more from the government than they are willing to pay taxes for, while somewhat fewer (44%) say most Americans are willing to pay the taxes needed to fund the services they expect government to provide.
There is general partisan agreement on this question: Most Republicans and leaners (54%) and Democrats and leaners (52%) say the public demands more from government than they are willing to pay for, with only modest differences across ideological lines within each party.
There are wider differences in these views by education, income, and race and ethnicity. In general, those with higher levels of education or higher incomes are among the most likely to say the public expects more from government than they are willing to pay for, while those with lower levels of education and income are more divided. For example, among those with family incomes of $100,000 a year or more, 61% say most Americans demand more from the government than they are willing to pay taxes for, while just 37% say most Americans are willing to pay taxes for the services they expect. By contrast, those earning less than $30,000 a year are divided, with about as many (49%) as not (47%) saying the public is willing to pay taxes to fund the services they expect.
Across racial and ethnic groups, whites (54%) and Hispanics (52%) are somewhat more likely than blacks (44%) to say the public is not willing to pay for the government services they demand.
A majority (57%) of those under age 50 say the public demands more from government than they are willing to pay for; views are mixed among those ages 50-64 (49% demands more, 47% is willing to pay for what it expects), and those 65 and older are slightly more likely (50%) than not (42%) to say the public is willing to pay for the services it expects from government.
Public’s top economic concerns
Overall, 31% say the federal budget deficit is the national economic issue that worries them most, while an equal share says the job situation is their top economic worry. Fewer consider rising prices (20%) or the condition of the financial and housing markets (13%) to be their top economic concern.
Partisans have differing perspectives on the most important national economic issue. A 44% plurality of Republicans and leaners say the budget deficit is their top economic worry, while 26% cite the job situation; relatively few say prices (16%) or the financial and housing markets (9%) are their top concern.
Democrats and leaners are far less likely than Republicans to name the job deficit as their biggest worry: Just 22% say this, about as many say rising prices are their top economic worry (23%). The job situation is cited more frequently (named by 35%), while 18% say the condition of the financial and housing markets is their top economic concern.
Those who say the budget deficit is their top national economic worry are less likely to say the government should do more to solve problems and offer more negative views of the social safety net than those who cite other economic concerns.
Those most concerned with the deficit are about twice as likely to see government as doing too much that is better left to businesses and individuals (65%) as to say government should do more to solve problems (32%). By contrast, a 55% majority of those who more concerned about other economic worries say the government should do more to solve problems, while 42% say it is doing too much.
When it comes to how much government should do for needy Americans, those whose top economic concern is the deficit are far more likely to say the government can’t afford to do much more to help the needy (65%) than to say it should do more to help even if it means going deeper into debt (29%). By contrast, 55% of those who name issues other than the deficit as their top economic worry say the government should do more to help needy Americans, even if it means going deeper into debt, while 40% say government can’t afford to do much more.
Those most worried about the deficit are more likely to say “poor people have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return” (57%) than to say “poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently” (33%). The balance of opinion is roughly the reverse among those who cite other issues as their top economic worry: 55% of this group says poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently, while fewer (36%) say poor people have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.
While those who cite the budget deficit as their top economic worry are more Republican than the public overall – and those who cite other economic issues are more Democratic – the relationships between these views persist among both Republicans and Democrats.
Those most concerned about the deficit are modestly more likely to express anger at government. While 22% of the public overall is angry with government, that rises to 28% of those who say the deficit is their top economic worry (compared with 20% of those who name a different top worry). This is also the case among Republicans: 37% of those most concerned about the deficit express anger at government, compared with 31% of Republicans who name another top concern.
11. How government compares with other national institutions
The public expresses mixed opinions about the effect of several major nongovernmental institutions on the country. But in nearly all cases, the influence of these institutions is viewed more positively than that of the federal government – and especially Congress.
Of 10 nongovernmental institutions included in the survey, majorities say four are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country: small businesses (82% positive), technology companies (71%), colleges and universities (63%) and churches and other religious institutions (61%).
The public is more divided over the impact of three other institutions – the energy industry (48% positive), labor unions (45%) and banks and financial institutions (40%).
And three others are viewed as having decidedly negative influence on the country. Just 33% say large corporations have a positive impact, 32% say that about the entertainment industry, and just 25% say the national news media has a positive effect. Majorities say all three have a negative effect on the way things are going in the U.S.
By comparison, 41% view the impact of the Obama administration positively and only a quarter (25%) say the federal government has a positive effect. Just 14% say Congress has a positive effect on the way things are going in the country, while 75% say its impact is negative.
In some cases, opinions about national institutions have become more positive since the previous study of attitudes toward government in March 2010, conducted when economic conditions were much worse than they are today.
The share of Americans who say banks and financial institutions have a positive impact, which stood at 22% in 2010 (and 2012), has increased to 40%. The percentage saying labor unions have a positive effect on the country has risen 13 points (from 32% to 45%). And small businesses, whose impact was already viewed very positively in 2010, is viewed even more positively today (82% positive, up from 71%).
Opinions about the impact of other nongovernmental institutions have shown less change. There also has been no change in assessments of the federal government’s impact. Meanwhile, views of Congress’s effect on the country have become less positive: Just 14% say it has a positive effect on the country, which is little changed from 2012 (15%), but down 10 percentage points from 2010 (24%).
Partisan differences in views of impact of institutions
Democrats and Democratic leaners are far more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to say labor unions have a positive impact on the country, and these differences have widened since 2010.
Currently, 59% of Democrats and just 28% of Republicans say unions have a positive impact. The share of Democrats who view unions’ impact in positive terms has increased 16 percentage points since 2010 (from 43%). Republicans’ views have shown less change (22% then, 28% now).
As in the past, higher percentages of Democrats (70%) than Republicans (54%) say colleges and universities have a positive impact. The partisan differences over the effect of the national news media and the entertainment industry are comparable – though majorities in both parties say these institutions have a negative effect on the country.
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that churches positively impact the country (72% vs. 54%). And while 41% of Republicans view the impact of large corporations positively, just 27% of Democrats agree.
Ideological divide over impact of churches, colleges
Among ideological groups, the impact of churches and religious organizations is viewed positively, except among liberal Democrats.
Just 41% of liberal Democrats say churches have a positive effect on the country; that compares with 64% of moderate and conservative Democrats, 69% of moderate and liberal Republicans and 75% of conservative Republicans.
Conservative Republicans are more skeptical of the influence of colleges and universities. Only about half (48%) say they have a positive impact on the country; majorities in other ideological groups view their impact positively.
Majorities of adults, regardless of partisan and ideological affiliation, say the national news media is having a negative effect on how things are going in the country today. However, conservative Republicans and Republican leaners are particularly critical: 82% say the national news media has a negative impact, while just 14% say it has a positive impact.
Republicans are also more critical of the entertainment industry than are Democrats: Majorities of moderate and liberal Republicans and Republican leaners (60%) and their conservative counterparts (65%) say that the entertainment industry has a negative effect on the United States. Half of conservative and moderate Democrats and 44% of the party’s liberals view its impact negatively.
