Government's a Problem, Say a Record Number of Americans. But Why?

Unfortunately, it's not a renaissance for limited government. In fact, it's just the opposite.

Jordan Candler · Feb. 20, 2019

If there’s one thing we can say is unequivocal about government shutdowns, it’s that they draw the ire and attention of voters. This is clearly evident in Gallup polling, which for decades has surveyed Americans on their perception of urgent issues. Today, “Thirty-five percent of Americans name the government, poor leadership or politicians as the greatest problem facing the U.S.,” Gallup reported this week.

The data present several interesting takeaways. For starters, shutdowns put an unwelcome spotlight on leadership chasms — the definition of “leadership” being somewhat ambiguous. Gallup says the 35% figure “is the highest percentage Gallup has recorded for this concern, edging out the previous high of 33% during the 2013 federal government shutdown.” Furthermore, “The current percentage of Americans naming government as the most important problem is nearly twice as high as the 18% recorded in November. That increase likely reflects public frustration with the government shutdown that occurred from late December through most of January.”

Shutdowns happen because one party, wisely or not, stands its ground by refusing to compromise on last-minute spending negotiations. This inevitably results in questions over aptitude for one or both party leaders.

Case in point: “An analysis of the verbatim responses to the question from the latest survey finds that 11% of Americans specifically cite ‘Donald Trump’ as the most important problem, while 5% name ‘the Democrats’ or ‘liberals’ and 1% ‘Congress.’ About half of those who say the government is the most important problem — 18% of U.S. adults — blame both parties or cite ‘gridlock,’ ‘lack of cooperation’ or the shutdown more generally. The latter figure has grown from 6% in December and 12% in January.”

The second takeaway is more pernicious. Gallup says, “Americans have become more likely to name the government and/or leadership as the country’s greatest problem over the past decade. From 2001 through 2009, yearly averages of this measure were consistently below 10%, but mentions of government as the foremost challenge have become more pervasive in the decade since. In 2010 to 2016, average mentions of the government as the biggest problem ranged from 12% to 19%.”

As tempting as it may be to think so, this trend doesn’t seem to originate from a desire to reverse our ever-expanding government. Quite the contrary, in fact. As one analyst points out, if desire for limited government and fiscal conservatism were truly the catalysts for these concerns, the record high would have been set when Ronald Reagan was entering office or when the Tea Party was set into motion. But it only hit a record, ironically, during a partial government shutdown.

And as Gallup critically reveals, “While Democrats were more likely than Republicans to name government and leadership as the top problem facing the nation in the year leading up to the latest poll, both party groups are now about as likely to name government as the top U.S. problem.” Reread this part again: “Democrats were more likely than Republicans to name government and leadership as the top problem facing the nation.” Many of these are socialism-supporting obstructionists. Reining in government is hardly on their mind.

Sadly, many Americans are concerned about government and leadership for entirely the wrong reasons, because their idea of how government should operate and what “leadership” actually means are contorted. This poll reflects the inverted environment that polarization and cultural decay create.

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