Majorities of both conservative and moderate Democrats (59%) and liberal Democrats (75%) say large corporations have a negative impact. Among Republicans, 47% of conservatives and 44% of moderates and liberals say they affect the country negatively.
Conservative Republicans are the only ideological group in which a majority (63%) says that labor unions have a negative effect on the country. Moderate and liberal Republicans express more mixed views (36% positive, 45% negative), while majorities of both Democratic groups say unions have a positive impact.
Democrats are ideologically divided over the impact of the energy industry, as well as of banks and other financial institutions.
Liberal Democrats are much more likely than the party’s conservatives and moderates to view the effect of the energy industry negatively (58% vs. 38%).
And while 57% of liberal Democrats say banks have a negative effect on the country, a smaller share (43%) of conservative and moderate Democrats agree. Republicans express similar views of the impact of the energy industry and banks, regardless of ideology.
While there are partisan and ideological differences in views of the impact of most institutions, there is broad agreement that technology companies and small businesses have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.
Feelings toward government and views of impact of institutions
People who say they are “basically content” with the federal government – 18% of the overall public – have a more positive view of nongovernmental institutions than do those who feel “frustrated” or “angry” with government.
Those who are content with government are mostly made up of Democrats and Democratic leaners. Nonetheless, the “content” group is positive toward nearly all institutions – even some, such as banks and financial organizations – that are viewed negatively by all Democrats.
In contrast, people who are angry at government (22% of the public) are more critical of some institutions than are those who express frustration or are content with government. For instance, just 41% of the “angry” group – who are largely Republicans and Republican leaners – say that colleges and universities have a positive impact; overall, Republicans (54%) view their impact positively.
What’s Wrong with Federal Government and How to Fix It
If you take the text of the Constitution of the United States, as ratified by the founders of our country, and paste it into Microsoft Word, it’s about nine pages in length.
Have you ever asked yourself why it is so short? The owner’s manual for our country is far shorter than the owner’s manual for my microwave oven, to put it in comparative terms.
Why is that?
Because the powers of the federal government were never intended to be anything but few.
Have you seen the Texas Constitution? Article I of the Texas Constitution is nearly as long as the federal Constitution and there are seventeen articles in the Texas Constitution. It is far bigger.
Why is that?
Because the powers not granted to the federal government belong to the states, and what the States kept for themselves was pretty much everything else that citizens encounter in the ordinary course of their daily lives.
This is called Federalism: a federation of States created a central federal government and delegated supremacy over these States only in a few, specific areas.
There are three branches to our federal government: Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. The few and limited powers of the federal government apply, of course, to all three federal branches.
That last point is key – you might want to read it again.
So when the federal government must extend its list of powers, what’s the only legitimate, constitutional process for that?
If you said “Amendment,” you would be right.
Unfortunately today, this is how it works…
Congress passes a law that clearly overreaches the bounds set forth of the Constitution. The President signs it, and then a state (or several) will sue the federal government for usurping a power that belongs to the states. The Supreme Court hears the case, and decides in some contorted ruling that the overreach is not a violation of the Constitution and determines that the law is constitutional.
My question to you: is the Supreme Court the final arbiter of whether any law is constitutional?
The right answer is: only within the limited powers of the federal government. James Madison himself said, “The judicial power [of the national government] should correspond with the legislative.”
But if you think that might not be the right answer, I have a one-word reply to change your mind: Obamacare.
The federal government does not get to assign itself new powers outside of the Constitution by the edict of the Supreme Court.
Article III, Section 2, Clause I of the Constitution states, “The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States…”
The key phrase is “arising under this Constitution.” The Court does get to judge laws that are passed within the bounds of the Constitution. A federal court can weigh in on federal matters. The Supreme Court was never intended to be an imperial court, as many authors from Thomas Jefferson to Mark Levin have argued.
Every branch of federal government comes with checks for balance so that no branch might become imperial. The court has two checks: Congress has the power to impeach, and the president can refuse to execute unconstitutional acts.
The core problem with our government today is that these checks are not applied because WE, the people, elect politicians who are disrespectful about the limits placed on the federal government. As a result, we do not hold members of Congress accountable to these limitations. It doesn’t help that so many citizens (and non-citizens) want unconstitutional goodies handed out by a federal government drunk on power.
Most people, if you ask them, say that the power of the federal government has grown too large.
If you ask them how that happened, they mostly shrug.
Perhaps it has grown too large because rather than forcing the federal government to stay within its proper constitutional limits, we have allowed the federal courts to decide on legislation that escaped constitutional limits, and by doing so, we allowed them to take away the rights of states and the people through the process I outline above.
Only by insisting on the founding principle of Federalism across all three branches of government can we reverse this course. Determining constitutionality must begin by insisting that the powers of the federal government remain limited and explicit, according to the few and specific powers enumerated within the Constitution.
We don’t need a revolution to change this. We need to get ourselves educated on the “rules” by which Washington must operate, and then we need the spine to hold our politicians in Washington accountable. We must only allow them to legislate within the limited powers granted to the federal government. When they don’t, we must replace them, by any legal means necessary.
If enough people believe strongly in Federalism and insist on it, then the federal laws written by truly constitutional politicians will not absorb our attention every day as they do now. And that, my fellow Texan, is freedom.
OUR VIEW OF DEMOCRACY & PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
ACHIEVING AMERICA, ONE COMMUNITY AT A TIME.
Some of us complain incessantly about our politics and politicians. Others dodge any discussion of politics whatsoever. As a society, we have become less and less adept at rising above our political biases, listening to divergent views and reaching consensus. Worse yet, we seem to be losing faith, not only in our civic institutions and democracy, but in one another. Most of us sense that our capacity to forge a shared vision and solve big problems is slipping away.
At some level, most of us recognize the flaws of our political system and the looming threats to the next generation, but how much do we really care about solutions? How many of us stop to ask ourselves how we got here or how we might have contributed to the problem? More regrettably, how many of us ask ourselves what we can do as individual citizens to make things better? Why are so many of us content to blame politicians instead of accepting responsibility?
After 200 years, the global growth of what we have come to know as liberal democracy has stalled. Just 25 years ago, democracy was ascendant. The Soviet Union, South Africa’s apartheid regime and the Berlin Wall had fallen. Even China spawned hopes of democratic reforms. But, since the so-called End of History, we have witnessed a growing assault on democracy, from demagogic policies in the US to nationalistic victories in Europe to authoritarian regimes in Philippines, Turkey and Venezuela.
There are many causal factors for the success of anti-democratic movements. Voter faith in democratic institutions and elites has plummeted, especially since the Great Recession. The unsettling effects of economic disruptions, stagnant wages, demographic shifts and migration trends have placed harsh demands on civic institutions and revealed the fragilities of democracy. Desperate voters have found it increasingly difficult to resist the appeals of loud demagogues promising simple solutions. The threat of populism, especially in nations lacking rigorous constitutional frameworks and deep cultural ties to individual freedoms, is serious and enduring.
We were fortunate—to a point. While our founders were fallible, they foresaw the potential risks of pure democracy. They designed our constitutional system as a representative republic rather than a direct democracy. By doing so, they sought to reconcile the best features of democracy (e.g., majority rule) with constitutional controls that would protect individual liberties (e.g., separation of powers and indirect selection of US Senators and President). They argued that the best way to translate public opinion into public policy was through elected representatives, not direct democracy.
The results have been mixed. Some constitutional controls, like federalism, have met the framers’ expectations, but others have not. The imperial presidency and increasingly partisan (and activist) Supreme Court have upset the separation of powers equilibrium. The Electoral College has wandered far from its origins. In addition, 20th Century democratic reforms (e.g., 17th Amendment, 19th Amendment and 1965 Voting Rights Act) have been offset by profound anti-democratic developments (e.g., gerrymandering, voter suppression, Citizen United and special interest lobbying).
OUR CURRENT SITUATION
The causes of our political dilemma can be difficult to distinguish from its symptoms. And academic discussions of democracy, populism and other political systems can be bewildering, if not maddening.
What is clear is that something is wrong. Our civic problems have worsened and the political systems on which we have long relied to solve them are failing us. For instance:
- Many citizens have become cynical, alienated and ill-informed; in 2016, US ranked 26th of 32 among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations in voter participation
- Trust in civic institutions is plummeting (per the Pew Research Center, only 18% trust government “always or most of time,” down from 62% in 1968) and our support for authoritarianism is growing, especially among the young, less educated and less politically engaged
- Media outlets have become increasingly divisive, with echo chamber business models that are more about fueling acrimony than providing objective news, analyses and ideas
- Too many citizens have shifted from joining civic groups to using social media platforms (e.g., Twitter and Facebook) that spread disinformation, inflame grievances and discourage compromise
- Extreme gerrymandering and voting barriers are making our elections less competitive and outmoded conventions (e.g., the Electoral College and US Senate) are exacerbating the underrepresentation of urban areas, racial minorities and, in some cases, popular majorities
- Hyper-partisanship and low-turnout primaries are giving political zealots disproportionate clout in both parties, making civil dialogue, compromise and problem-solving more elusive
- Candidates for public office are increasingly rewarded for fear mongering, inflammatory rhetoric and big promises, yet demonstrably under-prepared for the challenges of executive office
- Public policy is increasingly shaped by wealthy elites and narrow interest groups rather than our elected representatives, at both the federal and state levels
- The Federal government, exemplified by a polarized Congress, erratic White House and partisan Supreme Court, has become a calcified vetocracy, incapable of adapting to new challenges
- State governments, structurally unchanged since colonial times, have become more and more infected by the same diseases that have rendered our Federal government so weak
- Public accountability has been gutted by proliferating agencies and administrative rule-making at the federal level, diffused executive powers at the state level and fragmented government and dying media outlets at the local level
Examining such problems can be daunting, partly because they seem so complex, but also because they seem so insurmountable. They are broad national problems that demand multi-faceted solutions, many beyond our individual capabilities. This can reinforce our sense of futility and alienation.
But, if the American idea is at least partly about individualism, perhaps we should view our politics partly through an individual lens. There are many questions we can ask of ourselves, such as:
- What makes politicians so different from me? If they are all corrupt, were they corrupt when I voted for them or did they become corrupt after they took office? Would I be any different?
- Why do I blame others for my economic anxieties or misfortunes? Why do I blame certain groups (e.g., CEOs, immigrants or minorities) more than others? Is such finger-pointing productive?
- If I don’t trust government or other civic institutions, why aren’t I more interested in holding such institutions and their leaders more accountable? What makes me think that an authoritarian leader, regime or system would do a better job (especially if I can’t hold them accountable)?
- Even if I’m angry or skeptical about politicians, politics and government, is that really a satisfactory excuse for being ill-informed or indifferent about civic decisions that could impact me?
- Instead of relying solely on partisan echo chambers for my information about politics, shouldn’t I explore media sources that offer different perspectives?
- Wouldn’t it be more useful or at least interesting to join civic groups or associations that would give me insight into other people with different views?
- Is there a better way to communicate about civic issues than social media?
- Is there anything that I’ve done or that I’m doing that contributes to the corrosiveness of our politics?
- Can I be part of the solution? If so, how?
Once we have gathered the courage to ask ourselves these kinds of questions, we can focus our attention on actions we can take on our own and without the intervention of others. It is then that we can become better citizens and share the principles of citizenship with the next generation.
Most every problem has solutions and the dysfunctionality of our political system is no different. The good news is that there is much that we can do as individuals. There are small steps that each of us can take to honor democratic principles. They include the following:
- Think for ourselves – embrace our independence, diversify the sources from which we learn about the world, continually seek reliable civic education tools, subject what we read or hear to honest scrutiny and develop our own opinions (instead of parroting the views of others)
- Relentlessly pursue civility – accept that we all have biases and blind spots (no matter how strongly our views, we could be wrong), demonstrate the humility and grace to learn from others, listen to others with respect and generosity and find constructive ways to communicate about civic issues
- Promote good citizenship – monitor and assess the quality of civic education in our schools, support student self-governance programs in churches and civic groups and continually find ways to help our young people learn the principles of citizenship and become great citizens
- Celebrate elections – register to vote, study the candidates and ballot issues, cast a vote for every race in every election, volunteer on campaigns and even consider running for office
- Take civic action – join civic groups, volunteer for nonprofit and community projects, monitor your local government and serve on local government and nonprofit boards
Civic Way suggests three types of actions for restoring our democracy and strengthening our political system: 1) individual measures (actions we can take as individual citizens), 2) community measures (joint actions we can take with other citizens, but without changing laws or raising taxes) and 3) political measures (changes to laws, policies or budgets). We have summarized some individual measures above and will offer some community and political measures in future newsletters.
The US political system is ours. We can complain about it. We can even tear it down or replace it with something else, but it remains our system (at least for now). And we should not presume that removing one office holder will cure our political dysfunction or revive our civic institutions.
We will have to do many things to revitalize our democracy and align our political system with the challenges ahead. Some will require collaboration (community measures) and others will require new laws, policies and investments (political measures).
But we must not neglect the actions we can take as individuals. Instead of engaging in moral grandstanding or avoiding politics altogether, we must adopt civics as what Abraham Lincoln once called our political religion. By renewing our commitment to and involvement with America’s political system, we can transcend our narrow political identities, reconcile divergent views and even achieve meaningful progress around shared values.
Perhaps we can even become what Walt Whitman saw as blades of grass, arising from and returning to nature, but ultimately becoming part of something larger, stronger, more unified and more inspiring. Or we can stay affixed to our devices, watching cat videos.
HOW AMERICA ENDS
|Title||How America Ends|
|Author||Yoni Appelbaum, Senior Editor, The Atlantic|
|Issue:||Will democracy survive our current factionalism?|
|Overview:||Our democracy has long depended on faith that elections are “neither permanent nor intolerable,” that losing one election is mere prelude to next electionDemocracy is at risk when either party loses faith in their ability to win next election|
|As Is Situation:||Increasingly shrill, apocalyptic political rhetoric stokes fears & validates tribalismThoughtless tweeting & digital demonization fuels greater political acrimonyIncreasingly divided political camps (geographically & ideologically)Declining trust in civic institutions, democracy & each otherWaning ability of center to absorb extreme ideological movements & impulsesDespite recent successes (e.g., Electoral College, Supreme Court & Senate), many GOP leaders fear dramatic demographic changes will end GOP dominanceNarrowing GOP base could irrevocably damage two-party system & democracy|
|Historical trends:||US history replete with examples of political over-reaching & worse, e.g.:Federalists passed Alien & Sedition Acts, criminalizing criticism of administrationAs Northern states abandoned slavery & outgrew South, Southern states lost faith in elections, became more strident & used federal laws to support slavery (e.g., 1850 Fugitive Slave Act)“Redemption era” Democrats stole franchise from black votersProgressive Republicans wrested municipal governance from immigrant votersReaction to World War I immigrants led to many regrettable events (e.g., Prohibition, Palmer Raids, Ku Klux Klan revival & nativist immigration laws)Democracy ultimately prevailed as electoral losers realized they could build new coalitions & regain their influence in future elections, e.g.:Political parties have continually realigned to accommodate immigrants (e.g., In 1924, Democratic Party nearly destroyed by fight between nativist & anti-nativist forces, but, after losing in 1928, won next 5 national elections with broad ethnic coalition)While immigrants have influenced US culture, most have embraced core American values (e.g., entrepreneurialism & egalitarianism) & become more AmericanToday’s GOP seems to have lost its faith in democracy & immigration:After Romney’s 2012 loss, RNC recommended expanding base to include minorities, women & youth & rebuilding party into organization that could win national majorityIn 2016 primary, GOP voters abandoned GOP establishment’s calls for inclusion for candidate with disdain for public service, democracy & diversityInstead of expanding base, GOP turning against democratic processes, challenging legitimacy of elections & using other tactics to hold power focusing on suppressing voters (e.g., extreme gerrymandering, polling place cuts, voter suppression & immigrant census count suppression)|
|Future issues:||Demographic – cultural strains from ascendancy of historical political minorityEconomic – economic stress from global competition & postindustrial economyInformational – growing reliance on smart phones, social media & misinformationPolitical – waning hope of either political party for future elections increases vulnerability of democratic systems to reckless self-serving demagogues|
|Next steps:||Center-right leaders start rejecting nativism, broadening partisan coalitions & competing more aggressively for new voters in diversifying nationConservative thought leaders rebuild GOP as party of conservative principles, develop more appealing ideas for diverse constituencies & mount good faith, fact-based challenge to progressivism in free marketplace of ideasGOP must renew its commitment to vibrant democratic institutions & competitive elections, learn to gracefully accept electoral defeats & restore its faith that democratic elections offer a viable, short-term path to victory|
|Our Take:||Our two-party system is messy, but it has shown a remarkable ability throughout our history to adapt to change. Continually competing for majority support, our parties have assimilated movements, built and rebuilt coalitions and tailored their platforms to those ever-changing coalitions. And they have absorbed and even quashed the assaults of Nativists, Luddites and Know-Nothings and other extremists.At first glance, the author appears to suggest that it is solely up to the GOP (or center-right) to reform itself and save our nation, a notion that seems simplistic if not unfair. However, after watching the recent impeachment trial in the US Senate, the author’s fears about the GOP seem all too prescient. With the solitary exception of Mitt Romney, GOP Senators appeared almost eager to cast aside long-held conservative principles (starting with public accountability). To many observers, they seemed less a party than a cult slavishly devoted to their “supreme leader.”Our history gives us hope that American system will prevail, but success will not be attained solely because of the work of one party or the consequences of one election. For our democracy to prosper, we must do more than hope that one party will put the country first. Sure, both parties could benefit from serious reform, but we also must take other steps. We must engage more citizens, reduce the influence of money in politics, improve civic education, make our elections competitive and improve governance. And we must ground these actions in our founding constitutional principles.|
OUR VIEW OF HOW GOVERNMENT CAN HELP SAVE DEMOCRACY
Some pundits think liberal democracy is on the ropes, around the world and here, a view for which there is considerable evidence. Others think our institutions can overcome such threats. Since every democracy is fragile, we should do everything we can to preserve ours.
What can we do? Saving American democracy requires three types of action—individual, community and governmental. In the first of our three-part democracy series, we proposed individual actions. In the second part, community actions. Here, we discuss steps that governments can take.
Our democracy is threatened by many forces, some beyond governmental reach. Those highlighted below could be confronted with new public initiatives, laws, policies and investments.
First, public faith in government has plunged. The Pew Research Center says only 18% of us trust government “always or most of the time,” down from 62% in 1968. The flood of money into politics and extreme gerrymandering make government appear insensitive to ordinary citizens.
Other trends reinforce these perceptions. The arcane rules and intractable polarization of Congress. The partisan tilt of the courts. The rise of federal administrative rule-making. The stagnation of state bureaucracies. The fragmentation of local governments. The dearth of news stories about good government. As faith in government falls, the receptivity for fear mongering, inflammatory rhetoric and simple solutions grows and public support for democracy wanes.
Second, our voter participation levels are embarrassing. While over 70% of eligible Americans are registered to vote, national turnout rates remain low, especially compared to other established democracies. State and local voter turnout rates are even lower. In 2019, 63 of America’s 100 largest cities (with over 47 million citizens) held elections, many with turnout rates below 20%. Down-ballot races (e.g., judge) garner even less participation.
Third, as more civic engagement efforts have become proforma, they’ve become ineffectual, and even detrimental. Routinely required since the epic Jane Jacobs-Robert Moses struggle, public meetings have become predictable. Many civic engagement processes have devolved into complaint forums, distorting public opinion. In some cases, public input processes have even impeded civic progress (e.g., Boston’s Big Dig and Austin’s CodeNext zoning revamp projects).
Fourth, our nation’s long-standing commitment to civic education has flagged. With George Washington’s urging, we invested in civic education and, for most of our first 200 years, strove to prepare youth for citizenship. Until recently, most high school students received multiple civics courses. But, after the enactment of No Child Left Behind, standardized state tests began stressing math and English, most schools shifted instructional resources to STEM and most parents lost interest in civics. By 2017, per the Education Commission of the States, the situation for urban schools was even worse.
In Rhode Island, citizens filed a federal class-action suit against the state for failing to mandate civics classes for students and prepare young people for citizenship. They want the federal court to affirm the constitutional right of students to an adequate civics education—one that prepares them for voting, jury duty and other civic duties—and force the state to upgrade civic education.
Fifth, objective news sources are scarce. The loss of traditional revenue sources for local newspapers (and their subsequent downsizing and demise), coupled with the challenging market for balanced digital news outlets, has shattered our shared national narrative. The simultaneous proliferation of biased internet media and ideological echo chambers that loathe compromise and disseminate strident partisan rhetoric.
Finally, as objective news sources struggle, unfettered social media platforms prosper. Preying on our natural cognitive frailties, social networks spread misinformation and accelerate anger. Their corrosive influence is becoming all too clear. Lies are retweeted faster than truths and inflammatory posts travel faster than reasoned arguments. The line between opinion and fact—the cornerstone of any functioning democracy—becomes hopelessly blurred.
Declining public trust, dismal voting rates, outmoded engagement mechanisms, under-funded civic education, thriving social media and collapsing journalism. These trends weaken our democracy, but also offer pathways for transformative public initiatives. State and local governments, which directly serve citizens, are well-positioned to regain public trust. A renewed commitment to civic education could yield a new generation of enlightened civic leaders. Consumer comfort with digital platforms and news feeds could increase their receptivity to similar platforms for government.
RECOMMENDED GOVERNMENT STRATEGIES
What can state and local government do to help revitalize our democratic processes? As it turns out, quite a lot—with the right leadership and political will. Our initial blueprint is outlined below.
- Make government more responsible and accountable – We will address this issue in more detail in a subsequent newsletter, but government must continually improve to earn and keep the public trust. Executive agencies must be more efficient. Legislative bodies must be more agile (e.g., abolish filibuster) and ethical (e.g., strengthen conflicts of interest rules). And the courts must be less partisan.
- Enact state laws promoting political competition – Every state must recommit itself to the free market of political ideas. Each party must see each upcoming election as a genuine opportunity to promote its agenda and elect candidates that will champion that agenda. For example, each state should:
- Tighten the disclosure of political donations and increase public campaign financing
- Remove elected officials from the redistricting process and eliminate gerrymandering
- Streamline voter registration (e.g., automatic, same-day and linked registration)
- Offer incentives to private entities to help tenants or employees secure their voter registration
- Improve voter access (e.g., convenient identification, voting sites and voting times)
- Simplify elections (e.g., merge offices, appoint others and shorten ballot)
- Ensure that more elections reflect voter preferences (e.g., test ranked choice voting)
We will return to this issue in a subsequent newsletter.
- Advocate public-private voting initiatives – State and local government should work together—and with private partners—to boost voter participation. For instance:
- Encourage local high schools to share registration materials with students and submit completed forms to local election administrators
- Integrate public services with voter registration systems to help citizens register when obtaining a government benefit, service or license (e.g., housing voucher, parking permit or library card renewal)
- Allocate local funds for designing, printing and distributing local voter education materials and promoting voter registration and election day events
- Offer special, discounted or free election day transportation services
- Upgrade polling site staff (e.g., recruit bilingual workers and improve training)
State and local governments should make voter turnout one of their top priorities.
- Expand and energize civic engagement networks and processes – Civic engagement should be more than an empty gesture. We should redesign public hearings and panel sessions to be more productive. We should build a model citizen engagement process that influences big public decisions (e.g., plans, budgets, projects and ballot issues). We should employ technologies to improve data sharing and services across agencies and jurisdictions. And we should use proven crowd-sourcing platforms for tracking government performance and restoring accountability.
- Improve civic education in public schools, colleges and universities – Ill-informed citizens cannot be expected to make wise voting decisions. If Forrest Gump was right, that “stupid is as stupid does,” we cannot revitalize our politics without better civic education. While this investment could be costly, the costs of doing nothing could be staggering (and irrevocable). Every state should endorse a clear constitutional right to a civic education. Every state should mandate civics teacher training, civics courses and student self-governance. And every public school, community college and university should have robust civics curricula, instructional materials and teacher training guides.
- Invest in digital media that keep voters informed – We must harness new technologies for the public good. To replace the disappearing traditional newspapers, large states and community foundations should spur the creation of nonprofit, independent digital news outlets to provide a reliable, objective source of news. Universities and foundations should fund easy-to-use tools for rating news sources. In addition, private groups should start rating news sources, much like they do for other consumer products. Finally, states should require social media firms to identify dubious sources and assess content.
These initiatives offer many benefits. More responsive, accountable government will engender stronger communities. Easier voter registration will enhance voter turnout and broaden civic participation. Improved civic engagement will enrich public decisions. Informed citizens will select more qualified leaders. Finally, more balanced, reliable and visually compelling information will help voters think for themselves.
We must step back from today’s hyper-partisanship, too often inflamed by leaders who place self above country. We must reject the illusion that merely removing one person from office—even one so toxic as the current White House occupant, will magically rejuvenate our politics or restore our civic discourse.
The long-term viability of our democracy depends on ordinary citizens demanding that it work for them. This requires most citizens to not know a lot about how to fix democracies, but also how to use democratic processes to improve their communities. State and local government can be invaluable partners in this effort.
OUR VIEW OF ACCOUNTABILITY IN GOVERNMENT
The COVID-19 pandemic is the classic “teaching moment.” The Trump Administration stumbles from denial to fantasy, altering messages, picking weird fights and dodging responsibility. States respond differently, often based on political factors. And localities, in lieu of cohesive, consistent federal and state leadership, are forced to rely on their instincts and strained resources to comfort and meet the needs of anxious constituents.
We will survive this pandemic, but we may not survive the next, not without reinventing government at all levels, and making it a source of pride. This will require, among other things, a tireless commitment to accountability. When we survive these two viruses—COVID-19 and divisive political opportunism—we must get serious about modernizing government, and making it more responsive, productive and accountable.
Our democratic political system depends on so many factors to succeed—informed citizens, respectful civic discourse and reliable, timely public information, to name a few. Perhaps the most important, and the least understood, is accountability. It is on this score that our flaws are so striking.
- We are inconsistent—even lazy—about holding politicians accountable. Political partisanship often limits the steady, unbiased application of performance standards. While we are quick to condemn the politicians we oppose, we are loath to challenge those we back. At the local level, the bewildering array of public agencies serving regions can make it virtually impossible to pinpoint responsibility.
- Too many elected officials neglect organizational accountability. Many state and local officials think annual audits and balanced budgets are enough. They are not. Government agencies can be unwieldy organizations with grand missions, swelling service demands and scarce resources. Their performance is far more difficult to measure than that of private sector entities. Public officials rarely appreciate how much more needs to be done to ensure internal accountability.
- Government’s role in ensuring professional accountability is often overlooked. We all rely on professionals to help us navigate life. Doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, plumbers, electricians, mechanics and so many others, all functioning with governmental consent. Virtually every occupation is licensed or certified by a state or local board or commission comprising citizen appointees. Those of you assuming that our elected officials always appoint the most qualified citizens to these bodies will be disappointed.
- Our accountability laws are often weak and antiquated. Public officials love promoting ethics legislation, but these laws are typically vague and seldom updated. By failing to fully define corruption, they effectively legalize (or free politicians to normalize) unethical conduct. When politicians refuse to observe established laws or norms, they legitimize conflicts of interest. When we allow elected officials to set, interpret and ignore accountability laws and norms, we make it that much harder to secure good governance.
- Most civic accountability mechanisms are paper tigers. With a few exceptions, most governmental commissions, community forums and other civic engagement devices are little more than a valve for releasing civic angst or protecting the status quo. Independent civic groups formed to monitor government performance come and go with disquieting frequency. Regions without at least one independent, diverse and influential civic group—regularly challenging public decisions—will find government accountability hard to attain.
- Journalism’s ability to monitor state and local government is rapidly waning. With the rise of digital media and descent of traditional media outlets, especially local newspapers, we are on the verge of losing an invaluable weapon against government waste. As investigative reporting recedes, we cannot count on local media outlets to scrutinize government and expose scandals. In years past, even when all other forms of accountability failed (see above), we could look to the fourth estate to keep our government officials honest. Now what?
What can we do to make our governments and public officials more accountable? We offer some initial recommendations using the six-point Civic Way accountability framework (see prior newsletter).
- Political accountability – All citizens should devote at least one hour every week to holding elected officials accountable. Instead of meek subservience or lazy indifference, citizens should demand political accountability for all officials, especially those they support. When elected representatives complain that their performance is being “politicized,” they are merely expressing a fear that citizens might hold them accountable.
- Strengthen direct representation (e.g., make more legislative seats district-based instead of at-large)
- Eliminate overlapping jurisdictions (e.g., merge inefficient towns, merge duplicative special districts and minimize government fragmentation)
- Simplify state and local ballots to help voters focus on the most critical offices (e.g., eliminate superfluous offices, consolidate similar public offices and make more elected positions appointive)
- Maintain a constant, aggressive citizen spotlight on public officials (e.g., attend meetings, write letters, ask tough questions, monitor votes and speak out)
Unless voters challenge (or at least question) political misbehavior (e.g., ineptitude, hypocrisy and corruption), many elected officials will put their own interests above those of the public. It is especially important for registered Democrats to challenge Democratic representatives and Republican voters to challenge GOP officials.
- Organizational accountability – To ensure that public resources are prudently managed, public officials must implement and refine internal good government measures, such as:
- Make executive agencies more responsive, efficient, effective and accountable
- Establish clear bureaucratic structures with clear duties, responsibilities and reporting lines
- Reform and simplify budget management processes (e.g., link long-range plans and reduce trivia)
- Establish sound management practices (e.g., sensible long-range plans, clear administrative policies and procedures, rigorous internal controls and measurable performance management systems)
- Make legislative bodies more strategic and agile (e.g., abolish filibusters)
- Make courts more independent, less partisan and more productive
- Enact tough ethics policies and procedures to guide all public employees
- Eliminate dubious political traditions (e.g., aldermanic development approval privileges)
Such measures involve hard work, but good government and public trust cannot be assured without them.
- Professional accountability – State and local governments must adopt tough professional conduct standards and assiduously enforce those standards through occupational ethics, licensure and certification standards. They should reassess the many boards and commissions under their control, restructure or revamp them as merited, upgrade citizen appointments, more diligently monitor professional performance and more frequently suspend the licenses of bad actors. Instead of using boards and commissions as a means for rewarding political supporters, elected officials should use them as a tool for serving the public interest.
- Legal accountability – Governments must adopt, follow and enforce legal mandates that will help regain the public trust in government (e.g., statutes, ordinances, regulations, contracts and resolutions).
- Change state and local laws to bolster institutional checks and balances at all levels
- Enact laws to make public executives more accountable (e.g., streamline impeachment process)
- Enact laws requiring governments to strengthen oversight (e.g., independent or watchdog offices)
- Enact laws requiring best management practices (e.g., smart budgeting and competitive bidding)
- Adopt much tougher state and local ethics laws, including campaign contribution, reporting and disclosure rules, conflict of interest standards, other public behavioral standards and more severe sanctions
- Enact legislation to improve public information transparency (see prior newsletter)
- Civic accountability – Citizens and civic leaders should hold public officials accountable through governmental commissions, community forums and other civic engagement, e.g.:
- Encourage foundations to develop model government accountability standards
- Enact constitutional or charter changes to require all governments to adopt best management practices and champion future mergers and other reforms
- Implement public power-sharing mechanisms, including independent citizen councils and watchdog groups
- Establish and fund independent private regional civic groups to track government performance
- Improve public information transparency (e.g., institute digital budget, tax, debt, contract and expenditure dashboards, revamp public websites and release audit reports prior to elections)
- Exploit emerging technologies to enable citizens to directly access public data, monitor government activities and offer real-time feedback on public services
- External accountability – We must ensure the survival of objective, independent journalism, especially at the state and local levels. There are many ideas worth considering, including an objective tool for rating existing news sources and a well-funded network of nonpartisan, nonprofit media platforms. Whatever path we choose, we must be guided by the principle that good government requires objective journalism and informed citizens.
Some have labelled criticism of the Covid-19 public response as “politicizing” the crisis. If questioning reckless statements or hollow assurances by public officials—especially when they cause avoidable suffering—is political, we should be more political. In a democratic society, this is how we hold politicians accountable.
Of course, we should unite behind public leaders who offer a cohesive crisis management strategy. But we must not abandon our duty to hold them accountable. We must treat this crisis as a rehearsal for the next one. We must assess our public officials and remove those that failed to lead. But that alone is not enough. We also must pursue bold federal, state and local government reforms. This crisis is an urgent call to prepare for (if not prevent) future crises, challenges that will require far better government and leaders than we have today.
Government accountability. In poll after poll, citizens insist that those who govern us also be accountable to us. In our own lives, as students, employees, friends and family members, we accept responsibility and accountability. We understand that, with responsibility, comes an obligation to explain our conduct, face consequences, justify decisions and suffer reprisals.
In government, however, we too often treat accountability as an aspirational platitude, a cliché shrouded in nobility, but drained of meaning. And, as our politics have become more polarized, we have even become selective in applying the tenets of accountability. The recent impeachment trial of President Trump, if nothing else, reminded us how little we know about government accountability.
Our democratic system cannot succeed without informed citizens, respectful civic discourse, reliable, timely public information and accountability, but our commitment to accountability is fraying.
- We are fickle—even lazy—about holding politicians accountable. Voters inconsistently punish poor conduct regardless of the evidence. During President Trump’s impeachment trial, the debate about ham-handed efforts to spur foreign investigations of political rivals eclipsed a more important principle, that every politician is accountable. While the President’s call was anything but “perfect,” there is a rational (if feeble) argument that the President’s conduct was not impeachable. However, when the White House obstructed subpoenas and testimony, it acted as if the President is above the law. For those who cherish accountability, that stance is despicable and impeachable (as are Democratic talking points about Hunter Biden’s Burisma Holdings role).
We berate politicians as a class, but seem reluctant to confront individual politicians, especially when they label inquiries as politically-motivated “witch hunts.” In Democratic Maryland, Republican Governor Hogan remains extremely popular, despite engaging in self-dealing that, while legal, mocks ethical norms. Under his leadership, state transportation funds have been legally shifted from urban projects (e.g., Baltimore’s Red Line project) to non-urban road projects that could benefit the Governor’s personal real estate holdings. Yet, most voters seem all too willing to look the other way.
- Too many public officials neglect organizational accountability. Many public officials give lip service to organizational accountability for their respective governments. This is particularly true for inexperienced or inattentive legislators. In Buncombe County, North Carolina, for instance, a Democrat-controlled government, key staff misused public funds. A 2017 federal investigation sent five individuals to prison, including the longtime county manager. While commissioners call for greater “transparency” in the future, they failed to exercise sufficient oversight in the past.
- State and local governments operate some boards in ways that undermine professional accountability. State and local governments maintain scores (if not hundreds) of boards and commissions, some responsible for licensing professionals and some for enforcing professional standards. Many governments fill boards with qualified persons, but some use them to reward political supporters. Most boards and commissions receive limited oversight which can erode professional accountability. In 2017, North Carolina’s State Auditor found that many boards failed to maintain a current licensee list, meet training standards or conduct sufficient inspections. A 2017 Iowa audit report found serious flaws with state boards, including incomplete investigations, poor documentation and board conflicts of interest. Some states may allow licensees to keep their licenses even while under investigation for fraud (e.g., West Virginia).
- In our focus on the illegal conduct, we too often lose sight of legal corruption. Federal, state and local prosecutors have not been shy about prosecuting illegal public conduct. Innumerable areas have been shaken by convictions, including Baltimore (Mayors Pugh and Dixon), Chicago (ghost payroll and aldermanic privilege schemes), Detroit (Mayor Kilpatrick’s pay-to-pay graft), New Orleans (Mayor Nagin’s bribery), Providence (Mayor Cianci’s felony convictions) and Southern California (e.g., Bell, Beaumont and Vernon scandals).
Voters have grown numb to legal corruption (e.g., Cuomo’s Moreland Commission, McConnell’s wealth, Menendez’s career and Trump’s business interests). Citizens United has made politics the hand-maiden of dark money. State utility firms have made legal corruption their business model, spending enough on state politics to influence key decisions (e.g., monopoly status, emission standards, drilling practices, rates and return on equity). Since most utility commission members are political appointees, energy firms have substantial incentives to support the right candidates. And they can sleep easily knowing that most voters won’t care.
- Our civic accountability mechanisms are largely ineffectual. With a few exceptions, most public commissions and other forms of civic engagement have little impact on government accountability. Private groups created to monitor government performance come and go. Most public boards fail to hold their institutions accountable. For instance, the UNC System Board of Governors, which oversees one of our most prestigious public university systems, has lost its way. In recent years, the Republican-controlled legislature has gutted the board’s diversity and independence, two markers of university quality. Of the Board’s 24 voting members, five are women, three are minorities and none are Democrats. Once viewed as broadly representative and devoted to the University System (and the public), it now caters to the General Assembly’s narrow political agenda.
- We are rapidly losing our most valuable tool for monitoring government, journalism. With the rise of digital media and disappearance of traditional media outlets, especially local newspapers, we are losing a proven, effective weapon against public corruption. National media seem less diligent about uncovering the self-dealing of national politicians. Downsized (and shuttered) local newspapers are unable to expose wrongdoing or hold government accountable with the same rigor they once did. The consequences for the quality of our public officials and governance are incalculable, if not irrevocable.
A FRAMEWORK FOR ACCOUNTABILITY
Ensuring governmental accountability is daunting, especially given the threats. Hyper-partisanship can weaken ethical standards. Fragmented and unwieldy governments can obscure organizational responsibility and impede reforms. The brazen disregard for laws and civic norms can pave the way for more unethical behavior. The loss of local journalists can gut the ability of media outlets to scrutinize governments and disclose dubious conduct.
The complexity of this challenge calls for a thoughtful, structured approach. To begin, we recommend a broad accountability framework with six criteria for maximizing public accountability:
- Political accountability – Guided by traditional democratic principles, citizens in representative democracies must hold elected officials accountable for enacting laws, rules and policies that serve the public interest. In turn, elected representatives must fear that citizens will indeed hold them accountable. When voters ignore or tolerate the normalization of political corruption or the manipulation of elections, elected officials will be less likely to realign their conduct with voter interests.
- Organizational accountability – Government organizations must be held accountable with clear bureaucratic structures, clear reporting lines and sound management practices (e.g., plans, administrative policies and procedures, internal controls, accounting, budgets and performance management systems). Once elected or appointed, public officials must be good public stewards, managing public resources in a prudent manner and establishing inspiring norms and service-oriented operating cultures.
- Professional accountability – In addition to political and organizational accountability, many public and private workers are accountable to professional standards. Governments and public officials must be aware of relevant professional conduct standards and enforce those standards through clear codes of ethics and occupational licensure or certification standards (and through relevant boards and committees) for public workers and private contractors alike.
- Legal accountability – Governments and their officials also are subject to legal mandates concerning conduct, transactions and reporting, expressed in the form of statutes, ordinances, regulations, contracts and resolutions. State or local legislators, for example, may impose legal sanctions involving conflicts of interests, misuse or abuse of public office or other corrupt practices (e.g., fraud, bribery or appropriation of public funds). State or local governments also may create institutional checks and balances to bolster accountability (e.g., separation of powers, independent judiciary or independent watchdog commissions).
- Civic accountability – Citizens should hold public officials accountable through governmental commissions and other forms of civic engagement. Most state and local governments have citizen advisory bodies and some of these, like municipal zoning and state licensing boards, possess decision-making powers. Independent civic groups can shine a light on government performance by tracking performance data, but they are hard to sustain. Emerging technologies enable citizens to access public data, monitor government activities and offer real-time feedback on public services. In turn, the changing public information landscape is challenging our traditional approach to the transparency issue, an issue to which we will return later.
- External accountability – Perhaps the most under-valued accountability channel is objective journalism. Before the internet and diversion of media advertising revenues, local media outlets (newspapers, radio and television) fought corruption by exposing corrupt incumbents and promoting honest challengers. Local media markets with high newspaper consumption tended to experience more honest government. While the digital revolution has encouraged the freedom of expression, its impact on the freedom of the press (more specifically the quality of journalism) has been less clear. More about this issue later.
To improve governmental accountability in a systemic and enduring way, the first step is to adopt a framework for accountability. In the near future, we will use this conceptual framework to build and propose a package of more specific recommendations for improving accountability. Stay tuned.
MORE THOUGHTS ON ACCOUNTABILITY IN GOVERNMENT
Transparency is one of the cornerstones of government accountability. It reinforces every form of accountability set forth in our recommended government accountability framework—political, organizational, professional, legal, civic and external. However, its frequent repetition as a political platitude has converted it from a vital principle to a meaningless cliché.
The time has come to redefine transparency, in clear, measurable terms that can govern our expectations and guide our leaders. At its core, transparency calls for the timeliness, accuracy and utility of public information. When it works, it bolsters government accountability in the short-term and public trust in government in the long-term.
DEFINING THE CHALLENGE
We need a modern transparency standard, one calibrated to our times, but reflecting the timeless work of others. In 1948, the United Nations’ “Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 19” confirmed that governmental entities have an obligation to release essential information to their citizens. In 1966, the United States Freedom of Information Act established standards for classifying and obtaining government information.
In the decades since, many organizations have emerged to promote transparency and an informed, engaged electorate, including Transparency International (1993), the Sunlight Foundation (2006) and the Open Government Partnership (2011). These groups and dozens of others tirelessly advocate best practices for the timeliness, accuracy and utility of governmental information disclosures.
Developing an actionable transparency standard faces several formidable obstacles, such as:
- The sheer volume, formats and variety of public information continue to mushroom
- The information environment continues to evolve due to such factors as technology changes
- The transformation of conventional news organizations (e.g., local newspapers) coupled with the onslaught of social media
- The risks inherent in disclosing too much public information continue to expand (e.g., privacy, security and confidentiality)
- The legal parameters, organizational capabilities and citizen involvement associated with information collection and data transparency vary widely among jurisdictions
These concerns, while serious, should not stand in the way of adopting meaningful standards for transparency and satisfying every citizen’s right to know.
WHY TRANSPARENCY MATTERS
In 2019, the residents of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and their elected officials, received two indelible civics lessons on transparency. The first involved the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners and its failed sales tax increase initiative, the second the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education and its Superintendent’s resignation.
Mecklenburg County –The Board approved an operating budget of just under $2 billion with a nine percent (9%) spending increase, but the approved budget did not fully reflect the Board’s goal to “do big things” for the County. Instead of using the annual budget process to inform the public about its plans, the Board placed a quarter-cent sales tax increase—with well over half of a forecasted $50 million in new revenue intended for unspecified arts-related grants—on the fall 2019 ballot.
The Board’s proposed sales tax increase was quickly exposed as vague, especially concerning the use of these funds. In the face of mounting public criticism of the proposed tax increase, the Board flipped the campaign focus to other funding priorities, namely K-12 education and public parks. While both funding priorities received substantial increases in the approved budget and enjoyed widespread public support, the Board’s failure to be transparent in building support for arts-related projects created a “bait and switch” perception that, coupled with skepticism about other County-wide issues (e.g., affordable housing budget and aggressive ambulance fee collection techniques), eroded public confidence in the sales tax plan.
The well-financed “Yes” campaign for the sales tax increase included daily email messaging, brochure mailing and radio-TV ads. The under-funded, largely word-of-mouth opposition campaign received a welcome boost from a Charlotte Observer editorial against the increase. The Board’s leadership, in an acknowledgement of growing public concerns about the sales tax proposal, stated that they expected the County’s citizens to “hold us accountable to deliver on our objectives”. On November 5, 2019, the voters did exactly that, rejecting the sales tax increase by a 15-point margin.
The lesson is simple. Transparency demands more than mere rhetoric, it demands timely, accurate and useful information, especially about new initiatives. The commitment to transparency and citizen engagement must begin early, at the start of the planning process for any big project, well before any decision to place a proposal on the ballot. And the information must be thorough, accurate and understandable. In short, it should help citizens make an informed decision about the issue at hand.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) – Less than two years after assuming office, in January 2019, the Board of Education awarded the CMS Superintendent a contract extension and a sizable raise. Afterall, the District appeared to be making progress in achieving enhanced educational goals. However, in July 2019, the CMS Board suspended the Superintendent without advance notice or explanation. Shortly thereafter, on August 2nd, the Superintendent resigned, departing swiftly without severance pay.
When asked about the surprising turnabout in the Board’s confidence in the Superintendent, Board members responded that State laws protecting employee privacy prevented them from commenting on any departure details other than the effective date. At first glance, the Board seemed as transparent as the law allowed under the circumstances.
However, this was not the first time that a CMS Superintendent left under mysterious circumstances. In 2014, a Superintendent resigned for “personal” reasons followed by internal reports of the departed Superintendent’s abusive leadership style and a “culture of fear.” Some questions arose as to whether the Board ignored the Superintendent’s behavior for too long or framed the departure as a personal resignation to minimize public scrutiny. The Board’s limited oversight and transparency did little to build public confidence.
In view of the 2014 incident, public and media cynicism regarding the CMS’ 2019 handling of the Superintendent departure was entirely justifiable (and foreseeable). One can argue that the Board acted promptly when irregularities involving the Superintendent’s behavior came to their attention and appropriately by imposing a suspension and resignation without severance pay. But, since Board members acknowledged the need to strengthen the selection process in 2014 and the problem reoccurred in 2019, they should have adopted a higher transparency standard.
The lesson here is that public officials must always consider the context for transparency. Even when privacy laws prevent the disclosure of certain information (e.g., sensitive personnel facts), some situations require more than cryptic statements about statutes and confidentiality. For example, criminal activity and other egregious behavior cannot be overlooked or concealed. In the case of CMS, the reoccurrence of a poor leadership staffing decision dictated a tougher transparency standard. At the very least, it demanded a timely, accurate and useful report of what happened (including a clear acceptance of failings) and a plan for mitigating future risks to the organization and the community.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR A NEW TRANSPARENCY MODEL
In this era of declining public trust in government and other civic institutions, civic leaders must convince citizens that they and their governments are accountable and transparent. They must adopt more effective ways to navigate the ever-changing landscape in which they operate. To that end, we offer the following recommendations:
- Establish a tougher transparency standard for state and local governments, one that effectively balances short-term security, privacy and confidentiality factors with critical strategic values such as ensuring public accountability and restoring public trust
- Foster greater legal uniformity among state and local governments (and more informed expectations among citizens) by developing model transparency statutes for promoting and enforcing new transparency standards
- Make transparency a core competency for public leaders and encourage suitable associations to increase transparency training offerings (e.g., National Governors Association, US Conference of Mayors, International City/County Managers Association and state county associations)
- Reinforce routine transparency protocols through policy, procedures and training to anticipate the inevitable disclosure crises (rather than having to “circle the wagons” after they arise)
- Continually improve the presentation of information, including format, style and level of detail, to maximize its understandability and utility for the public and develop guidelines to assist state and local governments with the presentation of vital information
- Adopt an aggressive citizen engagement strategy that fosters dialogue with the public, challenges staff to share pertinent information and reconciles the potential negative consequences of disclosures with the public’s right to know and
- Establish clear timeliness targets to accelerate responses even when laws, standards or circumstances prevent the release of detailed information
As Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” To restore public faith in government, public officials must anticipate disclosure needs and challenge conventional wisdom about privacy, confidentiality and other disclosure constraints. Transparency is essential in times of crisis, but also in day-to-day operating matters; it must be a practiced habit, not a sporadic damage control mechanism. Transparency is about trusting the public and welcoming their input, not avoiding criticism. Without genuine transparency, public accountability will likely prove elusive.
pewresearch.org, “Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government: Broad criticism, but positive performance ratings in many areas.”; justfacts.votesmart.org, “What’s Wrong with Federal Government and How to Fix It.” By Dwayne Stovall;
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